The Spirit of 2019
Another unfinished spring?
Protests have erupted around the world over the past few months, with hundreds of thousands of people from the Middle East to Asia, South America and the Caribbean calling for change. On the surface, some protests have appeared to be spontaneous outbursts of anger over seemingly minor concerns. But almost all of this year’s major protests have deep roots and are the result of years of mounting frustration over environmental inaction, economic troubles, mismanagement, corruption or governmental repression. The common thread throughout the protests has been a theme of injustice and social inequality, which in turn has triggered global calls for action. In fine, if the current wave of popular protests around the world has a common thread or unifying explanation, it is the yearning for dignity and respect. People have taken to the streets because they feel they have been humiliated, ignored and despised for too long by irresponsible, corrupt and distant political elites.
As in 1848, 1968, 1989, and 2010-2012, a wave of popular protests in 2019 has taken the world by surprise. In Lebanon, protesters have recently stood together to end alleged government corruption while some one million Chileans have taken to the streets to protest class inequality. Pakistan, Iraq, and Catalonia have also witnessed significant uprisings which have developed into generalised civil unrest. Ongoing mass revolts – in Beirut, Santiago, Hong Kong, Algiers, Baghdad and other cities – are gaining strength and wrong-footing governments. Although the temptation to seek historical comparisons is understandable, the 2019 uprisings also have a distinct flavour of their own.
Nearly a decade ago, many in the West referred to the 1848 “springtime of peoples” when describing the protest movements that began in Tunisia and spread to Egypt, Libya, Syria and other Arab countries. Likewise, many of the Lebanese had no doubt that a new “Arab Spring” cycle was unfolding today, except this time on a global scale, and seemed torn between excitement and anxiety.
Today’s protests also carry echoes of May 1968, not least in their youthfulness, spontaneity, and lack of identifiable leaders. Yet, as with any historical development, the events of 2019 must be understood on their own terms.
In 1968, at a time of full employment, a combination of boredom and revolutionary utopianism led young demonstrators to erect barricades in Paris. In 1989, the hope of attaining freedom and prosperity mobilized protesters to help bring down communist regimes. But in 2019, anger and despair have replaced dreams and hope, notwithstanding the reasonable possibility of improvement in countries such as Sudan and Algeria.
If the 2019 revolts have a common thread or unifying explanation, it is the yearning for dignity and respect. People have taken to the streets because they feel they have been humiliated, ignored, and despised for too long by irresponsible, corrupt, and distant political elites.
The immediate triggers for the various protests – whether a tax on the use of WhatsApp in Lebanon, or an increase in metro fares in Santiago – often seem secondary or even trivial. And, like in Cairo in 2011, or in Beirut in 2005 after the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, mobile phones are the primary instrument for rallying fellow rebels.
But regardless of whether the initial cause of the revolt was primarily economic (as in Lebanon or Chile) or political (as in Hong Kong), the authorities have in each case been caught by surprise and responded too slowly. The protesters, too, seem amazed by their sheer numbers and strength. Having started by opposing a new tax, they suddenly find themselves calling for an end to the regime.
Camillo Cavour, the architect of Italian unification in the nineteenth century, once remarked: “Reforms made in time weaken the revolutionary spirit.” Reforms that come too late, on the other hand, succeed only in feeding popular anger.
As a result, political leaders who had long refused any kind of compromise or concession now give the impression of being seized by panic. They are seemingly ready to reduce their privileges either spectacularly, as in Lebanon, or more symbolically, as in Chile. But, for many of the demonstrators, whatever governments do now seems too little, too late.
Complicating matters further, the protests are taking place at a time of exceptional geopolitical instability, fuelled by the strategic disengagement of the United States under President Donald Trump and the continued rise of authoritarian powers. Disorder in the streets is reinforcing a sense of global turmoil, and vice versa.
For starters, the US no longer seems willing or able to play a significant role in Latin America, its traditional backyard. US disengagement from the region has helped Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro remain in power, despite massive popular protests against his rule. Likewise, although Chileans may be legitimately afraid of a return to the sort of civil violence that the country has not experienced in decades, they, like other Latin Americans, must face their destiny largely alone.
The US is still a significant player in the Middle East, as the recent killing of the Islamic State’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi showed, but it is withdrawing from that region as well. Russia is progressively replacing the US, at least in Syria, and probably will give way to China at some point. There, too, those calling for political and economic reform will find themselves largely on their own. It is hard to see how popular demands for freedom and equality in the region can be reconciled with the rise of authoritarian powers such as Russia and China, not to mention regional players like Iran and Turkey. All fear pro-democracy protests like the plague.
Against this background, the presence of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi at the first Russia-Africa summit in Sochi recently was particularly significant. It suggests that Egypt, which became a US ally in the 1970s, is hedging its bets by reviving its traditional alliance with Russia (and previously the Soviet Union).
In Lebanon, protesters of all confessions have united under the banner of “We are a people,” thereby challenging the sectarian balancing acts that have long shaped the country’s politics. But it remains to be seen whether this popular revolt will reshuffle the geopolitical cards like the protests in East Germany in 1989 or Syria in 2011 did.
Protesters around the world are rising up against systems that often are rotten to the core and cannot be reformed. But creating a fairer, and therefore more stable, new order will be a hugely difficult task.
For that reason, the year 2019 could end up resembling the “unfinished spring” of 2010-2012. But given the unique spirit of the current protests and the current state of geopolitical flux, almost any prediction is mere speculation. The future – as it always is at such historical moments – is open.
Mystifying US Position On Iraq, Lebanon Protests
There are two crucial external components that are relevant to the ongoing uprisings in Iraq and Lebanon. One is the serious and unprecedented challenge to Iran’s influence and hegemony in Iraq and Lebanon, directly and through its proxies, and the second is the Trump’s administration’s apparent complacency in reacting to a seismic regional event.
Tehran’s reaction has been predictable. The regime, which has for decades employed its resources to spread its revolution and extend its regional grip, is now facing an across-the-board popular backlash. Nothing underlines this more than the scenes of angry anti-Iranian Shiite protestors recently in Karbala and Najaf. Similarly, Lebanese Shiites have joined others from all sects and regions in calling for the downfall of the ruling class and an end to the quota-based political system that has crippled successive governments and provided a fertile ground for massive corruption and rampant cronyism.
But while paying lip-service to the protestors’ demands in Iraq and Lebanon, the US has stopped short of putting pressure on the Baghdad political elite to adopt genuine and structural reforms that would not only undercut Tehran’s influence, but also put the failing country on the road to recovery. Even more astonishing was the Trump White House’s decision to freeze all military aid to the Lebanese army, including a package worth $105 million that both the State Department and Congress approved in September.
Of all the political players in Lebanon today, the Lebanese army is the only multi-sectarian and functional organ in an otherwise polarised political landscape. During the past weeks, the army showed constraint and refused to be dragged into a bloody confrontation with the protestors. As the country goes into a state of paralysis, the Lebanese army, trusted by all Lebanese, can – and it should actually – play a major role in guaranteeing a peaceful transition out of the current impasse.
It is, therefore, puzzling that the Trump administration would seek to weaken the only neutral and credible force today in Lebanon. Putting pressure on the Lebanese army will not force it to take sides, especially in confronting Hezbollah, as Israel and some hawkish Washington strategists are hoping.
In Iraq, Washington has both military and political sway, not to mention a moral obligation to rid the country it invaded in 2003 of the ills of an ethno-confessional system that has proven catastrophic for Iraqis on all fronts. But it should tread carefully, applying soft pressure on all players in order to push for a new political deal that is supported by the people. In both cases, it is the people who now challenge the political elite and, by extension, Iranian intervention.
Doing nothing in Iraq in the hope that the revolt will break Tehran’s grip over Iraq is a dangerous ploy that could throw the entire country into an endless sectarian war.
The cases of Iraq and Lebanon underline the messy approach by the Trump administration to complex regional issues. The sudden US withdrawal from northern Syria was whimsical at best; leaving Turkey to carry out what could have turned out to be a bloody invasion of northern Syria if it was not for Moscow’s stern intervention. US troops abandoned bases only to return to them days later and Trump’s flip-flopping over his goals in Syria, now he says he will stay there to protect the oil fields, has left both allies and foes wondering what his next step will be.