North Africa, West Asia

What can the 2019 uprisings in North Africa and West Asia teach us?

Only by building regional bridges can effective resistance to global capitalism be achieved.

Jade Saab
30 October 2020
Protesters on the train from Atbara to Khartoum, Sudan. 17 August 2019
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Picture by Osama Elfaki / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

In 2019, people rose up in Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran. This time, the uprisings were markedly different from the ones we witnessed in 2011.

Between 2011 and 2019, lessons were learned. In 2011, global coverage of the so called ‘Arab Spring’ took an orientalist tone, presenting it as the ‘awakening’ of the ‘backwards’ Arab world. Democracy was finally coming to roost in the region - so we were told.

This time around, not only has the novelty of uprisings in the region worn off, but their global context has significantly changed. Since 2011, the political landscape has fundamentally changed. Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, Russia’s expanded geo-political role in the region especially in Syria and Yemen, and Chinese economic ascension have removed the context which allowed the narrative of a natural expansion of liberal politics to be applied to the region.

The region’s recent uprisings had, and continue to have, a distinctive anti-imperialist and anti-neoliberal flavour, something they share with many other protest movements that were taking place across the world around the same time.

This meant that in much of the western media, they were treated as cautious developments that threaten further loss of prestige and economic hegemony over the ’third world’. This is not to say that the ‘Arab Spring’ did not touch on these themes, but that these issues are now taking centre stage.

The 2011 wave of uprisings and revolutions had varied outcomes. Some led to a successful transfer of power, others to long civil wars accompanied by destructive foreign interventions. They also proved how wrong it is to assume that all the countries in the region are the same. Rather, each should be studied in its own historical context.

But why did Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran all witness uprisings in 2019? What do they have in common? Most countries in the region are rentier states: they are overly focused on extracting oil and natural gas; have underdeveloped manufacturing sectors and overdeveloped service sectors; and rely on acute forms of speculative investment in real estate and banking. This makes them subordinate to the world economy. They provide cheap labour, resources, and a market for industrialised nations, curtailing the region’s development as a whole.

The collapse of oil prices in 2014 which impacted national revenues for oil producing nations and the flight of capital in non-oil producing nations, the sluggish economic recovery around the world, and crippling debt, all provided the kindling that needed nothing more than a spark. In Sudan, it was worsening economic conditions and harsh suppression from the government. In Algeria, it was the announcement of Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s intention to run for a fifth term as president. In Iraq, it was mass unemployment and lack of services. In Lebanon, massive forest fires and the announcement of new taxes. In Iran, the removal of fuel subsidies.

Why did Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran all witness uprisings in 2019? What do they have in common?

Although protests have now subsided, it would be wrong to write their obituaries. Despite COVID-19, intense government suppression, and worsening economic conditions, embers give rise to a flame every once in a while. And although the ruling classes have been able to outmaneuver the popular movements, they have yet to deal with the underlying economic and political problems that gave rise to these movements in the first place. Another resurgence is inevitable. What this struggle looks like, however, and how it will be fought may significantly change.

Just like in 2011, each of these countries has gone down a different path and taught us new lessons.

Sudan entered a transitional phase and shows the indispensability of institutional actors and coalitions as illustrated by the Sudanese Professional Association (SPA). The SPA, a coalition of trade union, was able to push through a consolidated political program and forge a coalition with various oppositional political parties and groups who were then able to channel street movements to gain a foot in the door and some political influence.

The struggle in Algeria shows us that economic independence cannot be detached from past anti-colonial struggles, and how struggles over resources must consider environmental factors. The Iraqi uprising puts on full display the need to reject all “spheres of influence” of regional and global imperialist powers.

In Lebanon, we learned that the political class is inseparable from financial power in the country, and how unseating one cannot be done without the other. Finally, in Iran, the lesson is the danger in accepting theocratic authoritarianism as a valid form of “anti-imperialism”..

All these struggles show that it is necessary to build an inclusive movement that transcends previous divides, be that gendered, sectarian, or cultural.

There remains, however, one more lesson to be learned from these young movements, and that is the need to extend the struggles beyond national borders in order to build regional solidarity. It is only by building regional bridges that effective resistance to global capitalism can be achieved. Only then can these uprisings become revolutions that usher a new future for the whole region.

You can read more in the recently published book, “A Region in Revolt: mapping the recent uprisings in North Africa and West Asia” by Daraja Press in partnership with the Transnational Institute.

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