Lebanon and Iraq Protests Define New Arab Spring

The Arab Spring of 2011 ushered in a wave of hope throughout North Africa and the Middle East. However, in many cases, such hope quickly turned to disappointment or despair. Governmental concessions ended up doing little to fundamentally alter life in nations such as Jordan, Morocco and Kuwait (not to mention Saudi Arabia and Oman), while more substantial uprisings in Egypt, Syria and Libya ultimately descended into protracted crises which even today haven’t resolved themselves.

There is, however, reason to be optimistic again. In recent months, the Arab world has witnessed another surge of protests and political disobedience. So far, none of these have been as dramatic or destructive as anything witnessed in 2011, yet this is precisely why they’re more encouraging and potentially more constructive. By coming less than a decade after the first Arab Spring they reveal that the events of 2011 weren’t some isolated anomaly or outburst, but rather part of an emerging culture of protest in the Middle East. And because they’ve been more moderate than their predecessors, they have more of a chance of achieving incremental and enduring political reform in the region, rather than inviting harsh crackdowns from jealous governments.

Most recently, Lebanon and Iraq have captured headlines as the most eye-catching examples of this new Arab Spring. On October 17, Lebanon “erupted” in protests over the government’s plans to introduce a tax on VoIP (voice-over-internet-protocol) messaging services such as WhatsApp and FaceTime. While plans for a levy of $0.20 per daily use of such services was the trigger for demonstrations in Beirut and elsewhere, these were soon fed by generalised grievances surrounding government corruption and economic mismanagement. By October 21, the government in Hariri had announced reforms, hoping to placate tens of thousands of demonstrators by cancelling the proposed ‘WhatsApp Tax’ and also cutting the salaries of officials by 50%.

As for Iraq, the most recent swell of protests began on October 1, although public discontent had been simmering since July 2018, when demonstrators assembled in Basra to challenge the government’s failure to provide basic services and jobs. This October, similar protests kicked off again in various towns across the country, with riot police being deployed in Baghdad and at least nine people being killed in the first two days of protest. Since then, more than 250 people have been lost their lives on the streets of Iraq, reportedly by Iraqi police and security forces, which have denied any role in the deaths. This is a very heavy toll to pay, yet the government has announced some social reforms, including land redistributions, military enlistment, increased welfare support for vulnerable families, and new market complexes to tackle youth unemployment.

Lebanon and Iraq are both united by their frustration with government corruption, as well as with stagnating economies. What’s interesting about other protests elsewhere in the Arab world is that they’re also defined by the same themes, indicating that a contagion factor is at play in the region, as there was during the original Arab Spring. In Algeria, protests have been raging since February, led mostly by exasperation with corruption. It’s also corruption that protesters have been decrying in Sudan, where demonstrations began in December after the government cut subsidies that lowered the price of fuel and bread. And in addition to a struggling economy and rising prices, it’s also corruption that has played a significant role in Iran, which has been witnessing demonstrations and general strikes since 2017.

In other words, discontentment with how countries in the Arab world are governed is spreading throughout the region, bringing new converts with each passing month and creating a growing movement for lasting democratic and economic reform. What’s significant about this is that this new wave of protest is arguably more focused and reformist than those that have proceeded it, and it’s in this context that it’s useful to highlight the concessions protesters have won from governments. In Lebanon, Iraq, Algeria and Sudan the authorities have responded to demonstrations with a variety of reforms, resignations or policy changes, but at the same time, protests have largely continued. That’s because demonstrators have witnessed first-hand proof of the real power they hold over governments, and rather than stop with single victories, it’s now much more likely that they’ll respond to each new or continuing grievance with protests.

Put differently, the more people in the Middle East protest, the more likely they are to protest again in the future. This is potentially dangerous and destabilising for the Arab world, but given the popularity of the current protests and their relative peacefulness, it’s probable that they’ll now result more in piecemeal yet valuable reforms than in social and political breakdown (as in Libya and Syria). And in the end, this better for the Middle East, and the wider world in general.