Protests usher in transitions but no light at end of tunnel

It is not clear what kind of compromises will be accepted, if at all, by the largely leaderless protests.
Sunday 22/12/2019
No fear. A woman protester confronts security forces during a demonstration in Algiers. (AP)
No fear. A woman protester confronts security forces during a demonstration in Algiers. (AP)

TUNIS - The past week was a period of transitions and celebrations of change in parts of the Arab region.

Algerians swore in a new elected president after months of street demonstrations, the Sudanese celebrated one year of regime-changing protests, the Tunisians marked the ninth anniversary of the 2010 uprising, which ousted former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali from power, while the Iraqis and Lebanese struggled to agree on a new prime minister after more than two months of protests.

Socio-political dynamics have thrown stones into the region’s still waters. Transitional authorities in Sudan abolished a repressive “moral code” imposed for decades by Omar al-Bashir’s Islamist regime.

New Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune promised to heed the lessons of the largely peaceful Hirak but protesters were divided on his proposed reforms.

The sectarian systems of Lebanon and Iraq, along with the shadow of Iran and its proxies, have been under assault. However, the old systems do not seem ready for retreat quite yet.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun said December 19 that he named as prime minister the academic and former minister Hassan Diab, despite opposition from protesters. Hezbollah was said to be the main political force behind the nomination of Diab.

Imad Salamey, a political science professor at the Lebanese American University, said Diab’s appointment will deepen Lebanon’s crisis because it means “the coming government will be dominated by Hezbollah and its allies” without Sunni support.

In Iraq, demonstrators chanted “Iran out” in massive street protests. The protesters attacked Iranian consulates in Najaf and Sulaymaniyah but there were still reports of Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani meddling in Iraq’s government formation talks.

In Iran and Iraq, the tug of war between protesters and the ruling elite has been intertwined with the US-Iran showdown but, while it was encouraged by Washington pundits to seize the opportunity of the mounting resentment of Iraqis against Iran’s encroachment, the Trump administration dramatically reduced the size of its diplomatic staff in Baghdad, casting doubt about its willingness to push for an Iraqi government that stands up to Iran.

In Lebanon, Washington wields the sanctions card. US measures against Hezbollah-connected banks and businesses, which were among the causes of Lebanon’s economic crisis, could be followed by sanctions against Hezbollah’s Christian allies.

Protests in Iraq, Lebanon and to a large extent those in Algeria and Sudan are in a way a “revolution of rising expectations” with protesters wanting to do away with the ruling elites in order to “get their country back.”

Much has to do with outdated systems of government and obsolete social contracts. “The problem is not in the text of social contracts but it is in weak state institutions that cannot apply the law nor is the political establishment subject to oversight mechanisms which give rise to corruption and unaccountability that creates frustration,” said Salamey.

It is not clear what kind of compromises will be accepted, if at all, by the largely leaderless protests.

The other key question is whether the protests will improve or worsen the economic situations, which had sparked the unrest in the first place.

“Transitions can be very costly, especially if there is resistance to change by political elites,” Salamey said.

“Resistance to change can be very costly both economically and humanely,” he added.

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