The Arab world is experiencing a historical transformation that is shaping a new reality

26 November 2019
From left to right: Al Jazeera Mubasher presenter Mohammed Dahou (moderating), Mohammed al-Ahmari, Ezzeddine Abdelmoula, Saoud El Mawla, Eltigani Abdelqader and Haoues Taguia. [Al Jazeera]

A panel discussion organized by Al Jazeera Centre for Studies on Tuesday, 19 November 2019, in Doha, in concert with the Forum for Arab and International Relations and Al Jazeera Mubasher, looked at the similarities and differences between the current wave of the Arab Spring and the wave that crested in late 2010 and early 2011. The panel concluded that Arab publics are being driven to mass action for similar reasons: they are searching for a political system that monopolises neither power nor wealth, is not involved in corruption or the looting of public resources, knows how to competently invest in natural and human resources, and is politically independent and able to withstand regional and international pressure. Decades of regimes that have offered none of the above have fuelled popular resentment and spurred a popular uprising and demands for regime change and the change of the entire political class these regimes have produced.

The panel also discussed the challenges and obstacles to the democratic transition, both in countries where it is the goal and others like Tunisia and Sudan that have already begun the transition to varying degrees.

Among these challenges is the domestic challenge of creating a unifying national current that agrees on the form and nature of the state and transitional mechanisms and foundations while avoiding discord among revolutionaries who assume power.

Panel participants also pointed to the challenge of dealing with the deep state, cautioning against ousting only the head of the regime. By the deep state, participants mean those military, security, judicial and media institutions whose interests have been vested in the status quo for decades, as well as businessmen and financiers who are irrevocably bound to the state and these regimes. Participants said that the deep state could thwart any cosmetic change and force a return to the status quo, if not worse.

Foreign challenges are no less serious, the panel participants said, and must be approached with caution and savvy to avoid interference by regional and international forces that oppose democratisation in the Arab world and will support existing regimes to serve their common interests.

The speakers also suggested that it is important for mass movements to have leadership that can negotiate, when the moment comes, with the existing authorities and translate popular momentum into political gains.

Participants do not expect Arab popular action to cease, but rather believe it will extend to other countries with a similar need for change and reform. There is no area of the Arab world that is an exception here, including Gulf states, because, the participants said, this is the nature of the current historical moment: what has been set in motion will not stop until its goals are met.

Titled “Two Waves of the Arab Spring from a Comparative Perspective: Lessons of the Past and Prospects for the Future,” the panel discussion was held at the Al Jazeera Media Institute auditorium in Doha. The participants included Mohammed al-Ahmari, Director of the Forum for Arab and International Relations; Saoud El Mawla,
Professor of Political Science at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies; Eltigani Abdelqader, Professor of Political Thought at Qatar University, Ezzedine Abdelmoula, Manager of Research at Al Jazeera Centre for Studies; Haoues Taguia, a researcher at Al Jazeera Centre for Studies; and Fadhil Al-Badrani, Professor of International Communication at Al-Nahrain University, who joined the panel via satellite from Iraq.

Intellectual vigour

Mohammed al-Ahmari opened the panel, saying that what sets the current popular movement apart is its intellectual and cultural vitality and manifestations, and its ability to take advantage of technology.

Speaking of the motives and drivers of the movement, al-Ahmari said that Arab peoples are being driven to rise up for similar reasons: political despotism, financial corruption, and the looting of wealth while the people strain under poverty and want despite their countries’ ample resources, as well as their governments’ submission to the dictates of regional and international forces with their own agendas.

Tyranny is the common denominator

Ezzeddine Abdelmoula said that the movement for change began in Tunisia before spreading to other Arab Spring countries. He said that ferment in the Arab street has common roots and a common endpoint: tyranny is the root of all the ills and the solution lies in freedom.

Describing the current historical moment in the Arab world, Abdelmoula said that we are standing on the ashes of a state that has become obsolete because it failed to perform its basic functions of development, security and the preservation of national independence. In turn, this is the beginning of the birth of a new state. The difference between the two waves of the Arab Spring—the current wave and the 2010–11 wave—is a difference in timing, not in motivations or goals.

Speaking of Tunisia, Abdelmoula added that the country has made great strides in the democratic transition. Citizens are now free to choose those who governs them, and there is a reasonable degree of freedom. This will allow the country to overcome its crises despite obstacles and challenges.

The foreclosure of sectarianism

Saoud El Mawla said that the popular movement in Lebanon is right on schedule. It was preceded by widespread popular mobilisation in 2015 but that reached a dead end because of appeals to sectarianism. The Lebanese have now found that the political class that governs them is openly united around their own common interests. When they agree on an electoral law, he said, they tailor it to their specifications, and they only form a government with themselves, leaving the people to fight among themselves. El Mawla said that corruption had reached unbearable levels, particularly in a country in economic crisis where some 30 percent of the Lebanese people suffer from poverty.

El Mawla said that after despair, frustration and the belief that change is difficult, the new generation that we see in the squares has come to revive hope.

El Mawla added that Lebanon’s position in the regional and international struggle for power fuelled sectarian polarisation, pointing to Lebanon’s proximity to the Zionist entity and the Assad regime, which has committed massacres and once occupied Lebanon and still possesses influence, as well as its position as an arena for competing US, Russian, Iranian,and Saudi interests. But, El Mawla said, people have taken to the streets everywhere in the country, indicating that a new consciousness, a new culture and new values have begun to take shape.

El Mawla said that the demands of the popular movement were clear: the formation of an honest government, the dissolution of the current parliament and the adoption of a new law. He concluded that he did not expect all these demands to be easily met because the regional balance of power is putting pressure on Lebanon.

A new political age

Speaking of Sudan, where the popular movement led to power sharing between the military and civilians, Eltigani Abdelqader said that there is a new generation in the country distinguished by its consciousness and courage. The Sudanese movement has similar motivations and demands as its peers in other Arab Spring states, with the main drivers being corruption and tyranny. What sets Sudan apart, he said, is that sharing power with the regime is a necessity, not a choice, since the revolutionaries were not able to overthrow the regime and the regime was not able to quash the revolution. This, in addition to regional pressures, led to the power sharing arrangement.

Abdelqader added that currently exhaustive efforts are underway to create a new political contract and a new political partnership involving armed movements. It is hoped that these movements will agree to join the new contract and that it will find overwhelming revolutionary momentum. Sudanese society, he said, is still in a revolutionary mode, which is cause for hope despite the difficulties facing the country at home and in the region.

A reality takes shape

Addressing the popular movement in Iraq, Fadhil Al-Badrani, who spoke via satellite from Baghdad, said that Iraqis have set a magnificent example with their struggle and sacrifices for a new Iraq that breaks with sectarianism, corruption, narrow partisan interests and dependency on regional and international forces with an eye on the country’s wealth.

Al-Badrani said that what most sets the Iraqi movement apart is its adherence to an inclusive Iraqi identity that crosses sectarian, confessional and ethnic lines. Hopes are pinned on the ability of young people in Tahrir Square and other squares around Iraq to create a new reality that heralds a new Iraq much different from the country we have seen over the last 16 years.

The problems plaguing Iraq, al-Badrani said, are the reason for the current movement. Corruption has cost the country nearly $800 billion since 2003 and has led to poverty and state mismanagement, and has brought certain sectors, like industry and agriculture, to a near standstill.

Speaking of his expectations of the future of the current movement, al-Badrani was optimistic, believing the movement will be able to bring down the government and force the passage of a new electoral law, particularly after the stance of the Shia religious authority (the Marja’iya) shifted and it came out in support of the movement and the US and UN are more involved.

Accumulating experience

Turning to the Algerian movement, which persists after nine months, Haoues Taguia said that Algerians are experiencing the second wave of their spring; the first wave came in the 1990s, which was followed by a bloody decade in which nearly 200,000 people were killed. Algerians have taken advantage of this experience in their current movement, declaring that they would remain peaceful no matter what.

Speaking of the drivers of the popular action, Taguia pointed to the humiliation that Algerians felt when the regime insisted on President Abdelaziz Bouteflika again running for the office, despite his advanced age and poor health, which prevent him from assuming the functions and burdens of office. Taguia also cited declining oil revenues and increased poverty and unemployment.

As to what distinguishes the Algerian movement, aside from its peaceful nature, Taguia said that the pictures held aloft in demonstrations are those of the symbols of independence and the Algerian revolution, indicating that the current movement is resuming that revolution and attempting to achieve its unmet goals.

Taguia noted that the movement had extended throughout the country and had brought in people of all ages and political affiliations.

He said that the elections called by the regime would not solve the problem because elections are not a goal per se. Instead, they should be the outcome of negotiations, talks and agreements between the popular movement and the authorities, to secure legitimacy for their results.

Taguia concluded by saying that the Algerian movement, now entering its ninth month, has been the longest lived in the Arab Spring countries, which demonstrates the determination and persistence of demonstrators and their tireless efforts to achieve their demands. This persistence has now started to yield results.

Lessons learned

The panellists concluded by affirming that second wave of the Arab Spring must take advantage of lessons learned in the first wave, particularly regarding the need to unify ranks, build trust and reach understandings on issues that might prove contentious in the future and spark conflict. There is also a need for clear, aware leaders who, at the appropriate time, can negotiate with regimes to save the country from collapse and anarchy and forestall foreign intervention, while also achieving popular demands for freedom, social justice, dignity and political participation.