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memri
November 13, 2019 No.
200

The Future Is Hot: Whither The Middle East's Popular Revolts?

There is a famed literary work of the Mexican Revolution, Los de Abajo (translated as "The Underdogs" or "Those From Below") by Mariano Azuela, which tries to see the tectonic grand actions of that revolution from below, from the lives of ordinary and simple people buffeted by forces beyond their ken.

That book came to mind when watching four separate events over the past month in the Middle East: popular protests in Lebanon and Iraq, a confusing change in U.S. policy in northeast Syria, and Nemesis, in the guise of American special operators and intelligence services, catching up with ISIS "Caliph" Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.

That sudden, messy and ugly "withdrawal" – what precisely it means is still not completely clear – from northern Syria by the United States and its fraying ties with its SDF/YPG ally, the global political reaction to it, and actions on the ground by Erdogan's Turkey, Assad's Syria, and Putin's Russia have engendered considerable criticism of the U.S. administration. The killing of Al-Baghdadi has, rightly, been seen as a triumph of the U.S. military and intelligence services and has generated partisan praise of the same administration, almost as if one balanced the other.

Wiser heads might note that both the Syria withdrawal – even if is not total – and the tracking down of Al-Baghdadi are indicative of a narrowing or lessening of interest by the U.S. government in the region which now seems to be bipartisan. Both the Obama and Trump administration have sensed in the American public a Middle East fatigue that transcends party affiliation, and have acted accordingly.

The sense in the region that America is, if not leaving, disengaging has been palpable for years and is growing stronger. Even when the U.S. does engage, such as sending additional troops to Saudi Arabia after an Iranian strike on Saudi oil facilities, many in the region – both friend and foe – sense that this action was taken with obvious reluctance.

Those of us who worked in the region for years, especially in public diplomacy, recall America being blamed for, well, almost everything: for political, social and economic ills, for pro-American regimes and for anti-American terrorists. We are now transitioning to a new era in which America will be credibly blamed for its absence and indifference.

Which brings us to the more important events in the region, certainly more important than Al-Baghdadi's death and confusion and incoherence in Rojava. There is a tendency to lump the wave of demonstrations we have seen in 2019 in Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon, and Iraq into a single wave, into a new version of the 2011 Arab Spring. But that seems an exaggeration. Certainly these protests share certain tactics and demographics and broad economic and political concerns, but all are resolutely local, focusing on very local circumstances. Three of those countries were not directly affected by the first wave of the Arab Spring, and demonstrations in the fourth, in Sudan, were successfully repressed by the Bashir regime by 2013.

As America retreats, it is fascinating to see Iran and its proxies in the region still blame the U.S. (and Israel and Saudi Arabia, and even Al-Hurra TV) for demonstrations in Lebanon and Iraq.[1] The sad reality is that in both countries, the U.S. government, especially the U.S. Embassies in Beirut and Baghdad, had tied their policies to local governments in place. Iran certainly is America's great regional adversary, but to a degree, in both countries, America and Iran were on the same side: "maintaining stability," using and trying to influence governments and elites they either put in place or found convenient to collaborate with for their own reasons.

Iran has been far more successful than the U.S. in projecting power in both countries, helped by powerful local proxies, militias and death squads, and an intense "ground game" involving a witches' brew of subversion, bribery, patronage, blackmail, and violence. It is quite likely that – in the short term – Iran and its allies in Lebanon and Iraq will prevail over these protest movements.

This is not to minimize the heroism, ingenuity, and integrity of demonstrators in both countries. For those who follow the region, the bravery and steadfastness of young Iraqis in the face of violence coming from both the Abdul Mahdi regime and Iranian-controlled death squads is compelling.[2] Their faces and stories should be on the front pages of media outlets worldwide, and their names household words as Mandela and Gandhi once were.[3] Equally heartening is how so many of these hopeful youth in Beirut and Baghdad have seemingly moved beyond the tired old nostrums of Arabism and Islamism.

Iran and its proxies in both countries will prevail in the short run because they have successfully coopted both local elites and most of the coercive power of the state. Yes, there may certainly be individual politicians and military officers in both countries who are patriots and who would willing confront that status quo. But the critical mass of the ruling class is bought and paid for.

In the short run, Iran and friends are quite likely to triumph. But they do face an existential dilemma: they largely "own" these regimes and have no real answers to the demonstrators' demands for a better life, for human dignity, and for a brighter future. Iran's hegemony in both places was carefully constructed for other reasons: to maintain control, to project power, to fight Israel – not to stop corruption or provide decent jobs or a better life for young people. "The Underdogs" and "Those from Below" will remain angry and dissatisfied, even if many are killed or cowed into silence. Those in power will beg, borrow or steal to delay the day of reckoning in both countries. But the reckoning will come. Iraq's population, already unhappy and restive, will more than double to 83 million by 2050. Lebanon's economic Ponzi scheme will not last that long.[4] 

A West beset by its own identity crisis and internal dilemmas may be tempted to ignore all this distant turmoil in the Middle East – and this would be a mistake. The obvious response by regimes in the region to this turbulence is always repression, misdirection, and delay. But when those have run their course, two other options remain: migration and war. Polling shows that large percentages in many Middle East countries dream of migrating if the local situation does not improve. In Sudan, for example, half of Sudanese (that would be 20 million people) want to migrate. According to the Arab Barometer in 2019, the percentage of Iraqis considering migration has risen 12 percentage points since 2013, to 30%.[5] Maintenance of the status quo in a region that already leads the world in both corruption and water scarcity seems like a bad bet.[6]

As for war, we have already seen the disruption that civil war in one country, Syria, has had, not just in the region but in the West. Migration flows of desperate people looking for a better life can be and have been manipulated by authoritarians such as Erdogan and Putin.

Recently, Iraqi government officials in town for World Bank and IMF meetings took the opportunity of their visit to complain to U.S. government officials that Al-Hurra TV (which is under my direction) was on the side of Iraqi demonstrators and that the U.S. government should intervene and silence us. While this shows a basic misunderstanding of how American bureaucracies work, it is a type of desperate measure that may become more common as pressure builds. Authorities in Beirut and Baghdad seem to alternate from offering demonstrators empty platitudes to blaming and threatening them.

At the very least, Western governments, including the U.S., are going to have to be much more adept at threading the needle in their fraught relationship with the region's unstable kleptocrats while trying to be open to the cry of the people on the street. How to influence odious regimes while keeping them at arms' length? If history is any judge, this will be very difficult to manage. There are substantial elites in places like Brussels, the UN, and Washington, DC that are much more comfortable in dealing with their counterparts in power (not surprisingly, these Western elites also seem cocooned from the broader reality in their own countries) and an unsustainable status quo than with Those From Below.[7] One can only hope that the West does not make the monumental task ahead for the region's young revolutionaries harder than it already is.

 

*Alberto M. Fernandez is President of Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN). The views expressed herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the officiial views of the U.S. government.

 

[2] Niqash.org/en/articles/politics/6019/Visiting-The-Square-In-Baghdad-Where-Protestors-Rule-A-Utopian-Iraq.htm.

[3] Frontlinedefenders.org/en/case/abduction-woman-human-rights-defender-saba-al-mahdawi, November 6, 2019.

[4] Mei.edu/multimedia/podcast/avoiding-economic-crisis-lebanon, July 18, 2019.

[5] Arabbarometer.org/wp-content/uploads/ABV_Iraq_Report_Public-Opinion_2019.pdf?ct=t%28What+Iraqis+Care+About%29&mc_cid=510cd5c8c9&mc_eid=%5BUNIQID%5D, January 2019.

[6] Ecfr.eu/publications/summary/how_water_scarcity_could_destabilise_the_middle_east_and_north_africa, November 13, 2019.

[7] Rudaw.net/english/middleeast/iraq/071120191, November 7, 2019.