Protests are making a comeback in the Arab world

208 2019-03-22

The mantra of the Arab spring is back. “The people want the regime to go,” chant hundreds of thousands of protesters in Algeria, hoping to end the 20-year rule of Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Their cries are echoed in Sudan, where three months of demonstrations have rattled the regime of Omar al-Bashir, the leader for three decades. Protesters in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia and the Palestinian territories have also demanded better governance of late. Five years after the region’s authoritarians silenced it, the Arab street is regaining its voice.

This has prompted talk of an Arab-spring sequel. As in 2011, the protests have been spontaneous, inclusive and bereft of leadership. The same grievances fuel today’s unrest. But the context could not be more different. The wars and chaos that followed the Arab spring have cooled the ardour of activists and their regional patrons. Meanwhile, autocrats have sharpened their tools of repression in order to quash protests at home and stop those elsewhere from spreading. “They have rewired the entire region trying to prevent another Arab spring,” says Marc Lynch of George Washington University.

Turkey, Iran and Qatar helped spread the contagion in 2011, but their regional ambitions have taken a back seat to their own security concerns. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan tightened his grip in Turkey after protests in 2013 and an attempted coup three years later. The Islamist-leaning democratic model he once touted increasingly resembles the authoritarianism he lampooned. Iran’s leaders were eager to fan the flames of the Arab spring—until it threatened to burn their ally in Syria, Bashar al-Assad. They, too, are now rocked by protests at home. Qatar, though, has performed the biggest turnabout. Under siege by its neighbours, it needs all the friends it can buy. It hosted Mr Bashir in February and has kept mum on Algeria’s troubles.

Eight years ago Al Jazeera, the Qatari satellite television network, was the Arab spring’s soapbox. With rolling coverage and rousing promos, it egged on national protests and created a region-wide narrative. But its coverage of the upheaval in Algeria and Sudan, the Arab world’s second and third most populous countries, has been paltry. Anchors depict the protests as isolated events on the periphery of the Arab world. Some highlight Algeria’s linguistic peculiarities. (Its dialect is incomprehensible to many Arabs.) “They’re deliberately disconnecting the dots,” says Ahmed Mustafa, a monitor of Arab media in Abu Dhabi.

Despots who fought change all along have cracked down on independent media. Information ministries dictate headlines, ban foreign journalists and harass local ones who don’t co-operate. Investigative reporters and those who are critical of regimes are often denounced in state media as terrorists and traitors. Some are tortured. Saudi Arabia has established a “rapid intervention group” to pursue those who flee, such as Jamal Khashoggi, a former Saudi newspaper editor, who was murdered and dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

The digital duel

Social media, the dynamo of the Arab spring, still bring crowds onto the streets. Algeria has one of the region’s highest rates of Facebook usage coupled with perhaps its least technologically savvy regime. “Its lack of knowledge left an empty space,” says Ashraf Zeitoon, who ran Facebook’s policy unit in the region. Still, there are no catchy hashtags linking the protests in different countries, and sharper autocrats have turned social media to their advantage. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have built troll farms (office blocks full of nerds feeding hundreds of fake social-media accounts) and bots (automated regurgitators) to spread official talking points. Intimidation, through spyware, hacking, abusive comments or simply arrest, reduces opposing messages.

Governments have also stepped up their old-fashioned repression. On the eve of Algeria’s largest protest, Egypt’s president, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, warned against copycat “riots”. A politician in Bahrain was recently sentenced to six months in prison for calling on Mr Bashir to step down. Many countries have outright bans on large gatherings, while vaguely worded security laws enacted after the Arab spring allow governments to round up potential rabble-rousers. “The use of live ammunition even against small, symbolic protests has effectively reduced dissent to zero,” says Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch, a pressure group.

Being less connected is not necessarily a bad thing for today’s protesters. Those in Algeria and Sudan pride themselves on their independence and nationalism. For now, at least, they are displaying discipline and rejecting violence. “We’re not Syria or Libya,” they chant in Algeria, while self-interested leaders warn of chaos and bloodshed. The protesters show no sign of going home. Emile Hokayem of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think-tank in London, doubts that they can be made to: “The ebb and flow of street protest is the region’s new normal.”

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