Since the rapture of the 2011 Arab uprisings, starting in Tunisia and sweeping through North Africa and the Middle East – most notably engulfing Libya, Egypt, Syria, and Yemen – a bitter aftertaste of repression and civil war lingers, writes Sharon Lecocq.
Sharon Lecocq is a researcher at the Leuven International and European Studies Institute (LINES) and Leuven Centre for Global Governance Studies (GGS), University of Leuven.
Analysts and policy makers alike contemplate that it may be time to move beyond the Arab Spring discourse and consider it a failed attempt. After all, this is almost a decade ago… yet the spring fever is as vivid and visible today.
Just like 2011, 2019 has seen a recurrence of wide scale popular protests, this time in Sudan, Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq. There are many differences between the countries and peoples in the wider Middle East and North Africa, yet the protesters decry grievances that are shared throughout the region.
While economic crises, austerity measures and bread-and-butter issues may appear to be the direct triggers for people to take to the streets, one of the main drivers is a feeling of sheer humiliation; a sense of pride that is injured on a daily basis.
There is a reason why ‘the people want the fall of the government’ (ash-shab yurid isqat an-nizam!), in 2011 and now. Failing public services and infrastructure, unemployment and the soaring cost of living can only to a minor extent be attributed to ‘the economy’.
Rather, they are symptomatic of state negligence and a measure of contempt for its citizens. Often caught up in their own political power games, regimes forget the base of their power not only lies in international relations, but in the support of their own population.
In a search for recognition by the state, solidarity between communities flourishes. With regional and international dynamics revolving around sectarianism, volatile alliances and enmities, and different ethnic and religious groups being played off against one another, the protests have become a uniting force.
A common struggle for dignity and better governance results in the pursuit of a bottom-up nationalism that many thought Arab peoples to be incapable of.
A common explanation for the lack of democratic governance in the Middle East and North Africa is ‘Arab exceptionalism’. The notion points to the many layers of ethnic and religious identities in the region and implies assumptions about the inability of Muslims to separate religion and government.
These are argued as reasons for the failure to copy the secular nation-state identities from the West. Yet protesters shout out their cause for Sudan, for Algeria, for Lebanon, for Iraq, transcending differences.
EU response: like watching grass grow
The EU’s response to the new wave of uprisings is as reluctant as to the former. It consists of statements that acknowledge the events and call for peaceful resolution and stability, underlining the countries’ sovereignty and political independence.
A restraint in meddling is understandable and a degree of humility commendable. However, other players will gladly fill this void and determine outcomes through high politics.
Past experiences indicate that engaging with authoritarian leaders and army generals does not result in reliable partnerships or support for democratic transitions.
On the contrary, it alienates and frustrates the citizens rallying against them, while it is the same citizens that may constitute the Union’s most valuable allies.
Instead of desperately trying to join the great power game, the real solution may lie in gaining the respect of a grassroots force much greater than any strongman or volatile alliance.
With ‘united in diversity’ as the EU’s motto, one would think that it shares at least this with the rapidly growing population along its Southern borders.
Yet the difficulties it encounters in taking a stance, or even formulating a substantial response to these impressive and not-so-unexpected popular outcries from its direct neighbours, means that maybe … the EU could learn something from the protesters in terms of unity in diversity.