In 2020, Arab citizens and states will step up epic battle to define the region

In 2020, Arab citizens and states will step up epic battle to define the region
Comment: In 2019, the contours of an epic struggle became clear, without hinting at who will prevail in the next decade, writes Rami Khouri.
7 min read
24 Dec, 2019
Arab citizens across the region seized the public sphere this year [Getty]
The 2019 has been one of the most turbulent in the century-old modern Arab region. It should go down as a pivotal moment that clarified core weaknesses in our societies along with some of the strengths its people started to draw on. 

In many ways, 2019 saw the return of some trends that shaped the region around 1919, a century ago, when foreign powers played with the locals like pieces on a chess board; but it also shattered other legacies as indigenous forces sought to overthrow their century-old burden of abusive manipulation by local elites and foreign powers alike.

The historic developments of 2019 that will shape the years ahead all revolve around three forces that feed off each other: one is the massive and continuing popular protests that challenge the existing and decayed Arab governance and economic systems; a second is the expanding warfare across the region by Arab, non-Arab regional, and international powers alike; the third is the heightened local authoritarianism that tries to dampen the protests while also securing support from foreign powers.

The first step to analyzing this turbulent universe is to grasp that the formal borders of most Arab states have become permeable, and thus often meaningless. People, goods, political movements, arms, militias and foreign armies enter most Arab states at will.

At the same time, a cyber-universe of local and global ideas, rumours and ideologies now connects all Arab populations. While it has empowered activism, it has also stoked tensions, fears and extreme political polarisation, to the extent that some states have started to fracture. As we learned this year, most Arab states' borders are notional, and we also see more clearly that some states may be structurally unsustainable.
Direct foreign militarism has caused massive damage and suffering in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq
In this context, one of the year's most important and troubling dynamics has been the regional and international powers that - often acting together - wage war or promote political confrontations inside Arab states.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE are the most active Arab states in this regard. A significant development late in the year saw the Saudi-UAE coalition recognise their failure in Yemen, one which actually strengthened, rather than weakened Iranian allies, not to mention creating new zones of chaos and destruction where terrorist groups can flourish.

In a welcome nod to reality, the two Arab invader states also seemed ready to end the war and withdraw from Yemen, and open dialogues with Iran to cool regional tensions - both developments that would mark a very significant and positive turning point for the entire Middle East.

Arabs were only one of the three groups of warring countries in the region this year. Simultaneously, Turkey, Iran, and Israel continued to intervene militarily in Yemen, Syria, Libya, Iraq, Lebanon, Somalia, or Palestine.

Such external militarism in economically stressed and politically volatile countries will only increase  the pain and turmoil that is widespread - adding to the existing flows of refugees, terrorists, internally displaced persons, criminal syndicates, destroyed cities, hospitals and schools, and millions of helpless families with no means of sustenance and no future to look forward to.

The militaries of big foreign powers (notably the US, Russia, France and the UK) also intervene directly in Arab states that slowly shudder and sometimes shatter under the strain.

Direct foreign militarism has caused massive damage and suffering in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq, while Libya this year emerged as the latest battlefield. This means some countries might follow the route of Somalia, while others will preserve their single national authority by resorting to extreme authoritarianism to control their people and land by force.
Today's uprisings boldly highlight the persistent common grievances across our entire region
Neither option is very attractive to Arab citizens, whose voice is muffled by the roar of the guns - whether those of their own government, or foreign invaders.

This year saw the further entrenchment of regional and global coalitions working to determine the future of some Arab states, reviving the WWI Sykes-Picot legacy of foreigners who drew the region's map and shaped its people's futures.

Examples include the Russia-Iran-Turkey Astana process that will reshape Syria, the US-Israeli attempt to obliterate the Palestine issue, or combinations of military engagements or political and economic aid by Turkey, Russia, Egypt, France, the UAE, Qatar and others to influence events in Libya.

As some Arab borders disappear, Arab sovereignty usually follows suit.

2019 clarified how such destructive regional and global trends occur hand-in-hand with the massive popular uprisings in Arab countries that have endured decades of serious internal political distortions, economic failures and inadequate governance.

Read more: From Lebanon to Chile, the patriarchal state must fall

Long-running street protests in Iraq, Lebanon, Algeria and Sudan in 2019 expanded on the 2010-11 Arab uprisings. Today's demonstrations boldly highlight the persistent common grievances across our entire region: militarized, autocratic, incompetent and corrupt governance, in countries whose population growth vastly outpaced economic growth and natural resource management, leaving the most citizens in a state of misery, without political voice.

The common denominator that continues to spark new uprisings and opens the door to foreign interventions was laid bare: the combination of poverty, vulnerability, marginalisation and inequality that degrades the lives of about 2/3 of the 400 million Arabs.

But heavy-handed regimes also exacerbated these basic threats. 2019 showed us that the Arab region predominantly comprises a desperate pauperised citizenry that challenges its stubborn militarised state, in an epic battle that has been brewing for a century and has now exploded into the open.

Arab citizens who seized their public sphere this year pursued insurrection or even revolution in both their tactics and their goals. Specifically, protesters applied patient, focused and nonviolent mass activism that transcended sectoral complaints or the removal of individual leaders, and instead sought the wholesale transformation of their failed autocracies into more socially just, pluralistic, and accountable systems.

The central demand that citizens held out to achieve in several countries simultaneously was the creation of civilian, not military, government authority.
Some of the uprisings' historic achievements in 2019 included dramatic changes in some basic social values and power control systems
The Sudanese uprising's great breakthrough - beyond the removal or imprisonment of former dictator Omar al-Bashir, was its successful pressure on, and negotiations with, the former military rulers to achieve a three-year transitional governance council with one more civilian than military member.

So 2019 generated some signs of historic breakthroughs towards pluralistic democracy, but also their deep vulnerability to a resurgence of autocratic rule.

This is because partial achievements in Sudan, Lebanon, Algeria, and Iraq (like the resignation of prime ministers or the appointment of more capable technocrat ministers)  also unleashed the enormous power of authoritarian or oligarchic ruling elites that use traditional violent and intimidating means to maintain the status quo.

Sectarianism, economic suffering, police brutality, electronic surveillance systems and widespread arrests have been used in Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Lebanon, UAE and other lands - with mixed results. To date, protests have mostly persisted, and expanded. This year clarified the contours of the epic struggle underway, without hinting at who will prevail.

Some of the uprisings' historic achievements in 2019 included dramatic changes in some basic social values and power control systems.

The most profound include the leading role of women in the protests and other dimensions of public life, sometimes in the open, sometimes more quietly; citizens from all regions and walks of life coming together in public forums to discuss their predicaments, articulate their demands, and work to shape their desired new governance systems; the convergence among the protesters of demands to achieve equality and social justice in arenas such as gender, environment, quality-of-life, education and health services, clean water and energy access, income, and job opportunities; and, an obvious shift in citizens who mobilized largely on their common economic class and income status, rather than their sectarian, tribal, ideological, or other identities that had previously defined their participation in public life.

Rami G. Khouri is senior public policy fellow, adjunct professor of journalism, and Journalist-in-Residence at the American University of Beirut, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Middle East Initiative.

Follow him on Twitter: @ramikhouri

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.