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A second Arab Spring brewing?

By Gazi Hassan 

What has been happening in Lebanon, Iraq, Algeria and Sudan for the past one and half months is nothing short of Arab Spring 2.0 in the making. Who would have thought that the spark left unquenched a decade earlier will start burning again? It has been almost 10 years since the Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire as an act of protest culminating in the topplingof various regimes across the Middle East and North Africa.The reasons for a second Arab Springto a greater extent would be the same as the earlier one—corruption, deteriorating socioeconomic conditions, income inequality, unemployment, and so on.

Lebanon, where the protest started, has a peculiar case of governance system where all the country’s 18 sects are given representation through a complex power-sharing system. The power is shared among Christian Maronites, Sunni and ShiaMuslims. Even the number of seats in Parliament is split between Christians and Muslims, and proportionally divided among various denominations of each religion. The power sharing is such that the President must always be a Christian Maronite, the Prime Minister a Sunni and the Speakerof Parliament will be a Shia. This system of power-sharing, which came after the 15-long years of civil war (1975–90), has led to deepening of socioeconomic degeneration of the country.Even government jobs are divided among the three factions without any merit.

Cutting across traditional sectarian lines, people have taken to the streetsprotestingagainstincreasing political corruption, unemployment, income inequality, frequent water and electricity cuts and building garbage problem, among others. The recent flare up of the protest is followed by the government’s decision to tax online call—‘WhatsApp calling’—and levies raised on fuel and cigarettes. The protests, which so far have been peaceful with no major incidents of violence reported,have led to the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his cabinet. The resignation was seen as a small victory of the long-term struggle to bringthe country out of social, economic and political crisis,and the people are determined to change the existing political system.

Like Lebanon, Iraq is yet another example of fractured polity. The political parties here too are divided on religious and ethnic lines. The power-sharing system that exists in Iraq requires a Shia Muslim to be the Prime Minister and a Kurdish President. In such a system, each party places its supporters in prominentpositions in government jobs and bureaucracy. Even the contracts are given on preferential basis leading to corruption and income inequality.

For the past two months,protestsare escalating in Iraq withthe death toll reaching 320 and almost 10,000 injured. Protests had started in the wake of persistent political corruption, unemployment and poor public services including lack of clean water and electricity. After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the country has been battling systemic corruption as a result of fractured political system left behind by Americans. The infighting between Shias(constituting majority of the population) and Sunnis (used to rule during the Saddam Hussain’speriod) has led to political instability in the country. Even after having a current account surplus of $65 billion in oil export revenue,the government is unable to provide basic necessities to its citizens. There is no trickle down effect.

Protesters, who had initially demanded jobs and basic necessities, are now calling for reforms in the electoral system of the country. They want to hold leaders accountable for political corruption and to overthrow not only the Prime Minister but alsothe entire political system laced with sectarianism.However, the protestshave not gone down well with Iran and have sparked great anger in the country, which maintainsa strong influence and considers Iraq—with a Shia Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi—its strategic backyard. The changing political scenario unfolding in Iraq will have a profound impact on the stability of the region.Protests will continue as long as the Iraqi political elite does not address the grievances of ordinary people and taking orders from Iran.The uprisings in Lebanon and Iraq show that people are averse to systemic corruption and sectarianism and want democratic reforms without foreign involvement.

Algeria and Sudan are also going through a rough patch where tens of thousands have marched across the streets demanding revolution. In Algeria, people oppose the government’s proposed elections. Protesters in Algeria demand greater freedom and reforms in the political system that has been rotted, thanks to corruption. Sudan, on the other hand, has recently toppled its long-time strongman Omar al-Bashir after his three decades of rule. Sudan and Algeria have achieved certain level of success on their path to peaceful and successful resolutions and transitionsgiving more power to people.

The Middle East will remain volatile for aforeseeable future. There is not much difference between the last Arab Spring and the one that seems to be brewing up.The challenge that the Arab world facing this time is slightly different from the one it had faced last time. While last time it was based on oil-backed patronage, violent protests and use of brute force, this time protesters are acting matureand are more or less peaceful in their approach. They are demanding good governance based on merit, productivity and accountability. More thrust is given to inclusive development, democratic institutions based on rule of law and good governance. The powerful reactionary voices demanding self-determination, accountable democratic institutions, life of dignity and rule of law with equal economic opportunity will continue to rise from North Africa to the Gulf.

Gazi Hassan is a Senior Research Associate working with CPPR- Centre for Strategic Studies. Mr. Hassan’s research focuses on Asia-Pacific, particularly exploring geopolitical dynamics, developments related to trade, terrorism, the role of various actors and including the security dynamics of the region. He has previously worked as a researcher at the Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi and has been contributing articles to SADF, various online platforms like The Quint, The Median and Newspaper dailies in Jammu and Kashmir.

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