How humiliation is fuelling the Arab street

How humiliation is fuelling the Arab street
Comment: For too long, government disdain for citizens' rights and needs has generated daily humiliation, degradation and helplessness among ordinary Arab citizens, writes Rami Khouri.
6 min read
07 Oct, 2019
Iraqis protest against state corruption, failing public services and unemployment in Baghdad's central square [AFP]
The long-term future of most of the Arab region's 22 states is likely to be determined by the outcomes of the non-stop demonstrations, protests, and strikes that have been going on for years now, across about a dozen countries. 

Most recently, Arab citizenries in Morocco, Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Sudan and Algeria have taken to the street to protest intolerable conditions they have long suffered, most of which continue to worsen.

These include a lack of decent jobs, low incomes, high taxes and fees, deteriorating public services (such as provision of water, transport, education and healthcare), and public sector corruption.

These internal conditions that have made life miserable for citizens for decades have triggered deep internal fissures and some state fragmentation or even collapse, for two principal reasons: citizens are politically helpless in the face of long-serving governments and ruling elites that treat them with disdain; and, masses of powerless and hopeless citizens eventually feel humiliated and alienated from their state and society.

Many start to loosen or totally drop their identification with their country, in favour of religious, tribal, political, or other identities that offer them more support and hope.

These consequences of deep-seated grievances and protests across virtually the entire Arab region (bar a few oil-producing states) are widely under-appreciated because they are hidden by more dramatic events like the rise and collapse of the Islamic State, tensions in the Gulf between Arabs and Iranians, the continuing Arab-Israeli conflict, and large-scale refugee flows from war-ravaged Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya.

The most recent demonstrations in Algeria, Sudan, and Iraq that have generated international media and political attention threaten to lead to new government systems.
These internal conditions that have made life miserable for citizens for decades have triggered deep internal fissures
Perhaps they and other demonstrations in Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine will achieve what the 2010-11 Arab uprisings (aka as the Arab Spring) did not - clarify the deep structural weaknesses in the modern Arab state system, where peace, prosperity, security and stability have remained elusive, along with citizenship rights anchored in the rule of law.

The most dramatic moment during these latest demonstrations may have been the crowd's protest song during a football match in Morocco last week, where Ittihad Tangier team ultras chanted an anti-corruption song entitled "This is a Land of Humiliation".

It spoke of their bitter life, where corrupt and uncaring government officials make empty promises and build expensive houses, and where the citizens ask to be rescued from this fate by way of a migrant's boat to a new life abroad.

In December 2010, hundreds of millions of Arabs instinctively understood why Mohammad Bouazizi set himself on fire in the southwestern Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, to protest against his mistreatment by local officials and his powerlessness in the face of their corruption and abuse, which ultimately sparked the Arab uprisings. Similarly, hundreds of millions of Arabs this week felt in their bones the "humiliation" in the Moroccan football fans' protest chant that haunts a vast majority of them.

The venue, manner and tone of this single protest were telling for several reasons that echo across the entire Arab region. Citizens who have no other meaningful way to manifest their political impotence and economic discomfort must resort to the anonymous collective courage of their numbers to express themselves in public.

The chant's specific mention of economic and employment distress, state corruption, uncaring officials, and the desire to emigrate all resonate widely with citizens across the region. The collective feeling of "humiliation" best captures how government disdain for citizens' rights and needs generate daily humiliations of degradation and helplessness among ordinary men and women.

The simultaneous demonstrations, protests and strikes across most of the Arab countries from the 2010-11 uprisings until today revive earlier protest attempts in the 1980s and 90s that were harshly snuffed out by Arab security forces, rarely covered in the media, and not taken seriously by Arab governments or foreign powers that support them.

Since 2000 or so, empirical data from surveys and studies has offered compelling insights into the difficult lives of so many Arab citizens, - why they protest in desperation, and why more and more of them wish to emigrate.

Three specific points are important for understanding these: Growing poverty and inequality, a feeling that corruption is at the heart of government disdain for its own citizens, and the desire to emigrate in the face of no hope for reforms at home.

New research by UN agencies and international NGOs shows that poverty in the Arab region is as much as four times higher than previously assumed, with some 67 percent of Arabs in the categories of poor or vulnerable.
About one in every three citizens across the Arab region is considering leaving to live abroad
The middle class that had defined Arab societies has dwindled to around 33 percent of the population, and continues to slide. Such mass pauperisation makes the Middle East region the most unequal in the world, while also condemning the poor to family poverty for generations to come.

Consequently, many Arabs say in surveys that they wish to emigrate or are thinking about this. The Arab Barometer project that surveys the entire region every few years recently released the results of its 2018-19 fieldwork.

In a June 2019 report entitled Migration in the Middle East and North Africa, by Michael Robbins of Princeton University, it noted that about one in every three citizens across the Arab region is considering leaving to live abroad.

"This level represents a dramatic increase since 2016, which ended a long-term decline in the percentage of citizens who considered migrating," Robbins said. He pointed to Jordan as an important example of how this emigration option continues to spread among the citizenry, as the percentage of those who wish to emigrate is 23 points higher than it was just two years earlier.

In Morocco the increase was 17 points in that period, along with smaller but sizeable increases in Egypt (+10 points) and other countries.

Read more: Scores killed in overnight Baghdad clashes amid government reforms pledge

The percentage of citizens wishing to emigrate is highest in Sudan, at half of all citizens, while more than four in 10 wish to leave Jordan and Morocco. In Iraq and Tunisia, 33 percent say they wish to emigrate, while in Algeria the figure stands at 30 percent, in Egypt 28 percent, in Palestine 27 percent, and Lebanon 26 percent.

Equally troubling for most Arab countries are the reasons people wish to leave, and their status in society. More likely to want to emigrate are citizens who are young, well educated and male, with over half of 18-29-year-olds thinking about migrating in five of the 11 countries surveyed.

The same holds in most countries for the better educated. The educated young should be the pillars of any society's economic growth, so their topping the charts of those who wish to exit is a troubling sign of hard times today, and more difficult years ahead.

Those who wish to depart say economic issues are key in motivating them to do so, as does corruption (especially among the young), followed by other reasons.

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.