Within the last month, the Middle East has been rocked by what can only be described as ‘revolutionary’ riots in Iraq, Iran and Lebanon, with what seems to be a new Arab Spring unfolding towards the beginning of the new decade. The question, however, is what will be the long term effects of these protests on Middle Eastern geopolitics and diplomacy? And what does this ultimately mean for citizen’s rights in these nations notorious for their authoritarian governments?
Sinak in Iraq. Photo and all rights belong to Al Jazeera
In October, a small group of Lebanese protesters defeated the government in a battle against a WhatsApp Tax which would charge users of the app to pay $6 a month. A day later, thousands of individuals protested outside the Lebanese Prime Minister’s office and since then over a million have joined the anti-government protests. The majority of issues derive from economic struggle, with a majority of the population living under the poverty line as well as it having one of the highest GDP ratios in the world currently. Such protests have brought down the Lebanese prime minister, Saad al Harriri. Earlier in October of this year, protests in Iraq broke out against the current regime with complaints being made about the corrupt nature of politics in the country and the negative effect this has had on employment. Finally, in previous weeks, protests again rose in the Middle East, this time in Iran following an increase in oil prices.
A key point to make is that all three protests are triggered by a small legal change, yet as described by Jeremy Bowen, they are driven by the notion of “unfinished business”. Following small protests that turned into victories, masses of the population within each country have joined anti-government protests, attempting to force a structural change to governments and ultimately cause a substantial shift in the state of the Middle East itself.
Throughout all three protests, calls for democratic reform seems to be a theme. An idea that fundamentally challenges the regional norm of established authoritarian strongmen. The fight against the elite, and thus, the revolutionary mindset of the Lebanese, Iraqi and Iranian people has been a fundamental factor that sparked this revolution from a small fire to an eruption.
In Lebanon, protestors were heard chanting “You are the civil war, we are the revolution”. Whilst in Iraq, protestors have made it clear that they want a dynamic shift in the post-2003 political system and to ultimately be rid of the establishment at the top of the Iraqi political order, citing the government’s failure to protect living standards (despite Iraq’s enormous oil resources) as the basis of their protests. Finally, in Iran, following issues with the countries economic state, protests began with the response being an internet shutdown. This brought about large-scale protests throughout this power, with the majority of calls throughout the protests primarily focusing on the economic turmoil in the country.
Yet, as the days of resilience have continued, calls for political change have increased with common chants such as “death to the dictator”. Within the Iranian protest movement today, similar to those in Iraq and Lebanon, there exists calls for the establishment of free and fair elections, secular governance, and legal protections for women and minorities.
Since the protests began, the violence has significantly increased with hundreds of protesters being shot and killed in both Iran and Iraq. Amnesty International states that over 143 people have been killed in the Iranian protests, whilst in Iraq the death toll increase to over 400 on Friday. These deaths, however, have done nothing but add fuel to the fire. Many are arguing that these protests can only be described as a modern Arab spring, and this is certainly a possibility.
However, these protests aren’t the first examples of protest in the region. Instead, it seems to be a rebirth of an inherently deep issue among the younger generations against the corrupt and elitist nature of Middle Eastern politics today. Moreover, it looks as if these risings are not going to end any time soon. The ultimate failure of these corrupt systems in not accommodating the needs of a large and young population almost guarantees that the anger and frustration behind these demonstrations will continue.
Substantial shifts have taken place both in Lebanon and Iraq, with both prime ministers stepping down. Yet, it looks as if the protests are brewing a full-scale revolution in the Middle East. There is now hope throughout the region, that change is possible, with the notion of democracy and equal rights being present. Over the next few months, we may see a substantial change in what looks to be the early stages of another Arab spring.