Analysis & Opinions - Agence Global

Why Do Arabs Keep Marching in the Streets?

| Mar. 06, 2019

BEIRUT — It is remarkable that peaceful street protests and demonstrations critical of the government have taken place simultaneously in recent weeks and months in at least 11 Arab countries. Ordinary people from all walks of life, but especially unemployed young men and women, continue to take to the streets in Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania, Somalia, Palestine, Lebanon, and Morocco.

Disgruntled citizens also would be marching if they could in other Arab autocracies like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain, but the draconian measures those governments have used to jail, torture, and bludgeon their citizens into a state of pacified and dehumanized fear have minimized public protests — for the moment. Yemen and Libya are in states of war, but their people already rose up in protest eight years ago during the great Arab Uprisings of 2010-11.

Clearly, almost every person and institution in power across the Arab region has learned almost nothing since 2011. For the poor Arabs who are a majority of citizens in our region, conditions have steadily worsened in every sector of life — jobs, income, education, water, housing, health and transport services, inequalities and disparities, clean air, and others.

The Arab governments and elites refuse to acknowledge that something is very wrong across our region, when a majority of states are at war or engage in bitter internal standoffs with their own people. Many ask today whether we are witnessing a revival or continuation of the 2011 Uprisings. Today’s protests match up against the Uprisings in some but not all ways.

First, the drivers of both eras are almost identical. These are a combination of socio-economic stress on a growing number of families, more and more of whom sink into poverty and lose hope for a better life, while they totally lack any credible political power to change things for the better.

Second, the Arab governments, private sectors, and their foreign donors and patrons continue to respond in exactly the same way they did eight years ago. They fail to expand economic activity enough to generate enough decent jobs to lower poverty and unemployment. Politically, most Arab governments have become more repressive, and narrowed ordinary citizens’ ability to organize, mobilize, speak out, and participate politically in their own societies.

Third, the fundamental dysfunctions and deficiencies in Arab societies that sparked the 2011 Uprisings have worsened virtually across the board, in politics, economy, free expression, the environment, and basic human services. The resurgence of region-wide demonstrations today should not surprise anyone who knows the region.

This is because, for example, as many as two-thirds of the 400 million Arabs today suffer daily indignity and despair because they are poor or vulnerable to poverty. The poor and marginalized citizens grow, while the middle class shrinks. This is partly because most Arab workers toil in the informal sector, characterized by low pay and no protections in health, minimum wages, or retirement.

The difference today from a few decades ago is that an Arab family that becomes poor will remain poor for several generations, because our economic systems cannot create enough decent jobs to reduce poverty and unemployment. The few jobs that are created tend mostly to go to the children or friends of the plugged-in crony capitalist elite or state bureaucrats.

The non-stop peaceful marchers in the street are asking for nothing more than food, water, housing, education and jobs — and to be treated decently and as human beings by their governments. Most people feel their governments treat them with disdain — such as Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s plan to run for a fifth consecutive term when he is in nearly a comatose health condition and cannot carry out the functions of either the presidency or even a full-fledged and active human being.

For those who wish to understand both the collective failure of Arab governance and the resulting nonstop violence and popular protests, I suggest comparisons to two other cases in our lifetimes when people elsewhere erupted simultaneously in mass uprisings and resistance movements. Those two mass movements when people challenged systems that oppressed politically and economically, and robbed them of their human dignity, were the American Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 60s, and the anti-Soviet revolutions in the late 1980s.

Arabs in the streets today feel the same deadly combination of three elements that also drove the Civil Rights and anti-Soviet uprisings: socio-economic stagnation, lack of political rights, and a degraded humanity that refuses to remain degraded or relinquish its humanity.

I lived through the last years of the Civil Rights movement during my university days in the United States. So I think sometimes that “Free at last, free at last, Allahu Akbar, we will be free at last” could be imagined as the combined drumbeat and heartbeat that now motivates tens of millions of ordinary Arab men and women who — as happened to African-Americans — have been turned into little more than beasts of burden by their own power structures and governments. When they complain, they are offered more of the same economic, political, and security policies that brought them to this sorry state during the past 40 years. So, they refuse to keep walking on command, in quiescent, silent lines, like donkeys. Instead, like Birmingham and Selma, like Berlin and Prague, they march, like humans.

It will go on and on for generations, in different forms at different times and places, until someone in authority wakes up and admits that repeating failed policies is a sign of utter and inexplicable stupidity, cruelty, and incompetence.

Rami G. Khouri is senior public policy fellow and adjunct professor of journalism at the American University of Beirut, and a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Middle East Initiative. He can be followed @ramikhouri

Copyright ©2019 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global

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For Academic Citation: Khouri, Rami.“Why Do Arabs Keep Marching in the Streets?.” Agence Global, March 6, 2019.