Five positives to take from 2019

Five positives to take from 2019
Here are five stories that lifted our spirits in 2019.
6 min read
31 December, 2019
Salah led protesters in Sudan [Getty]

The Arab world experienced another tumultuous year in 2019. Regional powerhouses continue their campaign of counter-revolution aimed at rolling-back the successes of the Arab Spring in Egypt and elsewhere, while widespread repression continues in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries.

Libya is still fragmented by civil war, millions of Syrians subjected to daily barrel bombings and airstrikes, Gaza remains under siege, while Yemen is ever-perched on the brink of famine.

Despite the difficulties faced by Arab activists have made 2019 a year for hope and redemption.

Just as pundits predicted the end of protest movements in the Arab world and that autocrats had cemented their power for good, a new wave of youth-led, progressive street movements erupted from Algeria to Iraq.

Arab Spring 2.0

After a disappointing end to the 2011 revolutions in Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Libya, 2019 saw a resurgence in activism and anti-government protests across the Arab World.

Dubbed Arab Spring 2.0, a new wave of protests erupted in Sudan, Lebanon, Algeria, Iraq and elsewhere this year with echoes of the early days up the 2011 uprisings.

Often young, secular and even apolitical, the activists have made a corrupt, well-entrenched - and often brutal - political class their targets with widespread peaceful street protests not seen for years.

In Sudan protesters dared the bullets and batons of security forces, to demand an end to the regime, which led to Omar Al-Bashir's downfall in April.

A massacre by pro-government paramilitaries at a protest camp in Khartoum in June with a joint civilian-military administration formed, which it is hoped will guide Sudan through a transition into a democracy.

In Lebanon, activists held political lectures at disused complexes or got down to some yoga on the streets of Beirut, all of this with the aim of reclaiming public spaces and mobilising the people against a corrupt political elite.

The protesters's slogan "All of them means all of them" was intended as a direct message to every single Lebanese leader and  political party, simultaneously highlighting the diverse and anti-sectarian nature of the popular movement.

Although the protests have calmed since the fall of Prime Minister Saad Hariri's government, the storming of a bank by protesters last week highlighted that the establishment is not immune from further action.

Meanwhile in Algeria, protesters have continued to pressure the regime despite the stepping down of ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in an impressive display of people power. The army, who took power after Bouteflika stepped down, organized contentious presidential elections in an attempt to shore up their legitimacy but these were subject to a widespread boycott.

Iraq has also been shaken by widespread youth-led and non-sectarian protests against high-unemployment and endemic corruption among the ruling classes.

The anti-government demonstrations have centered on Shia-majority cities such as Basra, Baghdad, Najaf and Karbala, reflecting the growing unease at the pervasive power of paramilitaries and their foreign patrons, notably Iran.

Security forces have been ruthless in their suppression of the demonstrations, with more than 500 killed, dozens disappeared and an unknown number tortured and injured.

Deadly military-grade tear gas canisters killed some of the protesters in gruesome fashion, highlighting the brutal nature of the security forces' techniques.

Despite the dangers from security forces and paramilitaries, there have been impressive displays of solidarity from all social classes with the street movement.

Tuk-tuk drivers have been a key component in the uprising, helping ferry injured protesters to clinics. Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi has announced that he would step down from his position but remains in a caretaker capacity. The protest movement could threaten new action if the status-quo continues.

Women take the lead

Sudan, Lebanon and other Arab countries also saw women take a lead role in the activist movement, reflecting the diverse and progressive nature of the latest wave of uprisings in the Arab world.

Lebanese women's rights activists were not only at the heart of the protest movement this year but also demanded action against gender-based violence.

From Lebanon to Kashmir: The New Arab's 10 biggest stories of 2019

Activists sang Chile's anti-rape anthem at protests and brought other women's rights issues to the forefront of the revolt.

In Iraq, women activists also [wo]manned barricades, organised demonstrations and protest camps and clashed with security who attempted to crush the anti-corruption movement.

Perhaps the most iconic image of 2019 was that of Sudanese protest leader Alaa Salah. In the image, Salah stands on the roof of a car, waving her finger in the air and leading the crowd with a stirring chant against the regime.

Salah and her comrades have called for a more gender-inclusive government and Aisha Musa Saeed,a Christian Sudanese judge, was appointed to Sudan's ruling transitional council in August.

The appointment of women to key cabinet positions in Sudan's transitional authority marked major success for the activists. 

Arabs at the Oscars

Two movies made by Arab filmmakers were nominated for the prestigious Oscar awards this year and put the issue of Syria back into the spotlight.

For Sama is the story of Syrian mother Waad Al-Kateab, her husband Hamza and their newborn daughter Sama during the Assad regime's harrowing siege of opposition-held East Aleppo. 

The Cave chronicles the life of a woman doctor, Amani Ballor, treating the civilian victims of regime barrel bomb attacks and Russian airstrikes at an underground hospital in the opposition enclave of Eastern Ghouta.

Both rebel territories fell to Bashar Al-Assad's forces at different times but the brutal tactics are still being pursued by the regime and Russia in their assault on Idlib province.

This includes the bombing of homes and marketplaces and the targeting schools and hospitals, with hundreds killed in Russia's unchecked months' long killing spree in the rebels' last enclave in Syria.

Women take to the stands in Iran

Despite the ongoing suppression of activists, including women, in Iran, there was a small victory for campaigners inside and outside the country this October.

For the first time in decades, women football fans were able to watch their national team live at a Tehran stadium, as Iran took on Cambodia in a 2022 World Cup qualifier match.

Women fans draped themselves in Iran flags, blew vuvuzelas, chanted and sang in the stands to mark this historic moment, which it is hoped will pave the way for further freedoms for women.

But a brutal crackdown on activists this year by Iranian security forces this year, means that Tehran's ultra-conservative regime is only likely to budge so far.

Tunisian leaders exchange power

Although Tunisia led the way in the Arab Spring with the overthrow of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, this year marked another first for the country - a peaceful handover of power.

Tunisians were left with two outsiders in the final stage of voting for the country's presidential elections with law professor Kais Saied being chosen with 72 percent of the popular vote.

Meanwhile, moderate Islamist party Ennahda won parliamentary elections in the October voting.

Despite the economic difficulties and other challenges, Tunisia has emerged as the Arab Spring's success story and perhaps the most promising Arab democracy for the coming decade.