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The Rebellion in Iran: A Comprehensive Assessment

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In late December 2017 and in January 2018, massive protests erupted throughout the Islamic Republic of Iran. The largest countrywide uprising since 2009 started in the northeastern holy city of Mashhad, the second largest city in Iran, and a few towns on December 28, and spread to some 142 cities and towns in all 31 provinces at a shocking pace.

The uprising was prompted by runaway prices of some of the most basic staples, such as eggs, but became political in a matter of just a few hours.

On the morning of December 29, protests emerged in the western city of Kermanshah, the center of the province of Kermanshah,which was struck by an earthquake in November. It quickly became evident that what was happening was more significant than a short-lived protest – limited to a particular region of the country – but rather a reflection of deeper, more profound anti-regime sentiments.

Unsurprisingly, the Tehran responded to the rebellion, as it did in 2009, with brutality. According to official figures, 22 protesters were killed, but according to the National Council of Resistance of Iran, some 50 protesters were killed and a member of the mullahs’ parliament cited the head of the Prisons Organization and said that they had registered 4,972 arrests. The opposition put the number of detainees at 8,000 but there are indications that this may be a somewhat conservative estimate. As of the date of this writing, at least 14 protesters have been identified as having been killed in detention[1].

After two weeks of relative calm, more than a dozen Iranian cities were again scenes of protests on January 31 and February 1, with similar slogans that rejected the regime in its entirety.In the meantime, the world has witnessed a steady stream of protests and strikes by laborers and victims of theft and fraud by state institutions. The extraordinary resilience demonstrated by the Iranian people suggests that protests could reoccur relatively quickly, and perhaps more forcefully.

A careful review of the evidence clearly indicates that the protests were not a short-lived phenomenon with temporary impact. Rather, they marked a turning point and permanent change in the trend of events and political calculations in Iran.

This is significant in various ways.

Iran has historically been an enigma for Western powers and for Washington in particular. In this sense, the protests were significant for the future of Iran.

But from a geo-political perspective, the impact and consequence of major political developments in Iran transcend the country’s borders. In recent history, the region is still reeling from the establishment of a theocratic regime in Iran in 1979, subsequent to deposing the country’s monarchy.

Perceptions among Iran watchers in the West prior to protests 

It is safe to say that the protests caught most experts and Iran analysts in the West by surprise. This is reflected in less than accurate analyses of the realities on the ground during the uprising, as well widespread assessments of the situation inside Iran.

The below assumptions comprised a conventional wisdom regarding Iran and its future prior to the protests that was promoted for years by Tehran’slobbyists and apologists in the West:

  • The Iranian regime enjoys the support of the population, in particular the urban poor and the lower class that served as the backbone of the Iranian Revolution and comprised the main social base of the clerical rule. It stemmed from the fact that Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the regime, had ascended to power with the slogan of supporting the Mostazafin or the deprived.
  • The regime in Tehran is stable and strong enough to support interference in the affairs of other countries in the region and, as such, it should be treated as a rising regional player with significant sway.
  • Tehran has been able to suppress all dissent, and opposition is limited to exiles with little to no influence on the current state of affairs inside the country and with no appeal to the youth who comprise the majority in Iran.
  • The Iranian political landscape is defined by a contest between “moderates” and “hardliners” and the outcome of this contest will determine the future of Iran. The West is well served by propping up the “moderates” and allaying their concerns to neutralize the hardliners.
  • The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) is in full control. They have restructured on a provincial basis and geared up to prevent popular uprisings.
  • The nuclear agreement and the cash windfall that resulted from sanctions relief improved the welfare of the average Iranian and provided a capital gain for the “moderates.”
  • JCPOA will gradually lead to a change of behavior of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

But another school of thought stressed that:

  • The clerics are isolated at home and are loathed by the Iranians, in particular by the youth. People are waiting for the first opportunity to express their wrath.
  • The foreign interventions and wars are not signs of strength. Rather they are taking a big toll on the regime and are maintainedto cover up the shortcomings and failures at home.
  • When it comes to major issues there is not much difference between the various factions and the regime is neither capable nor willing to get engage in any meaningful moderation.

In the major annual international rally of the opposition in Paris on July 1, 2017, Maryam Rajavi, the President-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran said: “The light of change is shining on Iran. The ruling regime is in disarray and paralyzed as never before. Iranian society is simmering with discontent and the international community is finally getting closer to the reality that appeasing the ruling theocracy is misguided.

These observations speak to three fundamental truths related to obtaining freedom and liberty in Iran, as well as peace and tranquility in the region:

  • First, the overthrow of the ruling religious dictatorship is an imperative.
  • Second, the regime’s overthrow is within reach.
  • And third, a democratic alternative and an organized resistance exists which is capable of toppling the theocracy in Iran.

Protests proved the assumptions pushed by Tehran’s apologists to be totally devoid of any bearing in reality and the second school of thought to be more attuned to realities on the ground.

Root causes of the Iran uprising

A correct assessment of the roots of the uprising is of paramount importance in making a good prediction of their future.

The first protest was prompted by a sudden increase in the price of some of the most basic staples, particularly eggs, and by the announcement of a projected major increase in fuel costs. But, the protests quickly took a political tone and quickly came to target the regime in its entirety.

In reality, the protests were the result of several factors and the culmination of the regime’s failures in several key areas over the years.

In the area of economics, despite the unfreezing of tens of billions of dollars under the nuclear agreement, there is total stagnation and the public has not witnessed any benefits. In recent years the private sector has been very much squeezed out. According to reliable estimates, organizations and institutions under the control of Khamenei, which include the IRGC, now control over 50% of Iran’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).[2]

Inflation is still in double digits, while unemployment is staggering [3]. This is even worse in towns and smaller cities, where according to some reports unemployment among the youth is as high as 50 percent. Iranian state media is riddled with stories of young people with PhDs or Masters Degrees from some of the country’s best universities who have to drive taxis or work as dishwashers in order to make ends meet.

On priorities, a recent review of the official budget indicated that its allocations for the IRGC and suppressive forces are several times more than allocations for the most basic social needs such as public health and education. According to one study, Iran’s total health care budget for 2018 is $16.3 billion, which is a third of its total war budget. The costs of wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, which is up to tens of billions of dollars, as well as financing a range of extremist groups including Hezbollah in Lebanon, has taken a toll on the Iranian economy and the welfare of Iranians. In other words, Tehran’s strategic policies and priorities have had direct impact on the Iranian economy and have become totally intertwined with it.

Little noticed in the West has been the failure in the past few years of a series of major financial institutions affiliated with the IRGC. Millions of middle class and lower income Iranians were lured toinvest in government–affiliated and sanctioned institutions that promised high returns. The institutions were allowed to gamble or run Ponzi schemes with impunity for years because they were owned by well-connected elites: religious foundations, the IRGC and/or other investment funds in the Iranian state. The funds, life savings for many depositors, were either embezzled or diverted to the regime’s priorities[4]. The bankruptcy of these intuitions, known as “mal-baakhtegan” or “property losers”, impacted millions of Iranians and has been steering public unrest for the past couple of years.

A number of the regime’s main banks face bankruptcy,mainly because of bad loans provided to the regime’s senior officials or their trade partners without any guarantee or collateral. Mohammad Reza Bahonr, a former Vice-speaker of the Majlis (Iranian parliament) said on February 1, “A number of our main banks are on the verge of bankruptcy. Let’s pray the Lord that their bottom will not fall out since in reality these banks are in the red.”

Corruption has become so rampant and systematic that hardly a day goes by without a story of embezzlement of mammoth proportions being exposed in the state-run press. The problem is so acute that Supreme Leader Khamenei described it as a “seven headed dragon” in his speech on February 8.

Nepotism is as its peak. The term “Aghazadeh” (son of Agha or noble born) has been a colloquialism in Iran since 1990s,describing the children of elites who emerge as men of means and influence by way of nepotism and corruption. In 2017, the term “good genes” was introduced in the Iranian parlance and became synonymous with the privilege that the children of the elite, notably the sons and grandsons of senior ayatollahs and senior government officials, or Aghazadehs, enjoy.

The protests, of course, expressed the public’s rage over the mullahs’ plundering of their wealth. Poverty, unemployment, and class differences have inspired it. But the protests were not limited to demands for necessities of life and were not a spontaneous and sudden upheaval by the hungry. Rather, they had clear and distinct social and political elements.

Iran is suffocating from social and political repression, lack of the most basic freedoms, and systematic institutional discrimination and nepotism have pervaded the regime. As such, the protests were also for freedom and popular sovereignty to establish social justice and prosperity.

In other words, the protests were the culmination and convergence of years of the ill-fated policies and priorities of the regime with deep-rooted causes. Several factors had simply postponed the eruption of these crises. The reality caught up with the ayatollahs.

Characteristics and features of the protests

The span and rapid expansion of the protests was quite remarkable. In a few days, they spread to 142 cities inall 31 provinces of Iran, and no major city in Iran was spared. By comparison, the protests in 2009 were mainly limited to Tehran and a number of major cities. Tellingly, in 2018, confrontation between the protesters and the security forces were most fierce in some of the smaller cities and towns including and not limited to Izeh (Khuzestan Province), Touyserkan (Hamadan Province) and Shahinshar (Isfahan Province).

Not only did the protests begin in the holy city of Mashhad, but also some of the strongest slogans on the first days of the protests were chanted in Qom, the other Iranian holy city. These two cities traditionally were perceived to be bastions of clerical rule. The vast geography of the protests not only indicated the general sentiment throughout Iran, but from a security standpoint, it forced the regime to spread its forces and made it impossible to concentrate on major cities by amassing its forcesin a handful of locations to prevent the protests taking place.

The overwhelming majority of those engaged in the uprising were from poor and underprivileged backgrounds, i.e. people who were tired of their circumstances and angry at the regime for ignoring their wellbeing and denying their humanity. In other words, unlike the 2009 protests that were primarily comprised of middle class people, in 2018 the protesters were from “armies of the hungry and the unemployed.” They clearly repudiated Tehran’s claims of enjoying a broad base of social support in general andthe claims by the mullahs’ spin doctors about their popularity among the impoverished in particular.

The mullahs’ claim that they are “defenders of the abased” was totally discredited. The abased cried out in the streets: “People must beg while the supreme leader lives like a God.” Sadegh Zibakalam, a Tehran University Professor who is an advocate of the “reformers” in Iran, said in an interview on February 17, “The 2009 protests showed that the system has difficulties with the people who reside north of Enghelab (Revolution) Avenue[5]. The problem was with office workers, writers, university students, medical doctors…. But the protests in January 2018 were much more dangerous for the system. I believe those who came out were from south of Enghelab Avenue.”

People from all walks of life and social strata took part in the protests,and young men and women, particularly those who are called “Dahe haftadi” (those have been born in 1990s) played a key role. “Those who chanted those slogans, chanted against the regime, most of them were Dahe Haftadi.”Zibakalam acknowledged. (Dahe Hafadi is the term used in Iran to refer to those who have been born in 1990s).By the regime’s own estimates, 50 percent of those who were detained were between the ages of 19 and 25, and 27 percent were between 25 and 32.

The 2009 protests began and were initiated due to a rift in the leadership of the regime, specifically over the fate of the disputed elections, expressed with slogans like “where is my vote?”. The disenchanted population used the fissure to express its frustrations. Yet, what seemed to be a blessing at the onset turned out to be a majorweakness of the protest movement. As the public slogans became more radical and targeted the leadership of the regime and challenged the regime in its entirety, the individuals who appeared to be the leaders ofthe uprisingbecame more inclined to cut a deal with the status quo and at one point simply abated the movement and the public demands. In 2018, the uprising was not a byproduct of an internal power struggle. To the contrary, it wasa nail in the coffin of the myth of moderation.

From the outset, protesters’ slogans – which included chants of ‘down with Rouhani’ and ‘down with Khamenei’ – demonstrated an outright rejection of the status quo and the regime in its entirety. The slogan ‘no to reformer, no to hardliner, this game is over’ expressed a new awareness that differences between political factions in Iran are distinctions without a difference. The protests showed that the people of Iran detest both regime factions and want it to be overthrown in its entirety.

The protests propelled a new player into the Iranian political landscape: the people’s power. Very quickly it became evident that the demarcation was between the people on one side and the regime on the other.

Slogans like ‘no to Lebanon, no to Gaza, my life for Iran’ demonstrated that the people are rejecting the regime’s regional interference in addition to its domestic policy. (A full analysis of the slogans is provided below.)

Subsequent to 2009, in order to prevent a popular uprising, the IRGC had restructured and one division was designated to control each province (with the exception of Tehran,where two divisions were devoted for its control). Yet, the speed in the movement’s expansion overwhelmed the IRGC and it could not prevent or contain the unrelenting, pervasive, and geographically widespread protests for more than 10 days. This is despite the fact that after the second day, there was no element of surprise and virtually all the details of the protests including locations and times were announced in advance on social media.

It seems the myth of the invincibility of the IRGC has been proven false.

Though the protests began over increased prices for staple items such as eggs, not a single shop or private commercial entity was attacked. Rather, suppressive centers, government buildings, and offices of the Friday prayer leaders[6] – the very institutions that push the regime’s extremist, fundamentalist agenda – were targeted.

By some assessments, the “moderate” faction was the bigger loser in a sense that it became quite evident that they enjoy neither popular base and appeal nor political sway. When the former President Mohammad Khatami, who has been touted by some observers as a champion of “moderation” in the past decades, said “the youth who chanted harsh slogans were not ‘barandaz’ (the person who seeks the regime’s overthrow), rather they were simply protesting for their grievances,” the Iranian youth repudiated him fiercely in social media to a point that #براندازم (I am a barandaz) was rewetted more than 30,000 times in less than 24 hours.

Social media played a key role in organizing and also in making the activists aware of developments and status in other locations, towns and cities. As of July 2017, there were 48 million smart phones in Iran, a country of 80 million people.

Telegram is the king of messaging apps/social media in Iran with more than 40 million users. (Telegram has about 100 million users worldwide.)  According to government statistics, there are more than 586,000 Persian Telegram channels and in an average day more than 3 million messages are exchanged in these channels. The young people – undeterred by the regime’s brutality – used technology to mobilize the masses, open new fronts, and fight back, and the IRGC was stretched to contain the protests.

The role of women was quite dramatic and remarkable. Indeed, women have borne the brunt of repression for the 39 years of the mullahs’ rule. The compulsory veil, as well as subjugation and humiliation of women for failing to observe the veil, are among the most important means for the regime to impose repression on society.

The video clips coming from Iran showed that women wereat the forefront in many scenes and took the lead in charging at the security forces. A scene of a young woman standing at arm’s length from the guards and security forces in Hamedan and shouting in their faces “Death to Khamenei,” went viral on social media.

There were signs of alarm and concern even inside the IRGC and Bassij militia, on which the regime relies for its survival.A number of members of the Bassij burned their membership cards during the days of the uprising and joined the protesters.Some of the people killed by the regime’s forces during the protests were from Bassiji families.

Reaction in 2018 was very different than 2009, particularly where the U.S. is concerned.In 2009,President Obama remained very much indifferent to the protests while reaching out to the ayatollahs and hoping for a nuclear agreement. This was despite explicit calls by protesters who chanted, “Obama, Obama, either with them (i.e. ayatollahs) or with us.” But the Trump administration was emphatic in its support for the protesters and their demands from the moment it appeared that the protests represented a serious force and a challenge to the ayatollahs. President Trump in his State of Union address stated, “When the people of Iran rose up against the crimes of their corrupt dictatorship, I did not stay silent.  America stands with the people of Iran in their courageous struggle for freedom.”

It appears the wall of fear in Iranian cities suffered cracks. This can be seen in the audacity and bravery of the young protesters and the continuation of protests by different sectors of society demanding their rights and welfare. Le Monde, the prominent French daily wrote in an article on March 3, 2018, “In Iran the fear has changed camp and the people are no longer fearful of the regime.”

The protesters’ slogans and the new choice

It is impossible to hold an opinion poll in a country like Iran,especially where it pertains to sensitive issues such as anti-government protests and the sentiment of the protesters. But one measure for assessingthe prevailing mood and sentiments of the protests is analysis of the slogans that are chanted. The most striking slogans which put an end to a long misguided perception in the West was, “reformists, hardliners, the game is over.” According to Zibakalam people have passed both the reformists and hardliners. This slogan symbolizes a new era in Iran’s political landscape. The choice in Iran is no longer “moderate” or “hardliners” but the ruling regime or regime change.

A review showed that some 130 slogans were used in the recent protests. While a number of them were used sporadically and in a few towns or cities, some including ‘Down with Khamenei,’ ‘Down with Rouhani,’ or ‘Down with the dictator’, were chanted in almost all the cities and towns that were the scenes of protests

There were 12 slogans such as ‘Down with the clerical regime,’ ‘We are determined to overthrow the regime,’ and ‘This is the last message, the goal is to bring down the regime,’ that called for the overthrow of the regime in its entirety.

Fourteen slogans such as ‘Khamenei is a killer, his rule is illegitimate’, ‘Khamenei be ashamed, abdicate power,’‘Seyed-Ali, it is time to go’ (referring to the first name of Khamenei), and “Down with Rouhani,’ targeted the leaders of the regime and both factions.

Eleven slogans emphasized patriotism and rejected the regime’s strategic policies, in particular meddling in affairs of other countries. Among them were ‘Leave Syria alone, think about us,’ ‘Down with Hezbollah,’ ‘No to Gaza, no to Lebanon, my life for Iran,’ and ‘Dignified Iranian, support, support.’

Eight of the slogans,including ‘We will fight to wrest back our country Iran’ and ‘Either death or freedom,’ referred to continuity of the protests.

One telling aspect of the slogans was that despite the protests taking place in several ethnic areas of Iran, including Kurdistan (northwest) and Balouchistan (southeast), there were no ethnic slogans and all were in tandem with the rest of the country, targeting the regime in its entirety. Many slogans emphasized the notion of Iran and the protesters’ affection for a unified Iranian identity.

Role of the opposition: Were the protests organized?

There are a number of significant issues surrounding the question of the protests’ leadership.

The prospects for repressing and containing a leaderless movement are much better, particularly for a regime like the one ruling in Iran that has shown no hesitancy in using brute force against its demanding citizenry. On the other hand, the chances of success are much higher for a movement that has established leadership and a clear plan. This factor is also significant so far as it pertains to the future course of events and providing an alternative to the status quo.

A key question was about the role of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, also known as the Mujahedeen-e- Khalq (MeK).It has been a leading Iranian opposition group and its existence in the Iranian political landscape predates the clerical regime. The MeK espouses a democratic-anti fundamentalist perception of Islam and played a significant role in the opposition against the Shah that culminated in the overthrow of the monarchy on February 11, 1979.

Soon after the establishment of theocracy in Iran, the MeK stood up to the new regime and rejected its constitution as undemocratic. In the summer of 1980, the MeK staged several rallies in Tehran drawing up to 150,000 people to hear Massoud Rajavi, the leader of the MeK promise to carry on the opposition to Islamist domination[7]. It has been the primary target of the ruling fundamentalists since 1981. In the course of the past three decades, some 120,000 MeK activists from all walks of life and from all over Iran have been executed and a larger number have been incarcerated and persecuted.

In the course of the anti-regime demonstrations in 2009, many MeK supporters were arrested, and some were later executed.

Over the years, the MeK made key revelations on some of the most secret aspects of the Iranian regime’s nefarious conduct including exposing scores of the most important secret nuclear weapons sites and research facilities. The intelligence gathered by MeK operatives inside Tehran was ultimately corroborated by the UN watchdog, the IAEA.That intelligence pointed to the MEK’s network of activists including persons inside some of the most sensitive government intuitions. For anyone with the least knowledge of the Iranian regime’s modus operandi, it was evident that those operatives’ work involvedhuge risks.

While the fact that the MeK enjoyed a constant and formidable presence in Iran was irrefutable, the regime’s focus one liminating the MeK as its arch enemy has made itrather difficult to gauge the scope and extent of the MeK network.

It is somewhat easier to gauge the opposition’s appeal among the Iranian diaspora, a vibrant society of several million people. Historically, Iranians are not a migrating nation. The overwhelming majority of the Iranian diaspora is comprised of Iranians who fled Iran after the establishment of the clerical regime or were born elsewhere. Expatriates throughout Europe, North America, Australia, and even Asia are in constant contact with their homeland. Particularly in the age of communications, the mood among the Iranian diaspora is in a way reflective of the mood at home. The MEK has held massive rallies in Paris in recent years that have drawn more than 100,000 of their supporters from the world over.

In September 2016, after years of intense campaigning, the opposition was able to safely transfer its members, several thousand strong, from camps in Iraq to European countries, most notably Albania.  The opposition leaders and spokespersons pointed out that the transfer, in addition to being a major humanitarian success to guarantee the safety and security of opposition members, was a major strategic achievement. They reasoned this would free up the time and resources of the organized resistance to focus on affairs inside of Iran and on expanding its social base. But outsiders did not initially pay much heed to the opposition’s assessment.

Recent MeK efforts have focused on mobilizing public opinion in Iran on the massacre of 30,000 political prisoners in 1988. The overwhelming majority of the victims, including juveniles and pregnant women, were MeK activists who rejected the regime’s demand to denounce their sympathy to the MeK and were executed subsequent to one or two minutes trials.

In April and May 2017, in the run-up to the Iranian presidential elections, the activities entered a new phase and the MeKactivists started to systematically place big pictures of Maryam Rajavi, on major highway overpasses and onwalls beside major streets. The MeK network had engaged in similar activities in previous years but the uptick in their frequency and scope was clear. Video clips showed banners and pictures of Rajavi placed in major cities including Tehran, Mashhad, Kermanshah, Shiraz, and Hamedan, as well as in some of the smaller provincial cities. In parallel, the network became active in exposing mullah Ibrahim Raissi, one of the two leading candidates who was one of the key officials involved in the 1988 massacre in Tehran.

Given the state of repression in Iran, it has been rather impossible for the MeKor any other genuine opposition groups to have any public presence in Iran. A key question has been the MeK’s appeal among the young generation, Nasl sevomi (literally meaning the third generation), or the millennials.

A new feature of MeK events in recent years, in particular in the past two years, has been the presence and activism of the youth. Some of them are Iranians who have been born or grown up in Western countries. But more remarkable has been the presence and appearance of MeK activists who have fled Iran recently.A number of them have been incarcerated for several years and have fled Iran subsequent to their release from prison.[8] This was a new phenomenon and a solid indicator that the MeK had made tangible strides in gaining the attention and recruiting the Iranian youth despite Tehran’s systematic and extensive demonization campaign against the MeK.

Some of the young activists had become familiar with the opposition through their relatives or immediate family. But according to their own accounts, and interviews with international media, a number of them had become acquainted to the MeK in recent years for the first time and had decided to join them. The new activists came mostly from urban middle class families but also from all over Iran. The high percentage of women among them was conspicuous.

As the protests broke out in Mashhad and a number of smaller towns on December 28, the MeK network was the first that broke the news and started sending updates and video clips from the protest scenes. Over the course of the following two weeks that the protests were at their peak, the MeKnetwork distributed around-the-clock news and clips that it received from its activists. The MeK network’s role in breaking the mullahs’ censorship was indisputable, and it persisted despite all the restrictions that Tehran imposed on the Internet and popular social media apps.

A number of MeK activists involved in organizing the protests took the risk of speaking to major international media from Tehran and from smaller towns. In one instance, Nik, a female MeK activist was interviewed by Fox News on January 10 while protesting with hundreds of relatives of detainees in front of the notorious Evin Prison in northern Tehran.

“Calls were given on our Telegram channels a few days before the demonstrations,” Mohammed, a 29-year-old engineering student from Tehran and a MeK activist told the UK’s Daily Telegraph on January 6.“We cover every protest, no matter how small. Some of the slogans that were shouted on the first day and were repeated were started by our friends on our networks,” he added.

The regime’s most senior officials repeatedly underscored the role of the MeK.

Hassan Rouhani called French President Emmanuel Macron on January 2and said the MeK was behind the protests in Iran and asked him to restrict the activities of the Iranian opposition. The National Council of Resistance of Iran, the coalition that the MeK is its biggest constituent, is headquartered outside of Paris.

In a speech on January 9, Khamenei said, “These incidents had been organized.” The MeK implemented the plans. He added, “The MeK had prepared for this months ago” and “the MeK’s media outlets had called for it.” He said the MeK was at the apex of the triangle that incited the uprising. He attributed the other two angles to foreign powers.

Brig. Gen. Rasoul Sanai Rad, Political Affairs Deputy for the IRGC, provided the most detailed account of the role of the MeK. In his remarks “Role of the ‘hypocrites’ (the derogatory term used by the regime to describe MeK or PMOI) in recent uprisings” he said:

“Eighty percent of those arrested were under 30 years of age. There were several women among them, who are middle aged. In the 1980s, those who were leading MeK protests were mostly women. And now, the main chain of provocation and starting the protests were women. For example, four of these women caused the protests in the city of Ilam (western Iran). After they were detained, we realized they were not from Ilam…,”

“Similarly, those arrested in Kermanshah had come from the city of Karaj (near Tehran). Those who were from Bandar Abbas were arrested in Shiraz. These were the MeK who would go to the cities in an organized fashion and were guiding the slogans. The most radical and sacrilegious slogans, such as ‘they have used Islam as a ladder to harass the people, neither Islam, neither the Quran, let’s sacrifice both for Iran….

“This shows how much they hate Islam and political religion. Directing attacks on military centers, like assaults on the State Security Force and Bassij bases were part of the planning by the MeK. They even attacked the prisons, which means they have their hands in prisons as well.”

It is very difficult to imagine that the protests spread to 142 cities and that people chanted almost identical slogans without some sort of coordination and organization. It was telling that the protesters’ main slogans were the same as those advocated by the MeK for years.

The progress the MeK has made in recent years and remarks by the regime’s most senior officials all lead to the conclusion that the protests were not leaderless or unorganized. Rather, some sort of organization and coordination was involved and the MeK played a much more extensive and prominent role than might have been recognized from the outside.

Regarding future steps, the opposition has been advocating establishing secret centers of resistance in an attempt to unleash the potential of a disenchanted population that is willing to stand up to clerical rule, and to use the simmering situation in Iran in preparation for an uprising.  It has said that practical steps includejoining together large number of individuals who are currently scattered and disconnected, and encouraging people to invite the real hope that the mullahs can be brought down.

Is Iran destined for a crisis like the one in Syria?

Tehran’s advocates have tried to scare the international community from the eruption of an internal conflict and a repeat of the Syrian scenario in Iran. But the situation in Iran is very different than Syria or other countries in the region that experiencedthe Arab Spring. In those countries, the opposition was not organized and was nascent at its best. In Iran, the opposition has a well-definedstructure, a well-known leader and a declared platform and plan for transition. It has weatheredseveralstormsin the span of more thanthree decades and has shown remarkable resilience and perseverance.

As it pertains to Syria, if it were not for the Iranian regime’s full- fledged military and financial support and the direct intervention of the IRGC and its mercenaries, the Assaddictatorship would have been ousted several years ago and the situation would have been totally different.

The road ahead: Intensified conflict between the regime and the people

Tehran is facing serious financial, political and social challenges. The policy of denying people’s demands and outcries has failed. The policy of intervention in the region has run into a deadlock and exhausted its resources. Its adverse consequences are already felt inside the country. The factors that led to the protests are still in force, even aggravated and the regime does not have the power to address and solve them.

Abbas Abdi, one of the leading thinkers of the “reformists” acknowledged on February 3 that “there is no technical solution for the Iranian society. These solutions existed in the past, but currently such solutions do not exist.” That means that tackling the web of crises facing the clerical regime requires quick, substantial, and profound reforms.

The clerical regime seems incapable of major political reform and all signs indicate that Khamenei, who has the final say, is neither willing nor capable of serious reform,least of all after major social unrest, since this might lead to quicker unraveling of the system.

Yet, there is little doubt in Tehran that the protests will reoccur. Saeed Hajarian, one of the strategists of the “reformists” acknowledged on January 24, protests are like sea waves. They recede to return stronger.”

As well as being unable to prevent the resurgence of the uprisings,the mullahs have lost their duplicitous safeguards and can only depend on the repressive apparatus.

Even Khamenei recently acknowledged the continuation of the protests. He said, “This is a battle of the nation against anti-nation, the battle of Iran against anti-Iran, and the battle of Islam against anti-Islam and it will henceforth continue.”

It can be stated unequivocally that Iranian society will not return to the conditions preceding the 2018 protests, and the clerical regime seems incapable of returning to the status quo ante regarding its balance of power vis-a vis the population.It is in a weaker position than any other time.

This means that the confrontation between the people of Iran and the ruling regime will intensify and the power struggle among the regime’s internal factions will be aggravated.

Sadegh Zibakalam described the prospect in this way: “I am fearful that in the next round… there is no way to contain these people. If this happens, this fire will burn all of us together.”

 

[1] Tehran has acknowledged that a number of prisoners have died during detention but claims they have committed suicide during detention, a claim that has strongly been rejected by the relatives of the protesters and have been questioned even by some of the regime’s own officials.

[2] Primary Causes of Poverty and Popular Uprisings in Iran: The Enormous Cost of the Regime’s Warmongering, Terrorism and Domestic Suppression”, Report by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, January 2018

[3] According to Mohammad Reza Bahonar, a former Vice Speaker of the Majlis, average annual inflation rate after 1979 has been 20 percent and the unemployment has always been on double digits. (State0run Fars news agency, August 8, 2017)

[4] Caspian Finance and Credit Institution, www.caspianci.ir was one of the major financial institutions that was involved in this scheme.

[5] Enghelab Avenue is one of the main Avenues in central Tehran and in a way separates lower class people in southern part of Tehran from the more affluent residents of northern Tehran.

[6] According to regime officials, people attacked the offices of 60 Friday prayer leaders throughout the country.

[7] Breaking the Stalemate, The Case for Engaging the Iranian Opposition, study by Mettis Analytics, a Washington, DC-based research company, March 2015.

[8] Farzad Madadzadeh, Shabnam Madadzadeh, Arash Mohammadi, and Paria Kohandel, were among the young MeK activists who had fled Iran in the past couple of years and appeared in public.

Prof. Ivan Sascha Sheehan is the incoming Executive Director of the School of Public & International Affairs at the University of Baltimore. For the past eight years, Sheehandirected the graduate programs in Global Affairs & Human Security and Negotiations & Conflict Management in the College of Public Affairs. An award-winning scholar, Sheehan has been influential in shaping Washington’s thinking on the prospect of a democratic transition in Iran and is the author of more than fifty articles in prominent news outlets and academic journals. Learn more about his scholarship on terrorism, counterterrorism, and regime change in Iran at www.professorsheehan.comand follow updates via @ProfSheehan.

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Middle East

Middle East futures: Decade(s) of defiance and dissent

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If the 2010s were a decade of defiance and dissent, the 2020s promise to make mass anti-government protests a fixture of the greater Middle East’s political landscape. Protests in the coming decade are likely to be fuelled by the challenges Middle Eastern states face in enacting economic and social reforms as well as reducing their dependence on energy exports against the backdrop of a global economic crisis and depressed oil prices and energy markets. Complicating the challenges is the fact that youth that often constitutes a majority of the population have lost or are losing confidence in government and religious establishments at a time that social contracts are being unilaterally rewritten by political elites.

Pressure on the Middle East’s autocratic rulers is likely to increase with the departure of US President Donald J. Trump, a staunch supporter of strong man rule and the coming to office of President-elect Joe Biden. In contrast to Trump, Biden has suggested that he would emphasize democratic values and freedoms. In doing so, Biden could contribute to renewed public manifestations of widespread discontent and demands for greater transparency and accountability in the Middle East and North Africa.

Autocrats get some things right

The second decade of the 21st century has been bookended by protest. The decade was ushered in by protest across the globe, from student rallies in Chile to Occupy Wall Street to fuel price demonstrations in Jakarta. The 2011 popular revolts that toppled four Arab autocrats grabbed the headlines and provided drama.

The 2010s ended with similar drama. Protests in Chile resulted in a vote for a new constitution. A coalition of opposition parties challenged the legitimacy of the Pakistani government. Racism and the killing of people of colour by police sparked massive protests in the United States not seen since the 1960s. And like ten years earlier, demonstrators toppled Arab leaders in Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon and Iraq, uncertain whether this would secure the aspired change.

The 2020s promise to be no different, nowhere more so than in the Middle East. A global public opinion survey conducted by Edelman, a US public relations firm, in the United States, Europe, and Asia showed a significant drop in trust in governments as a result of their handling of the coronavirus pandemic, resulting in the worst global economic downturn in decades. Saudi Arabia, alongside Japan, were the two countries that witnessed only a minimal drop.[i][1]

Nevertheless, global mismanagement of the pandemic has hit hard in countries that are wracked by war, like Syria and Libya, nations with perennially weak economies that host large refugee populations, such as Lebanon and Jordan, and Gulf states, which have seen energy prices tumble with prospects dim for a quick recovery of oil and gas markets. Shifts towards greater autocracy in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere bode ill at a time in which populations with a youth majority are not necessarily clamouring for greater freedom but are increasingly gloomy about governments’ ability to deliver jobs and other public goods.

Delivery was already a daunting task prior to the pandemic. The World Bank reported that the number of people living below a poverty line of US$1.90 a day in a region with the world’s highest youth unemployment had more than tripled from eight million in 2011 to 28 million in 2018 and that the extreme poverty rate had doubled from 3.8 per cent in 2015 to 7.2 per cent in 2018.[ii][2]

Facing significantly dimmed economic prospects, the region’s autocrats, including Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his UAE counterpart, Mohammed bin Zayed, have, nonetheless, so far relatively successfully managed the political and social environment they operate in, judging by the responses to recent public opinion polling.[iii][3]

Both men have to varying degrees replaced religion with nationalism as the ideology legitimising their rule and sought to ensure that various countries in the region broadly adhere to their worldview.

“I know that the Saudi government under MbS (Prince Mohammed) has put in a lot of effort to actually do its own public opinion polls… They pay attention to it… They are very well aware of which way the winds are blowing on the street. They take that pretty much to heart on what to do and what not to do… On some issues, they are going to make a kind of executive decision… On this one, we’re going to ignore it; on the other one we’re going to…try to curry favour with the public in some unexpected way,” said David Pollock, a Middle East scholar who oversees the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s polling in the region.[iv][4]

The two crown princes’ similar worldviews constitute in part a response to changing youth attitudes towards religiosity evident in the polls and expressed in mass anti-government protests in countries like Lebanon and Iraq. The changes attach greater importance to adherence to individual morals and values and less focus on the formalistic observance of religious practice as well as a rejection of the sectarianism that is a fixture of governance in Lebanon and Iraq as well as Saudi religious ultra-conservatism.

The problem for rulers is that the moorings of their rule potentially could be called into question by a failure to deliver public goods and services that offer economic prospects. At the same time, social reforms needed to bolster development go hand in hand with the undermining of the authority of religious establishments. Increased autocracy that turns clerics and scholars into regime parrots has fuelled youth scepticism not only towards political elites but also religious institutions.

For rulers like the Saudi crown prince, the loosening of social restrictions – including the disempowerment of the kingdom’s religious police, the lifting of a ban on women’s driving, less strict implementation of gender segregation, the introduction of Western-style entertainment and greater professional opportunities for women, and in the UAE a degree of genuine religious pluralism – are only first steps in responding to youth aspirations.

“Youth have…witnessed how religious figures, who still remain influential in many Arab societies, can sometimes give in to change even if they have resisted it initially. This not only feeds into Arab youth’s scepticism towards religious institutions but also further highlights the inconsistency of the religious discourse and its inability to provide timely explanation or justifications to the changing reality of today,” said Gulf scholar Eman Alhussein in a commentary on the latest Arab Youth Survey,[v][5]

Youth put a premium on reform

Middle Eastern youth attitudes towards religion, religiosity and religious leadership mirror their approach towards material concerns. Their world is one that focuses on the individual rather than the collective, on what’s in it for me? instead of what’s in it for us?. It is a world that is not defined by ideology or politics and does not see itself reflected in the values and objectives espoused by elites and governments. In their world, the lingua franca differs substantially from the language they were raised in.

Two-thirds of those polled by the Arab Youth Survey believe that religious institutions need to be overhauled. They question fundamental religious concepts even if they define religion as the most important constituent element of their identity. “The way some Arab countries consume religion in the political discourse, which is further amplified on social media, is no longer deceptive to the youth, who can now see through it,” Alhussein said.[vi][6]

“Arabs know what they want and what they do not want. They want their basic needs for jobs, education, and health care to be attended to, and they want good governance and protection of their personal rights,” concluded James Zogby an Arab-American pollster with a decades-long track record of polling in the Middle East and North Africa.[vii][7]

Michael Robbins, director of the Arab Barometer, another pollster, and international affairs scholar Lawrence Rubin concluded that the youth in post-revolt Sudan had soured on the idea of religion-based governance because of widespread corruption during the region of toppled president Omar Al-Bashir, who professed his adherence to religious principles. Robbins and Rubin cautioned, however, that religion could return as the catalyst for protest if the government fails to cater to youth aspirations.

“If the transitional government can deliver on providing basic services to the country’s citizens and tackling corruption, the formal shift away from Sharia is likely to be acceptable in the eyes of the public. However, if these problems remain, a new set of religious leaders may be able to galvanize a movement aimed at reinstituting Sharia as a means to achieve these objectives,” Robbins and Rubin warned.[viii][8] It is a warning that is as valid for Sudan as it is for much of the Arab and Muslim world.

Saudis empathetic to protests

Asked in a recent poll conducted by The Washington Institute whether “it’s a good thing we aren’t having big street demonstrations here now the way they do in some other countries,” a reference to the past decade of popular revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq and Sudan, Saudi public opinion was split down the middle. 48 per cent of respondents agreed, and 48 per cent disagreed.[ix][9] Saudis, like most Gulf Arabs, appear less inclined to take grievances to the streets. Nonetheless, the poll indicates that they may prove to be empathetic to protests should they occur.

Saudi attitudes towards protest take on added significance in an environment in which governments in the energy-rich Gulf have seen their ability erode to invest in infrastructure and cradle-to-grave welfare states. The need to diversify economies away from dependence on oil and gas exports to create jobs against the backdrop of depressed energy prices and markets as a result of the global economic downturn means changing expectations and rewriting social contracts that offered economic security and well-being in exchange for the surrender of political and social rights. In May 2020, The Dubai Chamber of Commerce provided a foretaste of problems to come. Based on a survey of 1,228 CEOs, the chamber warned that a staggering 70 per cent of businesses in the emirate expect to close their doors within the next six months.[x][10] Analysts added to the gloomy prospects by reporting that non-oil growth in the UAE pointed toward a contraction of the economy.[xi][11]

The challenges Gulf and other Middle Eastern states face are compounded by the pandemic and a painful, protracted and complex road towards economic recovery, coupled with the toll of debilitating regional conflicts. They are also complicated by an apparent conditional willingness to accept belt-tightening and the unilateral rewriting of social contracts.

“If it’s temporary, one or two years, I can adapt. My concern is that more taxes will be permanent – and that will be an issue,” said Saudi government worker Mohammed according to a report by Bloomberg after his USD 266 a month cost-of-living allowance was cancelled and sales taxes were tripled as part of painful austerity measures announced by finance minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan.[xii][12]

Mohammed’s words were echoed in a rare pushback against the government by columnist Khalid Al-Sulaiman, writing in the Okaz daily newspaper, one of the kingdom’s tightly controlled media outlets, who wrote: “Citizens worry that the pressure on their living standards will outlast the current crisis. Increasing VAT from 5% to 15% will have a big effect on society’s purchasing power and will reflect negatively on the economy in the long term,”[xiii][13]

The surveys leave no doubt that even before the economic crisis sparked by the 2020 coronavirus pandemic the Middle Eastern youth was first and foremost concerned about its economic future. Asked what had prompted the wave of protests in 2011, 2019 and 2020, respondents pointed to unemployment, personal debt and corruption. 35 per cent of those polled in the latest Arab Youth Survey reported that they were mired in debt compared with 15 per cent in 2015.[xiv][14] A whopping 80 per cent said they believed Arab regimes were corrupt.

“This evinces a realization that the past decade of revolutions has borne rather bitter fruit: civil war, humanitarian distress, the rise of powerful extremist elements, and the collapse of governing restraints… Today, rather than seeking to change the world, most Arabs (especially the younger generation) demonstrate that mere improvements in their material condition would suffice,” said Middle East scholar Michael Milstein.[xv][15]

Voting with their feet

If the surveys suggest one thing, the streets of Algerian, Sudanese, Lebanese and Iraqi cities suggest something else.[xvi][16] Protesters in those four countries appeared to have learnt lessons from the failed 2011 revolts in Egypt, Libya and Yemen. In contrast to 2011, protesters in 2019 and 2020 refused to surrender the street once a leader was forced to resign. Instead, they maintained their protests, demanding a total overhaul of the political system,[xvii][17] which led to the formation of a governing transitional council in Sudan and a referendum on a new Algerian constitution.

Feeling outmanoeuvred by the military and political elites, Algerians voted with their feet. While the new constitution won in the referendum with a two-thirds majority, less than a quarter of eligible voters cast their vote.[xviii][18] “Algerian youths do not see the ‘New Algeria’ that lives in the president’s speeches. Activists are jailed for social media posts and memes, and the entire nation feels abandoned by both the political establishment and the traditional opposition,” cautioned Algerian scholar Zine Labidine Ghebouli.[xix][19] In Sudan, the jury is still out on whether the council will satisfy popular demand. In Lebanon and Iraq, the protesters also insisted on the removal of the sect- and ethnic-based political structures that underpin the two countries’ political systems.[xx][20]

Like in Algeria, protesters in Lebanon and Iraq confronting police violence and the impact of the pandemic was at an inflexion point. That was graphically visualised in late October 2020 with the reopening of a key bridge in Baghdad and the clearing out of tents from a sit-in in Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the anti-establishment protest movement that erupted a year ago to demand basic services, employment opportunities and an end to corruption.[xxi][21]

Few doubt that the combination of repressive law enforcement, politics rather than engagement and a public health crisis at best buys elites a reprieve. The writing is on the wall, with intermittent protests erupting in Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Iran and war-ravaged Syria. “For political transformation to happen, you need a generation,” noted Lina Khatib, head of London-based think tank Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa programme.[xxii][22]

The question is not whether another wave of protest will occur, but when and where.

“The most dangerous people in any society: “When you look at the poor economic growth, when you look at the very high demographic growth, what you see is a region that has a lot of challenges ahead of it. There are very few things that are true for every country in the world. But one of those is that the most dangerous people in any society are young men. Testosterone is a hell of a drug. There are lots of young men in this part of the world that don’t have avenues to channel their innate aggression into productive, constructive forms. They are attracted to destructive avenues,” said former CIA acting director Michael Morell.[xxiii][23]

“The essential situation is that this mass of citizens has reached the point of discontent but (of) desperation and therefore has done the only thing it sees as available to it other than immigrate, which is challenging their state openly in street protests. Something has to give between these two forces,” added veteran journalist and Middle East scholar Rami Khouri.[xxiv][24]

Give and take seems, however, for now, a way off. The immediate reality is a stalemate. Protesters have demonstrated their ability to topple heads of government but have so far failed to force elites, determined to protect their perks at whatever cost, to address their fundamental concerns, let alone surrender power. Aggravating the stalemate is the breakdown in trust between significant segments of youth populations and governments as well as traditional opposition forces fuelling demands for reforms that replace existing elites rather than exploring ways of finding common ground.

“Arab governments’ long suppression of the development of inclusive, democratic, and effective institutions has left a vacuum of leadership among regime and opposition forces alike. That vacuum is acutely felt today… with no trusted institution in the region who could carry out people’s rightful demands for more effective management of their countries, the endgame is unclear,” said Marwan Muasher, Vice President for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former Deputy Prime Minister of Jordan.[xxv][25]

In a swath of land that stretches from the Atlantic coast of Africa into Central Asia, trends and developments no longer are sub-regional. They reverberate across what increasingly looks like the Middle East’s expanding borderlands as was evident in the 2020 Caucasus war between Armenia and Turkey- and Israel-backed Azerbaijan with Iran walking a fine line despite its empathy for the Armenians. Russian security forces and analysts predict that the fallout of the war is likely to compound a combustuous mix that will spark social unrest in the North Caucasus.

Aslan Bakov, a prominent political analyst from the Kabardino-Balkaria region, warned that Muslim civil society groups were likely to lead anti-Russian protests, taking local authorities as well as the government in Moscow to task for mismanaging the pandemic and reducing financial support of the North Caucasus. As a result, the region suffered a higher Covid-19 related death rate per capita of the population and has seen employment rates soar as high as 40 per cent. Muslim non-governmental organizations have stepped in where increasingly authoritarian local governments have failed to deliver, fuelling widespread lack of confidence in state authority. Describing the situation as “ideal conditions for a social explosion,” Baskov cautioned that the unrest could escalate into ethnic and border conflicts in a region in which frontiers have yet to be definitively demarcated.[xxvi][26]

A catalyst for reinvigorated protest?

Much like US President Jimmy Carter’s support for human rights in the 1970s boosted popular resistance to the Shah of Iran and helped pave the way for the Islamic revolution,[xxvii][27] President-elect Joe Biden, with his emphasis on democratic values and freedoms,[xxviii][28] could contribute to renewed public manifestations of widespread discontent and demands for greater transparency and accountability in the Middle East and North Africa.

Supporters of a human rights-driven foreign policy juxtapose the emergence of an anti-American regime in Iran with the rise of post-revolt democratic leaders in Chile, the Philippines and South Korea. US President Barack Obama and his Vice-President Biden struggled almost a decade ago with how to handle the 2011 popular revolts.

Critics accuse Obama of enabling the Muslim Brotherhood to gain executive power in the aftermath of the revolts. The rise of the Brotherhood sparked a counter-revolution that led to a military coup in Egypt and civil wars in Libya, Syria and Yemen.

“The cases of Chile, South Korea, and the Philippines, along with a few others, are often cited…by foreign policy elites arguing that American human rights advocacy needn’t come at the expense of American interests. And yet, as we can see in…harsh Monday-morning quarterbacking of Obama’s policy toward the Egyptian uprising against Mubarak, for example, this argument still faces a steep uphill climb,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, a Middle East scholar who coordinated US democracy and human rights policy as the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. Cofman Wittes was referring to Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian leader who was forced to resign in 2011 after 30 years in office.

Biden has pledged to “defend the rights of activists, political dissidents, and journalists around the world to speak their minds freely without fear of persecution and violence. Jamal’s death will not be in vain.” Biden was referring to Khashoggi, the murdered Saudi journalist.[xxix][29] Biden has also said he would convene a global Summit for Democracy in his first year in office as part of an effort to confront authoritarian regimes and promote elections and human rights. The summit would be attended not only by political leaders but also including civil rights groups fighting for democracy.[xxx][30]

Campaign promises are one thing, enacting policies once in office another. As a result, the jury is out on how a Biden administration will handle potentially sustained protest in the Middle East and North Africa. To be sure, taken together the most recent surveys of public opinion paint a picture of a youth that has shifted in much of the region from optimism at the time of the 2011 revolts to deep-seated pessimism if not despair about its future prospects and a lack of confidence in the ability and/or willingness of most governments and elites to cater to its social and economic needs. That makes predictions of civil unrest all the more real.

Fact is also that the lesson of the last decade for the coming one is that political transition sparked by waves of protest is not a matter of days, months or even a year. It is a long, drawn-out process that often plays out over decades. 2011 ushered in a global era of defiance and dissent, with the Arab uprisings as its most dramatic centrepiece.

The 2020s is likely to be a decade in which protests may produce at best uncertain and fragile outcomes, irrespective of whether protesters or vested interests gain an immediate upper hand. Fragility at best and instability at worst is likely to be the norm. To change that, protesters and governments would have to agree on economic, political and social systems that are truly inclusive and ensure that all have a stake. No doubt, that is a tall order.

Author’s note: An earlier version of this article appeared in Orient.


[i] [1] Edelman, 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, January 2021, https://www.edelman.com/sites/g/files/aatuss191/files/2021-01/2021-edelman-trust-barometer.pdf

[ii] [2] World Bank Group, Poverty and Shared Prosperity  2020: Reversals of Fortune, 2020, https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/bitstream/handle/10986/34496/9781464816024.pdf

[iii] [3] ASDA’A BCW, Arab Youth Survey, 2020; Arab Center Washington. https://www.arabyouthsurvey.com/findings.html / Arab Opinion Index 2017-2018, 2018, http://arabcenterdc.org/survey/2017-2018-arab-opinion-index-executive-summary/

[iv] [4] Interview with the author, 14 October 2020.

[v] [5] ASDA’A BCW, A Voice for Change, 2020, 2020, p. 44, https://www.arabyouthsurvey.com/pdf/downloadwhitepaper/AYS%202020-WP_ENG_0510_Single-Final.pdf

[vi] [6] Ibid.

[vii] [7] Interview with the author, 24 August 2020.

[viii] [8] Michael Robbins and Lawrence Rubin, Sudan’s government seems to be shifting away from Islamic law. Not everyone supports these moves, 27 August 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/08/27/sudans-government-seems-be-shifting-away-sharia-law-not-everyone-supports-these-moves/

[ix] [9] David Pollock, Saudi Poll: China Leads U.S.; Majority Back Curbs on Extremism, Coronavirus, 31 July 2020, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/fikraforum/view/saudi-poll-china-leads-u.s-majority-back-curbs-on-extremism-coronavirus

[x] [10] Natasha Turak, 70% of Dubai companies expect to go out of business within six months due to coronavirus pandemic, survey says, 21 May 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/05/21/coronavirus-dubai-70percent-of-companies-expect-to-close-in-six-months.html

[xi] [11] Al Jazeera, Egypt and Saudi business conditions improve, while UAE’s worsen, 3 November 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/11/3/bbegypt-and-saudi-business-conditions-improves-while-uaes-wors

[xii] [12] Vivian Nereim and Sylvia Westall, Crisis Austerity in Oil-Rich Gulf May Test Political Balance, 2020.

[xiii] [13] Khalid Al-Sulaiman, Will the Finance Minister Do It?  (هل يفعلها وزير المالية ؟!), Okaz, 1 September 2020, https://www.okaz.com.sa/articles/authors/2026288, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-06-03/austerity-experiment-in-oil-rich-gulf-may-falter-post-crisis?sref=3XwG50X1

[xiv] [14] ASDA’A BCW, 7th Annual ASDA’A Burson-Masteller Arab Youth Survey, 2015, http://arabyouthsurvey.com/pdf/whitepaper/en/2015-AYS-White-Paper.pdf

[xv] [15] Michael Milstein, Ten Years Since the ‘Arab Spring’: Despair Has Not Become More Comfortable, 27 October 2020, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/fikraforum/view/arab-spring-despair-comfortable

[xvi] [16] James M. Dorsey, The Tumultuous Decade: Arab Public Opinion and the Upheavals of 2010–2019, 2020, New Books Network, 5 September 2020, https://mideastsoccer.blogspot.com/2020/09/the-tumultuous-decade-arab-public.html

[xvii] [17] James M. Dorsey, 2019 was a decade of defiance and dissent. The 2020s are likely to be no different, 1 January 2020, https://mideastsoccer.blogspot.com/2020/01/2019-was-decade-of-defiance-and-dissent.html

[xviii] [18] Al Jazeera, Algerians back constitutional reforms amid low voter turnout, 2 November 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/11/2/low-voter-turnout-hits-algeria-referendum-amid-boycott-calls.

[xix] [19] Zine Labidine Ghebouli, Requiem for a Revolution, , Newlines Magazine, 1 November 2020, https://newlinesmag.com/essays/requiem-for-a-revolution/

[xx] [20] James M. Dorsey, Countering civilisationalism: Lebanese and Iraqi protesters transcend sectarianism, 1 November 2019, https://mideastsoccer.blogspot.com/2019/11/countering-civilisationalism-lebanese.html

[xxi] [21] Al Jazeera, Baghdad’s Tahrir Square cleared, Jamhuriya Bridge reopened, 31 October 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/10/31/iraq-clears-tahrir-square-a-year-after-mass-protests-began

[xxii] [22] Jared Malsin, Middle East Protesters Try to Avoid Mistakes of Arab Spring, 2020.

[xxiii] [23] CBS News, Biggest factor in U.S.-Middle East relations is perception that U.S. is withdrawing, 6 January 2021, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/biggest-factor-in-u-s-middle-east-relations-is-perception-that-u-s-is-withdrawing/

[xxiv] [24] Wilson Center, Ten Years of Pan-Arab Protests: Understanding the new Dynamics of Change, The Wall Street Journal. 20 January 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/middle-east-protesters-try-to-avoid-mistakes-of-arab-spring-11579530280

[xxv] [25] Marwan Muasher, Is This the Arab Spring 2.0?, 30 October 2019, https://carnegieendowment.org/2019/10/30/is-this-arab-spring-2.0-pub-80220

[xxvi] [26] Paul Goble, Year 2020 in Review: Pandemic Exacerbated Problems Across North Caucasus and Set Stage for More Conflict, Eurasia Daily Monitor, 5 January 2021, https://jamestown.org/program/year-2020-in-review-pandemic-exacerbated-problems-across-north-caucasus-and-set-stage-for-more-conflict/

[xxvii] [27] Tamara Cofman Wittes, Iran’s revolution and the problem of autocratic allies, Brookings, 24 January 2019, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2019/01/24/irans-revolution-and-the-problem-of-autocratic-allies/

[xxviii] [28] Joss Harrison, There are signs that as president, Joe Biden could adopt a proactive human rights approach similar to Jimmy Carter’s, LSE US Centre, 3 July 2020, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/usappblog/2020/07/03/there-are-signs-that-as-president-joe-biden-could-adopt-a-proactive-human-rights-approach-similar-to-jimmy-carters/

[xxix] [29] JoeBiden.com,  Anniversary of Jamal Khashoggi’s Murder – Statement by Vice President Joe Biden, 2 October 2020, https://joebiden.com/2020/10/02/anniversary-of-jamal-khashoggis-murder-statement-by-vice-president-joe-biden/#

[xxx] [30] JoeBiden.com, The Power of America’s Example: The Biden Plan for Leading the Democratic World to Meet the Challenges of the 21st Century, Undated, https://joebiden.com/americanleadership/

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Reigniting Chaos in Syria

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Syria has been the nexus of brutality and terror for almost a decade now; with more than 6 million natives who have already fled and numerous displaced over the territory itself, the region casts a ghastly shade that has only turned grimmer with time. Although the conflict seemingly raved its catastrophic footprint in early 2000, the root cause arguably always ends up to be the infamous ‘Arab Spring’ that actually tuned the Syrians against their very own regime. Something to compare and contrast that communal unity acted in Iraq’s benefit back when USA invaded the territory to avenge the 9/11 Attacks in 2003 while casted a fiasco in Syria when invaded in 2014. Large scale protests and rampaging violence gradually morphed into a series of relentless efforts to first deter Bashar Al-Asad’s efforts to first peacefully and then collaboratively resolving the raging unrest. Some would say it was inspired by the historical besiege of Libya and the subsequent execution of the Libyan prime minister Muammar al-Gaddafi as an ensue of that revolution yet Bashar Al-Asad proved a far more tensile force to overthrow. Such tumultuous turn of events, lead Syria to first economic sanctions followed by severe isolation in the global community opposing and downright rejecting Assad’s actions to curb the political tremors. Yet intermittent interventions, both implicit and explicit, by the western powers and their counter-parts have defined the region more as a battle ground of mercenary motives instead of mere efforts to safeguard human rights and ensuring regional peace.

Since 2011, three core actors have remained active in skirmishes that have more oftener than not transformed into battles of gore and toil and sometimes even full-fledged wars that have not only dismembered the expanse of over an 185,000 kmof land into mounds of dust and rubble with terror now crawling over the lanes but have even shuddered the immediate vicinity. With the downfall and perpetual dissipation of ISIS, losing much of its occupied land to active contenders, Assad’s militia and Kurdish forces remain the helming competitors along with a smattering of other oppositions like Jaish al Fateh and Nusrta Front. The conflict between the Kurdish forces backed by the US regime against ISIS and then eventual betrayal on the Turkish front had been a matter of contentions in the latter part of 2019; Kurds making it abundantly clear to harness the borders they surmise to be rightly theirs while Turkish policies, especially under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, have been outright fearless and needless of any other inference regarding their austere stance over the issue; claiming their bordering territories and inferring stern response in case of any dissension caused by the Kurds.

However, the outlining threat in the recent time can be perceived at a novel yet a totally realistic stage, where proxy wars no longer remain the ground reality of armed unrest in Syria. This notion has arisen since harsh words were exchanged between Moscow and Ankara; the metropolis’ of the neighbouring giants: Russia and Turkey respectively. A glimpse in the historical scaffolding of the entire Syrian conflict, Russia has always backed Assad’s regime despite its initial block over Syrian policies revolving over strategies to deal with the blooming protests in the early tremors of the Arab Spring who’s effects had started to resonate in the entire Middle East following up on Ground 0, Tunisia. The vantage point of Russia, however, shifted when the political paradigm was drastically nudged by the terror-driven escalation of ISIS after severe US blunders and baffling retreat from Syria that even threatened the sovereignty and security of the region following their besiege of the state of Raqqa, establishing ISIS as a looming concern, thereby aligning the aims of both Russian reign and Assad’s regime, ultimately inciting a continued alliance. Turkey, on the other hand, being the northern neighbour to Syria also contended as a root protagonist in economic isolation of Assad’s government, imposing stringent financial sanctions that tightened the bottlenecks and eventually led to the deterioration of their financial virility that already staggered after sanctions and embargos placed by both EU and USA.

This conflict that permeates in the north-western terrain of Syria lilts an innuendo that a spark may be brewing between the two nations. The besieged province of Idlib exudes the source of the strife; an area that has witnessed countless Turkish troops slain by Assad’s forces in cross-border disputes; close to seven Turkish soldiers were recently killed in a thorough retaliation of Syrian forces in the de-escalation zone, much to Turkey’s dismay. However, the Russian involvement in backing the Syrian government in their dissent in Idlib and heavily bombing of the territory with artillery servers as a link to presumably leading a head-on conflict between Russia and Turkey; hinted by Erdoğan that any effort made in the region will not go answered, clearly warning the Russian forces to avoid any transgression that could cause fatality to their personnel. The people of Syria, blended with the rebels, look in the eye of a dead end; bombardments to deter the tyrants have shredded their innocent bodies similar to the incursions in Eastern Ghouta and with no one on their side but with ulterior incentives, they are left with no choice but to see Turkey as a savior. To any sane mind, however, its not really a complex interface of modes and interests involved. With clash of alliances, historical narrative of both the world wars fought, coherently brings about the model of war despite a never-ending argument at whim. Without contesting any theory by any analyst, its imperative to gauge at the systematic progression of the tensions flowing yet not mitigating. Turkey being stranded from its western allies and Arab assistance in wake of the murder conspiracy and being locked in a bound-to-doom NATO relation with Russia, the outcome of this steady conflict can bring about equal amount of damage yet in lesser of a decade and more pandemic effects.

Recent Israeli airstrikes targeted the Iran-linked elements in Syria. One of the biggest attacks even in at least half a decade period of relative dormancy in the region hint at the start of something gruesome. The attacks pointed Iran-backed sites like Al-Bukamal in intensity, riddling the city that acts as a focal point to Iran’s influence over and beyond the borders of Baghdad and Damascus, as well as paving way to militants from the fore stretch of Lebanon. The attacks reportedly served as an active Israeli position against the Irani militants and revolutionary guards, casting a heavy presence in the core hit areas of the province of Dair al Zor, claiming 57 casualties. The attack assumes a step-up stance of Israel picking up from a cold targeted strike within Iran, months back, eliminating the crucial scientific figure of Iran, that earned promises of retaliation both from the military leads and the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

These attacks nurture an underlying message of Israel following on the shadow war footsteps dictated under the premiership of Mr. Donald Trump. Now, with his nefarious exit from the presidential office following the riots at US Capitol and Mr. Biden’s ascension to power just days away, Israel insinuates its true deterrence of Iran’s growing influence and hostility in the expansive areas of Southern, North-western and Eastern regions of Syria. With US intelligence cultivating the Israeli position in Syria while Iran enriching its plans of Nuclear power along with backing militias under the lead of Lebanese force of Hezbollah, a possibility of another proxy clash is re-emerging in the peripheries of Syria. Now as Israel continues to welcome Arab nations to set camp around Syria to end Tehran’s influence, US faces a tough choice in over a decade to either exit the war before it even flames or repeat their interference regretted since the Arab Spring to jump headfirst into another round of decade long destruction.

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Middle East

Post Trump Palestine

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Al-Walaja, a Palestinian village in the West Bank. Photo: UNRWA/Marwan Baghdadi

The unconditional United States’ political, financial and military support to Israel enabled the latter to occupy the Palestinian territories. The former became involved in Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an arbiter to resolve the issue. But the foreign policy of US has always remained tilt to Israeli interests. From recognizing Israel as sovereign state in 1947 to accepting Jerusalem as capital of Israel has clearly unearthed the biased attitude of US for Israel.

Similarly, Trump also adopted the traditional stance of Washington on Palestine, i.e. outright support for Israel. Trump’s policy regarding Israeli-Palestinian conflict was more aggressive but not in contradiction with his predecessors’. For instance, he brought into reality the law passed by US congress in 1995 that recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, shifted US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, closed office of Palestine Liberation Organization PLO in Washington DC in Sept 2018 and closed US consulate in East Jerusalem the area under Palestinian control. His bigotry against Palestinians unveiled more distinctly when he announced defunding of United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), the UN agency that provides food, education and healthcare to the refugees. Moreover during his regime in November 2018 the state department of US proclaimed that the construction of Israeli settlements in West Bank does not come under the ambit of violation of international humanitarian laws. Certainly, the belligerent policies in last four years of trump era paved the way for the colonization of Palestine by Israel and helped the latter to put unlawful restrictions on Palestinians making them deprived of all civil liberties and peace.

As per world report-2020by Human Rights Watch HRW, Palestinian citizens are restrained from all basic necessities of life such that, education, basic healthcare, clean water and electricity. The movement of people and goods to and from Gaza strip is also inhibited. According to World Health Organization WHO 34 percent of applications by Palestinians, for medical appointments outside Gaza strip, were not addressed by Israeli army. Moreover, HRW report states that the Israeli government destroyed 504 homes of Palestinians in West Bank during 2019 and facilitated 5995 housing settlements for Israelis. The country is trying at utmost to eradicate indigenous Palestinians from their home land. According to United Nations’ Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs UNOCHA, the demolitions of Palestinian homes displaced 642 people in 2019 and 472 in 2018.Moreover, the illicit attacks by Israeli side have killed hundreds of innocent citizens in the same years. According to UNOCHA on November 11, 2020, 71 innocent Palestinian citizens were killed by Israeli forces while 11,453 were lethally injured in a single day. Furthermore, UN secretary general exhorted that Israeli armed forces have infringed the children’s rights during the conflict as in 2018, 56 Palestinian children were killed by Israeli armed forces.

While, other international actors criticized the Israeli annexations of the region and declared it as violation of international humanitarian laws, US supported the Israeli escalations in West Bank. The former also stopped aid support through USAID for Gaza strip where eighty percent of population depends upon aid. Such partial attitude of US has put the country outside the international consensus on the issue. Apparently, US pretend its position as arbiter but her policies accredited the colonization of Palestine by Israel.

Thus, it seems futile to expect any big change in US policies regarding Israeli-Palestinian issue during forthcoming administrations. However, the president-elect Joe Bidden may alter some of the trump’s decisions such as reopening of Palestine Liberation Organization PLO in Washington, resuming funding of UNRWA and reopening of US consulate in East Jerusalem.  But his policies will not contradict the congress’ stance on the issue. As, he and his team have clearly mentioned prior to elections that they will not shift back the US embassy to Tel Aviv as it seems politically and practically insensible to them. Moreover, Blinken, the candidate for secretary of state in Joe’s upcoming regime, made it clear through his controversial statements, that the imminent president will inherit historic US position on Palestine-Israel dispute. Further, Chinese expansionism, Russian intervention in American and European affairs and Iran nuclear deal issue would remain the main concerns of foreign affairs of US during initial period of Joe Biden’s regime. He is likely to favor the status quo in Palestine and remain focused on other foreign interests. In addition to this the inclination of Arabian Gulf to develop relations with Israel will also hinder the adherence for Palestinians from the gulf countries. Subsequently, it will enable Israelis to continue seizing the Palestinian territories into Israel and leave indigenous Palestinians stateless in their own land.

Summing up, it is significant for Palestinians to continue their struggle for the homeland and seek support from other international actors to marginalize Israel’s annexation of Palestinian territories. As well as, the peace accord of 1993 signed in between both nations, to share the holy land, should also be revoked by both countries.  Both nations should try to resolve the issue on equitable grounds by negotiations so that either side could not be deprived of its interests.

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