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2010s: A Decade of Defiance and Dissent

What lessons should protest movements learn from the last decade as we move into the 2020s?

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Takeaways


  • 2011 ushered in a global era of defiance and dissent with the Arab uprisings as its most dramatic center piece.
  • Protests toppled the leaders of Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon and Iraq, but only led to a genuine transition process in Sudan.
  • Protesters in the Middle East and North Africa, like in Hong Kong, are driven by a sense of now or never, a sense of having nothing more to lose.
  • Repression at best buys embattled regimes time and more often than not reinforces protesters’ resolve.

2011 ushered in a global era of defiance and dissent with the Arab uprisings as its most dramatic center piece.

The decade of the 2020s is likely to be one in which protests may produce at best uncertain and fragile outcomes, irrespective of whether protesters or vested interests gain an immediate upper hand.

The lesson of the last decade for the coming one is that waves of protest are not a matter of days, months or even a year. They are long drawn out processes that often play out over decades.

Therefore, fragility is likely to be the best outcome, much-worsening levels of instability the worst.

To change that, protesters and governments would have to agree on economic, political and social systems that are truly inclusive and ensure that all have a stake.
No doubt, that is a tall order.

The 2019 record

The question is what the protests mean that last year toppled the leaders of Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon and Iraq, but only led to a genuine transition process in Sudan.

The protests’ outcome so far suggests that there may not be a clear-cut answer. What is clear, however, is that the protesters have learned not to surrender the street when a leader agrees to resign but to maintain the pressure until a process of transition to a more transparent, accountable and open political system has been agreed.

Protesters in Algeria, Lebanon and Iraq, demanding appointment of a leader untainted by association with the old regime, have stood their ground as governments and vested interests have sought to salvage what they can by attempting to replace one leader by another with close ties to ruling elites.

The pouring into the streets in early January of supporters of pro-Iranian Iraqi militias in the wake of U.S. attacks on militia positions and the killing of Revolutionary Guards leader Qassem Soleimani overshadowed the Iraqi protesters who celebrated the Iranian’s death but was unlikely to quash their struggle for political change.

Harsh repression has its limits

Equally clear is the fact that repression at best buys embattled regimes time and more often than not reinforces protesters’ resolve. Harsh repression enabled the government of Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, one of the Middle East and North Africa’s most brutal leaders, to squash last year’s protests. The question is for how long.

The question is all the more relevant given that, by and large, protesters in the Middle East and North Africa, like in Hong Kong, are driven by a sense of now or never, a sense of having nothing more to lose.

For compelling evidence, witness the killing of more than 100 protesters in Sudan did not stop them from sticking to their guns until a transition process was put in place.

Likewise, the death of hundreds of protesters in Iraq and injuring of thousands more has failed to weaken their resolve.

The resilience suggests a more fundamental shift in attitudes that goes beyond the sense of desperation associated with having nothing more to lose.

Rays of hope amidst the darkness

The 2019 protest movement in various countries reflects the evolution of a new assertiveness, sense of empowerment and rejection of submissive adherence to authority, which is definite progress on the long road to a better domestic order.

This spirit had first emerged powerfully in the 2011 popular Arab uprisings that toppled the leaders of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen.

Predictably enough, vested interests backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates rolled back the achievements of those revolts, with the exception of Tunisia, leading to the rise of Mr. Al-Sisi and brutal civil wars in Libya and Yemen.

The counterrevolution has backfired

In some ways, the counterrevolution has backfired. The war in Yemen has severely tarnished Saudi Arabia’s image, focused attention on the dark side of UAE rulers and fuelled the resolve of the 2019 protesters.

Even so, fragile protest outcomes are likely to co-shape the Middle East and North Africa in the coming decade.

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About James M. Dorsey

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and an award-winning journalist. [Singapore]

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