Defiance and rebirth: How Arabs put self-determination at the top of their agenda

Defiance and rebirth: How Arabs put self-determination at the top of their agenda
The long read: For the first time ever, protesters in Lebanon, Iraq, Sudan and Algeria share a defiant vision of self-determination and popular consent, writes Rami Khouri.
9 min read
10 Dec, 2019
In Tripoli, protesters attend debating sessions to discuss the uprising's core issues [Getty]
If you're following events in half a dozen Arab countries where protesters are demanding big government changes, and you wonder if Saad Hariri or Adel Abdul Mahdi will return as prime ministers of Lebanon and Iraq, you're probably missing the enormity of what is actually happening on Arab streets.

The prolonged protests in Lebanon, Iraq, Sudan and Algeria, in particular - with a nod of respect also to smaller protests in Jordan, Palestine, Egypt and Morocco - capture deeper national and psychological transformations that make these uprisings historic in every sense of that word, thanks to several factors.

Key among them, are attempts to form totally new governance systems that include serious accountability for corruption, as well as the rejuvenated mindset and behaviour of the citizens who are driving this process.

Read more: Algerians, now's the time to finish what you started

These unprecedented factors in modern Arab history may shatter our decrepit autocracies: how citizens feel, and how they transform their sentiments into action, what they demand from their governments, and how they work together at local and national levels to achieve their goals.

The particulars of the protests in Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon, and Iraq go well beyond people crossing the thresholds of fear of their violent regimes, demanding social justice, or seeking policy or leadership changes. Most striking in the protests today is how citizens in different countries, who suffer frail national economies and hollow political systems share identical grievances and demands, and they engage in innovative forms of protest and activism.

A complete renewal

The protests' most important and common demand is the wholesale removal of the old governance system, rather than just "reforming" it by changing a prime minister, a president, or some policies.

The weekly or daily peaceful protests in these four countries - which started over a year ago in Iraq and eight months ago in Algeria - include only a few non-negotiable demands: the entire government's resignation, appointing new officials with clean records and proven technical expertise, bringing corrupt officials to justice and recouping their stolen money, and creating a new governance system under rule-of-law-based civilian control. In Lebanon and Iraq, this means a system without sectarian power-sharing.

Genuine Arab sovereignty

The current political stand-off between protesting citizenries and power-hungry elites might change very little in the end, or they may usher in exhilarating new dynamics of state reconfiguration. If they are truly historic and portend new and better days ahead, then we may be witnessing the national self-determination episodes that Arab citizens have been denied since independence, when small elites controlled power in close cooperation with foreign powers.

More specifically, we may be inducing the birth of three of the four critical components of decent and sustainable nations that have been missing in the Arab region since our birth around a century ago at the hands of European colonial midwives. The three are the Arab citizen, the public sphere and the self-validated state. 

These unprecedented factors in modern Arab history may shatter our decrepit autocracies

The fourth elusive dimension is genuine Arab sovereignty, where citizens and their states engage in their own public sphere to make policy decisions that serve their national best interests, without having to consult Washington, Moscow, London, Paris, Tel Aviv, Ankara, Tehran, or Riyadh, as is the case now for both large and small Arab countries.

The protests continue unabated, and expand into new circles, such as high school and university students, because they seem to have achieved some important, if symbolic, wins.

The presidents of Sudan and Algeria have been toppled and the prime ministers of Lebanon and Iraq have resigned, but the power structure that anointed them remains in place, so far.

All political leaderships have promised some serious reforms that seek to respond to some protest demands; but the leaderships still do not recognise that the main problem the protests seek to fix is not their policies, but their continued incumbency.

Rejecting symbolic gestures

When protesters reject all the symbolic gestures by their leaders, the political elite seems slightly unsure of what to do next. The old guard that has ruled for decades in Algeria, Sudan, Iraq, and Lebanon, not surprisingly, all tried the same responses that had worked in the past to dissipate the protests, but that have failed this time - so far. These have included violence, arrests, intimidation, promises of some reforms, changing a few ministers, and accusations that foreign conspiracies fuelled the protests which caused economic collapse.

This time, though, the protesters believed none of it, for they have totally lost confidence in the legitimacy and efficacy of their government system and its officials. They held their ground, repeated their basic demands for a total political transformation and house-cleaning, and expanded their public rallies and marches, often bringing normal business to a halt for a few days at a time.

We may be witnessing the national self-determination episodes that Arab citizens have been denied since independence

In all four countries, citizens ridicule and ignore offers or even orders by their powerful ruling elite, which does not hesitate to kill hundreds of protestors (in Sudan and Iraq) to get its way. When the Algerian military that holds actual power in the country promised new presidential elections, they had to postpone them twice; the elections scheduled for this Thursday will be widely boycotted, because citizens see them as another ploy to camouflage military control under the guise of democratic and constitutional elections.

When the Lebanese elite suggested several candidates for prime minister, the citizenry ridiculed them and forced their retreat, driving the power structure to find new candidates who appear to respond to protester demands, while actually perpetuating the oligarchic sectarian elite's total control of power.

Twice the protesters prevented the parliament from meeting last month because they feared it would pass a law giving officials total immunity from prosecution for corruption.

When the Iraqi government imposed curfews and shut down the internet, the defiant demonstrators went out into the streets in ever larger numbers, burning buildings of the sectarian elite, the government or the Iranian state that supports them, for good measure.

The same pattern emerged in Sudan, where citizens defied government orders to end their nationwide strikes and persisted in their demands for a civilian-led transitional government, even after state security forces and their thugs shot dead dozens of protesters.

A new high water mark of protest

This happens because millions of civilians from all political, religious, socio-economic, and ethnic groups have come together in public as citizens of their country, on their own will, and not at the command of the state or their ethnic leaders.

They use innovative peaceful protest methods, like blocking roads, rallying in front of government agencies or ministers' homes, and implementing nationwide strikes to affirm their demand for an entirely new, participatory, and accountable governance system. 

New mechanisms free of corruption and created by the citizenry, the protesters feel, can address the problems created by decades of uncaring, incompetent officials at the top, and that continue to worsen by the week.

They celebrate a sense of solidarity and shared national identity that they never felt before on this scale

Unlike previous smaller-scale demonstrations in Arab lands, today's protesters represent the entire population of the country; they celebrate a sense of solidarity and shared national identity that they never felt before on this scale; and, they participate daily in public meetings and working groups that analyse state weaknesses and chart ways to fix them. 

Birthing a nation

Wandering among the demonstrators in Beirut, Baghdad, Algiers, or Khartoum - or any of the hundreds of towns and cities where protests and self-help collective action campaigns are underway daily to feed the poor and assist the unemployed - you come away with the distinct impression of seeing how countries, states and nations are born according to the will of their own people.

Never before in any serious way (beyond Tunis in 2013) have we witnessed such widespread public action by millions of Arab men and women insisting that they will live under the principle of the consent of the governed.

The civilian nature of the ruling government is the critical element to watch for, as protests continue and ruling elites try to stay in power with only minor symbolic adjustments to the governance system. 

Among the most powerful affirmations of citizens in the public sphere shaping their own states are the thousands of popular gatherings in public spaces across Lebanon, Algeria, Iraq, and Sudan.

At organised and spontaneous gatherings, ordinary people express their views, exchange ideas with other citizens, and sharpen their demands for a total overhaul of the old systems - without, in most cases, cowering in fear of state security services that will disperse, arrest, injure, or kill them.

And when the state and its thugs killed dozens or hundreds of protesters, tore down their tents and dispersed their gatherings, the citizenry returned within hours in most cases, in larger numbers than before.

The power elite has become slightly dazed at such defiance, and still struggles to find ways to use its tradition of coercive violence to pacify its citizens - but with less and less success.

The old public sphere where only state-sanctioned ideas could be expressed has been transformed by citizens into what they see as the crucible of their long-delayed national self-determination, self-expression, and state-building.

The protests may or may not achieve their goals.

One or more countries could collapse into indigenous and foreign-stoked wars, as happened in Yemen, Libya and Syria after their 2011 uprisings. Some could follow the Bahrain and Egypt model and reinforce authoritarianism and mostly incompetent rule with public relations gimmicks and alliances with authoritarian leaders around the region and the world.

A few could transition to participatory democracies with sustainable economies. Others might linger in between these outcomes, struggling along as a majority of their people suffer poverty and powerlessness and governments rely on foreign patrons, money and guns to keep them in place.

An eye on Sudan

Sudan is perhaps the most important country to monitor now. It is the most advanced example of how protesters in 2019 have sharpened their tactics, and more astutely harnessed the power of citizens' mass public defiance of the old autocracies in the quest for a total makeover of their state governance system.

The protestors coordinated their actions through the professional unions and other civil society groups, and removed the former dictator president, Omar Bashir. They also kept up the street pressure until his military colleagues agreed to a three-year transitional governing council with a civilian prime minister and one more civilian member than the military ones.

The Sudanese learned the hard lessons of the Egyptian uprising in 2011, so they did not rush into national elections, and they did not allow the military to manage the transition alone. They stayed on the street until civilian authority was affirmed.

The delicate balance in the Sudanese transitional governing council captures well the achievements of this latest wave of protests across Arab lands, but also their vulnerabilities to the determination of the old guard to use any means needed to stay in power.

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.