If there is one theme, beyond corruption and a host of economic and social grievances, that have driven protests — large and small, local, sectoral and national – across the globe, it has been a call for dignity.
Reflecting a global breakdown in confidence in political systems and leadership, the quest for dignity and social justice links protests in Middle Eastern and North African countries like Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Algeria and Sudan to demonstrations in nations on multiple continents ranging from Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Haiti to France, Zimbabwe, Indonesia, Pakistan and Hong Kong.
The global protests amount to the latest phase of an era of defiance and dissent that erupted in 201l and unfolded most dramatically in the Middle East and North Africa with the toppling of the autocratic leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.
Of the four Arab nations, only Tunisia has produced a relatively successful transition from autocracy to a more democratic form of government.
Regional and domestic counterrevolutionary forces staged a military coup in 2013 to remove Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president from office, installing one of the country’s most brutal and repressive regime in its post-independence history.
Libya and Yemen are wracked by civil wars, fuelled by foreign intervention. Syria has been devastated by an almost nine-year long civil war between forces supported by outside forces that were determined at whatever cost to decide the fate of the country’s own popular revolt.
Like elsewhere in the region, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan used the 2013 Gezi Park protests, the largest anti-government demonstrations in the decade of his party’s rule, as well as a failed military coup in 2016, to reverse Turkish strides towards democracy and political pluralism.
The Middle East and North Africa’s retreat into more repressive authoritarianism and autocracy coupled with crackdowns of various sorts in Russia, China, Hong Kong, and Kazakhstan, to name just a few examples, has prompted analysts to wonder whether mass protest remains an effective way of achieving political change.
“Only 20 years ago, 70 percent of protests demanding systemic political change got it — a figure that had been growing steadily since the 1950s. In the mid-2000s, that trend suddenly reversed. Worldwide, protesters’ success rate has since plummeted to only 30 percent,” concluded New York Times journalists Max Fisher and Amanda Taub in a column exploring the roots of the current wave of discontent.
Mr. Fisher and Ms. Taub base their conclusion on a study by political scientist Erica Chenoweth that suggests that illiberals, authoritarians and autocrats have become more adept at thwarting protest using what she terms “smart repression.”
Yet, “smart repression” that involves in Ms. Chenoweth’s definitions efforts to ensure the loyalty of elites; greater brutality and violence by security and paramilitary proxies; enhanced censorship and criminalization of dissent; and depicting revolts as foreign-inspired conspiracies and forms of terrorism is at best an upgraded version of standard authoritarian and autocratic responses.
It’s hard to describe what is smart or more sophisticated about the repression involved in the military coup in Egypt and its immediate aftermath in which more than 1,000 people were killed; the arbitrary detentions of prominent businessmen, members of the ruling in family, religious figures and activists in what amounted to a power grab by Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman; the mass detention of an estimated one million Turkic Muslims in re-education camps in China’s troubled, north-western province of Xinjiang; or the arrests of tens of thousands in countries like Turkey and Egypt.
What may provide a better explanation of the reduced effectiveness of protest may be the fact that for the first time since World War Two, the number of countries moving toward authoritarianism exceeds the number moving toward democracy as a result of what political scientists Anna Luehrmann and Staffan Lindberg have dubbed “a third wave of autocratization.”
Underlying that wave is the rise of a critical mass of world leaders that share a belief in illiberal, authoritarian and autocratic principles of governance and disregard human and minority rights in favour of a supremacist endorsement of the rights of an ethnic or religious group.
The rise of those leaders is in many ways the flip side of the protests. They often are political outsiders, men who may or may not be part of the elite like Donald J, Trump in the United States, Victor Orban in Hungary, Narendra Modi in India, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines but project themselves as forces of change that will tackle the elites’ grip on power.
Aspects of their civilisationalism and reactionary nationalism has empowered and is supported to varying degrees by often opposed political forces that include far-right, anti-migrant and supremacist ethnic and religious groups as well as popular leftists, including some of the Democratic Party presidential candidates in the United States.
The result is a potential vicious circle in which civilizational attitudes, increasingly restricted democratic rights and greater repression marginalize ever more societal groups including significant segments of the middle class as well as minorities, who like in the case of Hong Kong, Iraq, Sudan or the Rohingya, see their resilience hardened by perceptions of having northing more to lose. Violence on all sides of the divide increases with the risk of militants having a greater appeal.
The conclusions of Ms. Chenoweth, Ms. Luehrmann and Mr. Lindberg would bear that out. If protest is people’s only peaceful alternative in response to unresponsive governments and political forces, undermining the protests’ effectiveness narrows the choices to affect change.
From that perspective, the scholars conclusions would amount to a contemporary adaptation of writer George Orwell’s 1944 assertion that “all revolutions are failures, but they are not all the same failure.”
However, that may be prematurely jumping to conclusions despite what the scholars project trends.
To be sure, the jury is still out on whether the revolts in Tunisia and Sudan will produce enduring political change.
But eight years on from the Arab revolts in 2011, protesters. determined to secure recognition and their place in society, underline lessons learnt by no longer declaring victory once a leader is forced to make concessions or resign as in Algeria and Sudan and by transcending easily exploitable sectarian ethnic and religious divides like in Iraq and Lebanon, a mosaic of 18 carefully balanced sectarian groups.
Said Middle East scholar Hanin Ghaddar: “For the first time in a long time, Lebanese have realized that the enemy is within—it is their own government and political leaders—not an outside occupier or regional influencer… Political leaders have been unable to control the course of the protests, which are taking place across all sects and across all regions… What brought them together is an ongoing economic crisis that has hurt people from all sects and regions.”
The realization that street power needs to be sustained until the modalities of transition are in place is key to enhancing the chances of protest retaining its effectiveness.
The future of protest as an effective tool depends similarly on perceptions of a common interest that transcends sect, ethnicity and class becoming part of the fabric of society.
Ukraine crisis could produce an unexpected winner: Iran
Iran potentially could emerge as an unintended winner in the escalating crisis over Ukraine. That is, if Russian troops cross the Ukrainian border and talks in Vienna to revive the 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement fail.
An imposition of tough US and European sanctions in response to any Russian incursion in Ukraine could likely make Russia more inclined to ignore the fallout of violating US sanctions n its dealings with Iran.
By the same token, a failure of the talks between Iran and the United States, Russia, China, the European Union, France, Germany, and Britain to revive the accord that curbed the Islamic republic’s nuclear program would drive Iran closer to Russia and China in its effort to offset crippling US sanctions.
US and European officials have warned that time is running out on the possibility of reviving the agreement from which the United States under then-President Donald J. Trump withdrew in 2018.
The officials said Iran was weeks away from acquiring the know-how and capability to produce enough nuclear fuel for a bomb quickly. That, officials suggested, would mean that a new agreement would have to be negotiated, something Iran has rejected.
No doubt, that was in the back of the minds of Russian and Iranian leaders when they met last week during a visit to Moscow by Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi. It was the first meeting between the leaders of Russia and Iran in five years.
To be sure, the road to increased Russian trade, energy cooperation, and military sales would open with harsh newly imposed US sanctions against Russia even if restrictions on Iran would remain in place.
That does not mean that the road would be obstacle-free. Mr. Putin would still have to balance relations with Iran with Russia’s ties to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
If anything, Russia’s balancing act, like that of China, has become more complicated without the Ukraine and Vienna variables as Iranian-backed Houthis expand the seven-year-long Yemen war with drone and missile strikes against targets in the UAE.
The Houthis struck as the Russian, Chinese and Iranian navies started their third joint exercises since 2019 in the northern Indian Ocean. The two events were not related.
“The purpose of this drill is to strengthen security and its foundations in the region, and to expand multilateral cooperation between the three countries to jointly support world peace, maritime security and create a maritime community with a common future,” Iranian Rear Admiral Mostafa Tajoldini told state tv.
US dithering over its commitments to security in the Gulf has persuaded Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE to hedge their bets and diversify the nature of their relations with major external powers.
However, a Russia and potentially a China that no longer are worried about the fallout of violating US sanctions against Iran could put Riyadh and Abu Dhabi on notice that the two US rivals may not be more reliable or committed to ensuring security in the Gulf. So far, neither Russia nor China have indicated an interest in stepping into US shoes.
This leaves Saudi Arabia and the UAE with few good choices if Russia feels that US sanctions are no longer an obstacle in its dealings with Iran.
Russia is believed to want the Vienna talks to succeed but at the same time has supported Iranian demands for guarantees that the United States would not walk away from a revived deal like it did in 2018.
Against the backdrop of talk about a proposed 20-year cooperation agreement between the two countries, Russia appears to want to negotiate a free trade agreement between Iran and the Eurasian Economic Union that groups Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, alongside Russia.
Iran has signed a similar 25-year cooperation agreement with China that largely remains a statement of intent at best rather than an action plan that is being implemented.
Like in the case of China, the draft agreement with Russia appears to have been an Iranian rather than a Russian initiative. It would demonstrate that Iran is less isolated than the United States would like it to be and that the impact of US sanctions can be softened.
“We have a document on bilateral strategic cooperation, which may determine our future relations for the next 20 years. At any rate, it can explain our prospects,” Mr. Raisi said as he went into his talks with Mr. Putin.
For now, Mr. Raisi’s discussions in Moscow appear to have produced more lofty prospects than concrete deals.
Media speculation that Russia would be willing to sell Iran up to US10 billion in arms, including Su-35 fighter jets and S-400 anti-missile defense systems, appear to have remained just that, speculation. Saudi Arabia and the UAE would view the sale to Iran of such weapons as particularly troublesome.
By the same token, Iranian officials, including Finance Minister Ehsan Khanduzi and Oil Minister Javad Owji, spoke of agreements signed during the Moscow visit that would revive a US$5 billion Russian credit line that has been in the pipeline for years and produce unspecified energy projects.
“It’s unclear if these are new projects or ones that have been previously discussed and even agreed to, such as the one Lukoil stopped working on in 2018 after the US pulled out… Lukoil was concerned about being targeted by US sanctions,” said international affairs scholar Mark N. Katz.
Theoretically, the dynamics of the Ukraine crisis and the prospects of failed Vienna talks could mean that a long-term Russian Iranian cooperation agreement could get legs quicker than its Chinese Iranian counterpart.
Negotiating with a Russia heavily sanctioned by the United States and Europe in an escalated crisis in Ukraine could level the playing field as both parties, rather than just Iran, would be hampered by Western punitive measures.
Tehran-based Iranian scholar and political analyst Sadegh Zibakalam suggested that it was time for the regime to retire the 43-year-old Iranian revolution’s slogan of “neither East nor West.” The slogan is commemorated in a plaque at the Foreign Ministry.
Asserting that Iran has long not adhered to the motto, Mr. Zibakalam suggested that the plaque be removed and stored in the basement of a hardline Tehran newspaper. “It has not been used for a long time and should be taken down,” he tweeted.
Unified Libya will come only via ballot box, ‘not the gun’-UNSC
Libya is at a “delicate and fragile juncture in its path to unity and stability”, the UN Political Affairs chief told the Security Council on Monday, urging the international community to remain united in supporting national elections postponed last month.
In welcoming positive developments across three different tracks of intra-Libyan dialogue, Rosemary A. DiCarlo, Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, also recognized the challenges that must be overcome.
“So many Libyans have told us, the way towards a stable and united Libya is through the ballot box, not the gun”, she said. “We must stand with them”.
Growing polarization among political actors, and disputes over key aspects of the electoral process, led to the postponement of long anticipated elections on 24 December.
The High National Commission for Elections (HNEC) cited shortcomings in the legal framework along with political and security concerns. To address this, the House of Representatives has established a Roadmap Committee to chart a new political path that defines an elections timetable and process.
New Special Adviser
To date, she has undertaken wide-ranging consultations, including with members of the Government of National Unity (GNU), the High National Election Commission, the House of Representatives, and candidates for presidential and parliamentary elections.
Oil-rich Libya has descended into multiple crises since the overthrow of former rule Muammar Gadaffi in 2011, which in recent years saw the country divided between rival administrations – a UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) based in the capital Tripoli, and that of the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), led by General Khalifa Haftar.
Ms. Williams has reiterated that the focus of the political process now, should remain on holding “free, fair, inclusive and credible national elections” in the shortest possible timeframe.
“In all her meetings, the Special Adviser highlighted the 2.8 million Libyans who have registered to vote”, said Ms. DiCarlo, adding that she also called on everyone to respect the will of the Libyan people and to adhere to the timeline agreed to in the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) roadmap, which was endorsed by the Security Council.
The UN political affairs chief said ongoing dialogue among political, security and economic actors from across the country was key.
“We have seen reports of consultations between the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President of the High State Council, as well as among presidential candidates from western and eastern Libya”, she said.
On the security track, there have been meetings among various armed groups, as well as the Chief of General Staff of the Western Military Forces under the GNU and the acting General Commander of the rival LNA, with the participation of military chiefs and heads of military departments from both sides.
Turning to the economy, further steps have been taken to reunify the Central Bank of Libya.
Moreover, renewed efforts continue to advance national reconciliation based on the principles of transitional justice.
While the ceasefire has continued to hold, “political uncertainty in the run up to the elections has negatively impacted the overall security situation”, the political chief informed the Council, including in Tripoli.
It has resulted in shifting alliances among armed groups affiliated with certain presidential candidates, she added.
Similarly, unfulfilled demands made to the GNU by the Petroleum Facilities Guards (PFG) in western Libya resulted in the shutdown of oil production, causing the National Oil Corporation to declare in December, force majeure – a clause that removes liability for natural and unavoidable catastrophes.
Following negotiations between the PFG and the GNU, Oil production was restored on 9 January.
To implement the ceasefire agreement, last month military representatives from opposing sides, called the 5+5 Libyan Joint Military Commission (JMC), discussed with Turkish and Russian authorities, an Action Plan to gradually withdrawal mercenaries and foreign fighters from the country.
At the same time, despite serious logistical and security challenges, the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) continued its work to establish a ceasefire monitoring hub in Sirte, pending the GNU’s approval on accommodation and office facilities.
Human rights concerns
“The human rights situation in Libya remains very worrying”, said Ms. DiCarlo, noting “documented incidents of elections-related violence and attacks based on political affiliation”, which she described as obstacles toward a conducive environment for free, fair, peaceful and credible elections.
“We are particularly concerned that women and men working to protect and promote women’s rights continued to be targeted by hate speech, defamation and incitement to violence”, she stated. “Some of the disturbing social media posts that posed a threat to the safety and security of these persons were removed after UNSMIL brought them to the attention of social media platforms”.
Meanwhile, arbitrary detention by State and non-State actors continued across the country, with many detainees subjected to serious rights abuses.
The situation of migrants and refugees is also highly concerning.
“Large numbers of migrants and refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea and returned to Libya continue to be detained in inhumane and degrading conditions with restricted humanitarian assistance. Thousands are unaccounted for”, the UN official said.
Ms. DiCarlo pointed out that hundreds of foreign nationals were expelled from Libya’s eastern and southern borders without due process, with some “placed in extremely vulnerable situations across remote stretches of the Sahara Desert without sufficient food, water, safety and medical care”.
“The United Nations remains ready to work with Libyan authorities on a long-term national response to migration and refugee management in line with international law to include addressing human rights concerns”, she assured.
To ensure political progress, Elham Saudi, Co-founder and Director of Lawyers for Justice in Libya, said that all who commit abuses must be held accountable, including mercenaries.
She noted that without law, revenge would be the only winner.
Ms. Saudi also maintained the importance of an enabling environment for all rights advocates, especially women, and expressed hopes for a human-rights based approach in how Libya is governed, going forward.
Embarking on Libya’s Noble Foray Into the Future
On Saturday the 22nd of January, activists from across the civil society spectrum in Libya gathered over Zoom with one purpose in mind; publicly declaring their support for the 1951 Libyan Independence Constitution. Despite the political turmoil which has engulfed the country since the Arab Spring began in Tunisia in 2011, a strong civil society movement which supports a return to our historical constitution, has always existed in Libya. These supporters, who represent a significant number of Libyans from across the country, see the restoration of the 1951 constitution as the only way to shape their future.
Libya has been through an immeasurable amount of internationally led initiatives, all aimed at providing Libya with long term “solutions”. Only over the course of the past decade, one can count the UN-brokered Skhirat agreement in December of 2015, the 2017 Paris meeting, the 2018 Palermo conference alongside Mohammed bin Zayed’s Abu Dhabi gathering in February 2019. Followed by Putin and Erdogan’s joint call for a ceasefire in 2020, alongside the first (2020) and second (2021) Berlin conferences alongside UN-sponsored talks in Geneva, each and every one of these efforts amounted to nothing.
The main reason behind these, perhaps well-intentioned but failed attempts, was the simple fact that none of these efforts had any grounding in Libyan history or the support of the Libyan people. Reaching consensus in a society as heavily divided as that of Libya, is a significant challenge. However, placing our faith in our history will undoubtedly provide us with a solution that is closer to the hearts of citizens of our nation and which has the potential to assist in competing factions finally putting their differences aside.
This was the catalyst of Saturday’s meeting which sought to once and for all provide an authentically Libyan solution to the issues which have been plaguing the country for over a decade. The first of these is the preservation of our territorial integrity which has for too long been challenged by foreign actors. It is high time that a long term resolution for our country’s ills is found that ensures the exclusion of foreign elements from shaping the future of our great land.
The second issue the gathering sought to underscore was the need to build an inclusive future for all members of Libyan society. For far too long, our country has excluded citizens of certain political persuasions, cultural backgrounds or those who hold different opinions. Every Libyan deserves equal opportunities, protection of basic rights alongside access to justice. This has been impossible in a country which for so long has lacked a cohesive national identity.
These two issues are indeed intertwined with the third issue which the conference sought to highlight, namely, our demand to return to constitutional legitimacy under the leadership of our Crown Prince Mohammed El Hasan el Rida el Senussi. As the sole heir to the throne of King Idris, passed down through the late Crown Prince Hassan, Prince Mohammad is the leader our country has yearned for.
With leadership claims grounded in historical fact that cannot be upended by foreign or domestic elements, from an ideological standpoint, Prince Mohammad serves as an anchor, offsetting challenges to stability posed by foreign elements. This is strengthened by his position as the scion of a family which has been in Libya for centuries and founded the Senoussia movement, briniging with it Islam, to the country. Furthermore, historical memories of the reign of King Idris, which saw religious tolerance, gender equality and security for its citizens, reflects the future which Libyan’s would like to see for themselves today.
Bringing together journalists, academics, human rights defenders and political activists, Saturday’s gathering was indeed revolutionary. It would have been unimaginable that such a gathering would even have taken place a mere decade ago. Representing not only themselves, but a wide range of segments of Libyan society, those attending over Zoom broadcasted a powerful message; a rejection of foreign attempts top shape the future of the country alongside a return to historical, constitutional, legitimacy under the leadership of the only man who can help Libya exit the current quagmire and begin its noble foray into the future.
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