A New Age of MENA Protest 

Published November 8th, 2022 - 09:42 GMT
Center of Algiers (AFP File Photo)

Iran is only the latest example of a MENA country to be caught in the mood of protest this year. The repeated futility of social protests in the region against counterrevolutionary forces, however, suggests that the political power of the street – its shouts, songs and sweat – has now receded to a point of emptiness.

Despite the brutal consequences of uprisings in Syria and Yemen, and the fullness of their failure in North Africa, the culture of political protest has locked itself into MENA politics; with unresolved socio-economic frustration and political grievances, it has yet to be relinquished as an instrument of expression and dissent.

Though the anticipated changes of 2011 have yet to materialise, suspicions that citizens of Arab countries would be too dispirited to continue doing battle with their regimes have been misplaced; the desire for lasting change persists amongst activists and some segments of populations.

Algeria’s Hirak movement of 2019 gave form to nation-wide protest and thwarted President Bouteflika’s intention to run for a fifth term. However, this was the extent of its success; after achieving its initial goal, the Hirak’s objectives and direction sunk into nets of division.

A universal problem of national protest movements is although an initial goal of say, regime change, might offer sufficient glue at first, ideological disagreements – particularly the frenzied rivalry between secularist and Islamists – reliably spoils their ability to unite around political alternatives. Another shortcoming was the Hirak leaders ruled out compromise with the military, without which democratic progress was impossible.

Post-election Algeria, under the control of President Tebboune picked by Algeria’s murky state, is remarkable only for its lack of change in the constitution, electoral system, or constraints of presidential power after such a swelling of popular agitation. The Hirak is struggling to remain a relevant opposition despite its support seeming intact post-Covid. Although the authorities grudgingly tolerated the Hirak protests in 2019, this lenience was rescinded a year later.  At present, the regime is set on eradicating all political and popular organisations which contributed to the Hirak, leading to the arrest of many influential figures associated with it.

Mass and modest protest is also shaking Tunisia’s landscape.Throughout 2021, protest against the government’s botched handling of the coronavirus outbreak and socio-economic turmoil was common.

Mass and modest protest is also shaking Tunisia’s landscape.Throughout 2021, protest against the government’s botched handling of the coronavirus outbreak and socio-economic turmoil was common. Such frustration had accumulated with nine separate governments since the 2011 revolution; all of whom failed to tackle contentious but necessary issues, like transitional justice or economic reformation, showing that too much consensus in politics can be as harmful as too little.

When the President Saied decided to throw out Tunisia’s democratic experiment in November 2021, it was consequently met with popular support; tens of thousands of people poured into city streets to applaud the move.

These amounted to organic mobilisations in support of authoritarian action to address problems the new, democratic system had failed to resolve. Since the coup, political parties have led the counterprotest. In mid-October, two rival Tunisian opposition groups staged one of the biggest demonstrations against the President and to protest the country’s financial crisis.

However, the size of the protests against the unmaking of democracy has been underwhelming;  this is primarily an indictment on the performances of governments since the revolution, but may also indicate growing concern about the return of Tunisia’s heavy-handed security services.

The General Labour Unions (UGGT) played an integral part in the 2011 revolution, but its disapproval of the President – shown through its boycott of his national dialogue – has yet to lead to political protest. Although the UGGT has staged nationwide strikes about the country’s financial trouble, it has cautiously clarified that the grievances are not political.  

In contrast to Tunisia, there has been scant support for the coup in Sudan and popular mobilisations against the military – whose leaders, unlike President Saied, are unelected – have been out in force. In October 2021, General al-Burhan tore up the Constitutional Declaration which military and civilian leaders had agreed upon when President Omar Bashir was forced from power in April 2019, abruptly ending the transition from military to civilian rule.

Civil society groups who led the uprising against President Bashir in 2019 have repeatedly marshalled tens of thousands of people onto the streets of Khartoum and other cities in protest again.

Like other MENA protest movements, their commitment to peaceful activism has remained firm in an effort to avoid anything which might invite regimes to heighten their violent and repressive responses. Facing the military’s unbending use of force, however, non-violent activism has slim chances of success. So far, the Sudanese security forces have killed at least 119 protesters and injured more than 7,000 individuals.

In recent weeks, such protests have expressed a popular rejection of ongoing US-led talks which seek to broker a new civilian-military partnership. During demonstrations of tens of thousands in October, many were chanting: “No negotiations, no dialogue, no partnership.” It seems that popular demand insists on a fully civilian government stripped of all military involvement, reproducing the same understandable though impractical stubbornness of the Hirak. 

The success of mass protests globally, new research finds, is at its lowest since the 1930s: rising polarisation, the lack of leadership, and the disorderly effects of social media are among the factors. The Arab Spring introduced social protest as a permanent aspect of MENA politics, but its virtue as a tool for past and present political change is unconvincing.

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