Unrest in MENA casts doubts on liberal model

Bashir has branded the protesters as traitors and his provocative statements further radicalised the protests.
Sunday 06/01/2019
University professors and teachers take part in a protest to demand higher wages in Tunis, December 19. (Reuters)
Dashed hopes. University professors and teachers take part in a protest to demand higher wages in Tunis, December 19. (Reuters)

Many Arab countries are witnessing protests varying in intensity but with similar demands. People are demonstrating against deteriorating economic and social conditions in their countries. In some, Sudan, for example, the demands have turned political, calling for regime change.

There have been protests in Sudan, Tunisia, Libya, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Algeria. In Lebanon and Tunisia, protesters found inspiration in the “Yellow Jackets” movement in France, which spread to other European countries.

The similarity in the slogans and demands made by the protesters underscores the failure of the traditional capitalistic model and the concomitant plans and strategies of international lending institutions, as well as the rejection of the notion of introducing reforms based on forcing citizens to make sacrifices.

Among the popular protests in the MENA region, the ones in Sudan against the Omar al-Bashir regime are the most violent and most radical. Protesters there have gone beyond economic grievances and are calling for the removal of the regime.

Al-Bashir has branded the protesters as traitors and his provocative statements further radicalised the protests. Like practically everywhere else, the Sudanese protests started out as demonstrations against price hikes, especially the cost of bread.

The situation is not so different in Tunisia, where protests swept across several regions, especially after the self-immolation of TV journalist Abderrazak Zorgui in the central province of Kasserine.

Hamza Nasri, an activist in the “Basta” (“Enough”) campaign in Tunisia, said the objective of the movement “is to support the protests that have gripped the country because of the failure of the current regime and all of the previous governments since the 2011 revolution to provide the rightful social benefits for all Tunisians and which can be summarised in bread and dignity.”

Nasri said the liberal economic policies exhausted the middle classes and the poor segments of society in Tunisia. He pointed out that the current system is leading the country to an unknown future amid worsening social conditions for most Tunisians.

This kind of thinking is not specific to Tunisia. It can be seen in Lebanon, where many accuse the current political system of being responsible for the country’s economic, social and political woes.

Activists in Lebanon borrowed the protest strategies of the French Yellow Jackets. The protesters have three demands: reduce taxes on fuel products, create a comprehensive health plan for all citizens and reduce the interest rate on treasury bonds to the previous rate of 7.5%.

Libya has been in a state of chaos and insecurity since the fall of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in 2011. It is experiencing a new wave of protests from the south. Protesters calling themselves the Fazan Anger Movement shut down the Sharara oil field near Obary last month. Protests spread to 12 other areas in southern Libya. Protesters are demanding employment and development opportunities for the southern regions and fuel for their inhabitants.

Iraq has been suffering security problems and rampant corruption for 15 years. Recently, widespread protests erupted in several Iraqi cities in the centre and south of the country. Protesters are demanding jobs, of course, but also basic public services such as electricity and drinking water in addition to wiping out corruption in the government.

The protests in Jordan are probably the most representative of how people have had it with prevailing economic systems dictated by international lending agencies. In 2018, Jordanians took to the streets to protest austerity measures and rising taxes. Hani Mulki resigned as prime minister and a new government headed by Omar Razzaz was appointed. This new government also failed to appease the street.

The situation is slightly different in Algeria. This North African country is living through a deep crisis that has become a source of concern for the region and internationally. The people are angry about President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s intent to run for a fifth term in office, despite his advanced age and apparent poor health. They are angry about deteriorating conditions in an oil-producing country where a large segment of its youth is unemployed and its middle class and the poor can no longer keep up with the galloping cost of living.

Just like in Tunisia, popular anger in Algeria reached a boiling point and stood to erupt in the streets at the slightest spark. This is what happened December 25 when mass demonstrations broke out in M’Sila province in south-eastern Algeria, following the death of Ayach Mahjoubi, who had been stuck for six days in a well at a depth of 30 metres. His accidental death became a matter of public opinion and prompted huge demonstrations that observers considered to be a form of “muscle flexing against the Bouteflika regime.”

From the Arab region to Europe and other parts of the world, popular manifestations of anger might differ in form and details but come together in one fundamental aspect: The middle classes and the poor are angry at their political elites, government and opposition alike, for trading their dreams and aspirations for endless nightmares and misery.