It is more than eight years since people across the Arab world rose up, calling for freedom and democracy and demanding an end to dictatorial rule, corrupt elites and social inequality. Alas, in most countries, their bravery changed little, if anything.
In Syria, Libya and Yemen these uprisings escalated into bloody civil wars that brought with them terrorism, death and destruction. Bahrain called on its big neighbor Saudi Arabia to send militias to quell its civil unrest. And in Egypt, the military returned to power by instigating a coup. Its “security forces” then massacred members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Today, anyone who dares to say anything critical about the country’s rulers is in even graver danger than during the era of Hosni Mubarak. Thousands of Egyptian dissidents are behind bars simply for speaking their minds. Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, is the only country where the political system was radically reformed, though the country still struggles with serious social issues and the political situation remains fragile.
Anger and desperation
Against this backdrop, it seems surprising how much courage people in the Arab world are once again showing in rising up and calling for political change. The people in Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon and Iraq are not following a single, overarching strategy. Instead, their activism was borne out of sheer anger and desperation. Extreme youth unemployment and a lack of development are a huge problem in much of the Arab world — and many government leaders have not yet found a fix. Political corruption and nepotism are also rife in the region, which means citizens are often harassed or disadvantaged in everyday life.
This reality means many people are fed up, and the latest protests are a way to vent that anger. So far, the uprisings have made progress: In Algeria and Sudan, longtime despots Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Omar al-Bashir were forced out of power. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, meanwhile, has been under such pressure that he has announced he will step down, and Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s days in office are most likely numbered.
And yet, despite this momentum, it is entirely unclear where this second Arab protest wave will lead, and whether other countries will be swept up in it.
This protest wave could also backfire. In Iraq and Lebanon, for example, the conflict between the rulers and ruled could be used to pit the countries’ religious and ethnic groups against each other. For Iraq and Lebanon, this is a horror scenario that could lead to a resurgence of extremism and terrorism.
In Algeria and Sudan, weeks of protests have catalyzed promising political transition processes. But in both countries, negotiations between rulers and those ruled have been arduous, and it’s unclear what the outcome will be. In an ideal case, there will be compromise — in the worst case, tensions could deepen. This would exacerbate the frustration and anger in both countries.
Read more: ‘People in Lebanon want to live in dignity’
Middle East will remain volatile
All this means that the Middle East will remain volatile for the foreseeable future, with a continuous stream of migrants heading towards Europe. The European Union, in its present state, cannot do more than support and monitor initiatives to engage in dialogue in Algeria, Sudan and elsewhere. It should under no circumstance keep supporting actors who profess to guarantee “stability” in the region — because in reality that just means repression. This, in turn, merely increases social and political tension, as is clearly evident in Egypt since the Arab Spring.