A Moroccan perspective on protest movements in the Arab world

Moroccan academic Salman Bonnaman said the new revolts benefited from lessons learnt from the first wave, despite unique specificities that characterise each uprising.
Friday 27/12/2019
Lebanese anti-government protesters wave their national flag during a demonstration in Beirut, December 1. (AFP)
Non-classical wave. Lebanese anti-government protesters wave their national flag during a demonstration in Beirut, December 1. (AFP)

RABAT - Despite differences in circumstances and the nature of their protests, demonstrators in Lebanon and Iraq agree that sectarian and religious parties in their countries have become part of the political and economic crises and their social backlashes.

A popular awareness has emerged in both countries. People have gone beyond material demands and are calling for fundamental regime change that includes the departure of the political elite and the governance system based on sectarian and partisan quotas. Observers consider that the protests in Lebanon and Iraq evolved from a struggle against corrupt and failed governments to a revolution for structural reform of the substance of the political system.

Moroccan academic Salman Bonnaman, head of the Maarif Centre for Studies and Research, said the Arab world is witnessing a second revolutionary wave that constitutes “an extension of the first wave at the level of the horizon for freedoms and reform demands.” This wave is characterised by its cutting “across sectarianism and political alignments,” rejecting external interventions and awareness that it must negotiate with military institutions.

In early 2011, protests, later labelled the “Arab spring” revolutions, erupted, starting in Tunisia and spreading to other countries, including Egypt, Libya and Yemen. Those revolutions toppled the ruling regimes in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.

Bonnaman said the new revolts benefited from lessons learnt from the first wave, despite unique specificities that characterise each uprising.

In the first quarter of 2019, Algeria and Sudan witnessed popular protests that forced the leadership of the Sudanese Army to remove Omar al-Bashir from a 30-year presidency (1989-2019) and forced Abdelaziz Bouteflika to resign from the presidency in Algeria.

Bonnaman, author of "The Philosophy of the Arab Revolutions: An Interpretative Approach to a New Uprising Model and of Questions of the Arab Spring State," said despite their failures and disappointments, the first wave of revolutions “created a legacy of protests.” He suggested looking “at the new uprisings from the point of view of both a continuation of and a separation from the first wave, especially in light of their complexities, spontaneity and innocence.”

In addition to Sudan and Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon have been witnessing, since October, protests that raise similar demands, foremost of which is the removal of the ruling class accused of corruption and incompetence.

While the common feature in the Sudanese and Algerian cases was the demand for the military establishment to stay neutral and steer away from the general political sphere in favour of a civilian authority, the Lebanese and Iraqi cases have in common their “linking sectarianism to corruption and rejecting cultural divisions and sectarian quotas in managing the country's rule,” Bonnaman said.

"The common denominator in the second wave is the presence of a strong and renewed awareness among the youth that is different from what one finds in classic protest movements,” he said.

The Arab world is living at the rhythm of protest movements that cut across identities, ethnicities and religious sects and transcend narrow ideological dimensions to raise mainly questions related to citizenship, sovereignty and freedom.

A new generation of Arab youth is rejecting sectarian quotas, political alignments, and fragile political collusions by the political elites. They are protesting a socio-economic situation characterised by tension, lack of equitable distribution of wealth, and growth rates that do not reach all social groups.

“The first is a socio-economic dimension that reflects the crisis of the economic development model in the concerned countries and the second is a political revolutionary dimension linked to rejecting the continuity of a governance model that combines power and wealth, closes off the public sphere and fails to build comprehensive and fair development,” Bonnaman said of aspects of the second wave of protests.

He stressed that what is happening is a continuation of the first wave of revolutions. “Protest movements always have a memory and they always consciously and unconsciously benefit from previous revolutionary experiences, especially in the Egyptian case at the level of relations with the military institution,” he said.

He explained that “the lack of trust in the existing institutions made the new uprising movements distinguished in their demands by two traits that were not raised in the first wave: They are protesting against external interference, as it was strongly observed in Algeria against French interference and in Iraq and Lebanon against Iranian interference.”

The second trait relates to an awareness to manage dialogue and negotiations with the military establishment, which has political ambitions and refuses to secure a real transition to civilian rule.

In Lebanon and Iraq, protesters from across the political spectrum and from all affiliations and regions raised slogans hostile to Iran and its proxies in Lebanon and Iraq.

Bonnaman said the protest movements adopted reform and change as their goal and not the comprehensive and fundamental overthrow of the system. Therefore, it is necessary for them to produce leaders who can negotiate and find common ground with existing parties, because the latter are organised institutions, and especially with the ones in the opposition.

They need to negotiate with the regime or at least with the existing forces that are open to reform from within the system to create a consensus programme for democratic transition.

Bonnaman said such a transitional programme would not have immediate results but it is important for everyone to participate and to pay attention to the gravity of the transitional stage, with all its complications, and be mindful of external interference and internal attempts to counter the reform spirit in addition to economic and social obstacles.

He said success of the transitional phase was linked to the maturity shown by the elites and their agreement to protect the demands of the masses and translate them into laws and reform options.