In 2019, people rose up in Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran. This time, the uprisings were markedly different from the ones we witnessed in 2011.
Between 2011 and 2019, lessons were learned. In 2011, global coverage of the so called ‘Arab Spring’ took an orientalist tone, presenting it as the ‘awakening’ of the ‘backwards’ Arab world. Democracy was finally coming to roost in the region – so we were told.
This time around, not only has the novelty of uprisings in the region worn off, but their global context has significantly changed. Since 2011, the political landscape has fundamentally changed. Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, Russia’s expanded geo-political role in the region especially in Syria and Yemen, and Chinese economic ascension have removed the context which allowed the narrative of a natural expansion of liberal politics to be applied to the region.
The region’s recent uprisings had, and continue to have, a distinctive anti-imperialist and anti-neoliberal flavour, something they share with many other protest movements that were taking place across the world around the same time.
This meant that in much of the western media, they were treated as cautious developments that threaten further loss of prestige and economic hegemony over the ’third world’. This is not to say that the ‘Arab Spring’ did not touch on these themes, but that these issues are now taking centre stage.
The 2011 wave of uprisings and revolutions had varied outcomes. Some led to a successful transfer of power, others to long civil wars accompanied by destructive foreign interventions. They also proved how wrong it is to assume that all the countries in the region are the same. Rather, each should be studied in its own historical context.
But why did Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran all witness uprisings in 2019? What do they have in common? Most countries in the region are rentier states: they are overly focused on extracting oil and natural gas; have underdeveloped manufacturing sectors and overdeveloped service sectors; and rely on acute forms of speculative investment in real estate and banking. This makes them subordinate to the world economy. They provide cheap labour, resources, and a market for industrialised nations, curtailing the region’s development as a whole.
The collapse of oil prices in 2014 which impacted national revenues for oil producing nations and the flight of capital in non-oil producing nations, the sluggish economic recovery around the world, and crippling debt, all provided the kindling that needed nothing more than a spark. In Sudan, it was worsening economic conditions and harsh suppression from the government. In Algeria, it was the announcement of Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s intention to run for a fifth term as president. In Iraq, it was mass unemployment and lack of services. In Lebanon, massive forest fires and the announcement of new taxes. In Iran, the removal of fuel subsidies.Print