22 March 2020

The Rise of Global Protests

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“Earlier this week, an iconic photo [taken by local photographer Lana Haroun] of a woman named Alaa Salah, a 22-year-old engineering and architecture student, addressing protesters from atop a car went viral.” From a Vox article, “The Women who helped bring down Sudan’s president.” “Earlier this week, an iconic photo [taken by local photographer Lana Haroun] of a woman named Alaa Salah, a 22-year-old engineering and architecture student, addressing protesters from atop a car went viral.” From a Vox article, “The Women who helped bring down Sudan’s president.” https://www.vox.com/world/2019/4/11/18305358/omar-al-bashir-sudan-president-military-coup-protests-women

First, a very belated wish: a peaceful and prosperous 2020 year to all! By “prosperous” I don’t only mean freedom from financial woes. I mean a deep sense of flourishing and thriving in your soul. You can find any number of signs around you pointing to this year as a harbinger of stress and grief -- and above all, being in the throes of the worst global pandemic in a century! No matter. God’s peace is yours to experience deep down in your inner person whatever the turmoil around you.

I spent many more hours than anticipated this past fall putting together a quranic Arabic course online for Fuller Seminary. The course finished this week and, thank God, it went well. Yet besides the two online classes I’m teaching (one was an in-class course before the COVID-19 outbreak), I should soon be able to start my new book project that was tentatively accepted for publication by Brill in its series “Theology and Mission in World Christianity” (thanks to Fuller’s Kirsteen Kim, co-editor of the series). It’s a departure for me – away from Islamic Studies – and on to theology of mission. The tentative title is, The City Where All May Flourish: Christians Engaging Global Currents of Humanitarian Activism and Solidarity.

I’ll refrain from giving any details about that now, but allow me to say that last year’s explosion of peaceful mass protests – in Hong Kong, Sudan before that; then in Algeria and now Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, and elsewhere – definitely caught my attention. In most cases, it is not primarily economic concerns that have propelled these crowds of people into the streets of their big cities, sacrificing pay checks and braving a police force that could turn violent quite easily. What they want above all is better governance, less corruption, more of a say in public policies, and yes – less inequality and more opportunity for all. But in most cases, the key gripe is about corrupt, authoritarian regimes run by the same elites since independence. Apparently, human flourishing cannot happen only on an individual level. It's also very much connected to community and governance.

I must say that the massive protests in France and even more so in Chile do have economic issues at core, and I agree with this article (English version) of the January Monde Diplomatique that there is wider and even global discontent with the prevailing model of neoliberalism, where the rich continue to get richer at the expense of the poor and wield almost command over the political levers in so many countries. It’s unmistakably a case of neocolonialism as well. As always, economics are tied to politics. So in 2019, protests became “the new normal.”


Protests in the Arab World

Now to the MENA region, where we see the poignant demands of protesters in Lebanon and Iraq for an end to sectarianism, which they rightly see as a direct sign of foreign interference manipulating their divided political elites. Demonstrators want the various political factions to play by the democratic rules and set up a government to respond to their needs and their perspective as citizens with equal rights and aspirations. The Iraqi situation is particularly tragic, as at least 500 mostly young male protesters have been killed in less than three months. A young scholar from Gaza now studying at New York University writes that it’s “the regional actors like the US, Iran, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states” that each ally themselves with this or that faction and expect loyalty in return. The result is that “Entire groups of Iraqi citizens were subsequently disenfranchised and pitted against each other, resulting in bloody civil wars.” They want their nation back. In the words of the Gazan scholar, Jehad Abousalim,


“These protests cannot be forgotten. As the world moves from one crisis to the next, the Arab world and wider region remain the beating heart of social movements fighting against the world’s oppressive structures. From the calls of “Bread, freedom, and social justice” during the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011, to the chants of “All of them means all of them” in Lebanon today, these movements are a reminder that oppressed peoples cannot give up their demands for far-reaching change.”


It is true that the Arab revolts of 2011, quickly dubbed “the Arab Spring,” benefited from international media attention and support. Not so much these days. But as James M. Dorsey explains, today’s crowds have learned some valuable lessons from those mostly failed uprisings. Egypt ended up with a dictator even worse than the one they ousted. Why? The army had been in charge starting with Gamal Abd al-Nasser. The “October Revolution” of 1952, after all, was a military coup. The “January 25 Revolution” of 2011 toppled Hosni Mubarak in spectacular fashion, and for a couple of years it looked like democracy was finally taking hold. Parliamentary elections were held that year, a new constitution was drawn up, and the 2012 presidential elections went smoothly.

Unfortunately, Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood president was not a skilled politician. He took on the army in a heavy-handed manner and bolstered his own power using questionable tactics, which only served to alienate him even more from the secular elites. After just a year in power, he was removed by the army and the responsible general, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, managed to handsomely win another round of elections.

At least Egypt didn’t fall into a civil war like in Syria or in neighboring Libya. Still, the lesson was: beware of the army!


The Case of Sudan

Sudan, by contrast, has now provided a hopeful model. The protests were well organized and civilian leaders kept up the pressure from December 2018 to April 2019, leading to the deposing of Omar al-Bashir, a convicted ICC war criminal in power for thirty years. And as the picture above illustrates, the Sudan protests were to a great extent driven by women. Dorsey summarizes it thus (without mentioning the women, however):


“To many protesters, Sudan has validated protesters’ resolve to retain street power until transitional arrangements are put in place.

It took five months after the toppling of president Omar al-Bashir and a short-lived security force crackdown in which some 100 people were killed before the military, the protesters and political groups agreed and put in place a transitional power-sharing process.

The process involved the creation of a sovereign council made up of civilians and military officers that is governing the country and managing its democratic transition.”


But just like in Tunisia, the one bright spot of the Arab Spring, where democracy’s twists and turns amidst a fragile economy and a powder keg next door (Libya) have nearly capsized the ship several times, Sudan’s halting democracy could self-implode at any time. In an opinion piece in Foreign Policy, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, describes the situation after visiting Khartoum this month with a delegation. First of all, he writes, we should celebrate the fact that after fourteen years, the Sudanese state has allowed a foreign human rights delegation to meet with their local counterparts and that “the ruling sovereign council,” a hybrid military-civilian collective presidency, is still promising to hold elections for a truly civilian government in eighteen months. Add to that the council’s cooperation with the International Criminal Court (ICC) in rewriting laws that violated basic civil rights and the prominent role played in this process by democratically elected civilian prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok.

At the same time, Roth warns, this democracy is teetering on the edge of the precipice. Already Prime Minister Hamdok was nearly assassinated and fingers are pointing to Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo, the deputy to Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the chair of the sovereign council. Dagolo, nicknamed “Hemeti,” is also the leader of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) who, once known as the Janjaweed, notoriously committed atrocities in Darfur, and in the states of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile. The reason he is a prime suspect is that the ICC is investigating the killing of over 100 protesters last June and Hemeti’s RSF was at least partially involved. Arguably the most powerful man in Sudan, Hemeti has a lot to lose if the ICC gets its hands on him. Yet he has managed to portray himself as the only leader capable of eradicating the potentially resurgent Salafi-jihadis and thereby seem indispensable to some opposition leaders.

Two other dangers also threaten Sudan’s democratic experiment: the economy is in tatters following years of mismanagement and corruption, and the African peacekeeping forces in Darfur finally left Darfur in May 2019, but without resolving the violent conflict between the Arab and Massalit communities in West Darfur.

In light of this, Roth pleads with the international community to do two things. First, Sudan urgently needs financial aid – donations, loans, and investments – but that has not materialized. Second, the United States should lift the sanctions tied to its designation of Sudan as a “state sponsor of terrorism” (SST). Only then does this fragile democracy have a chance of establishing a viable democratic rule.


The colonial legacy of military regimes

In a 2016 post on this website, I looked at a study on this topic (downloadable here) that compared Southeast Asia and the MENA region on the role of the military in the postcolonial era. This was my summary:


“[The authors] argue that if you compare these nations’ militaries and their impact on political change in both regions, you discover that although all these countries came out of the colonial period in similar shape – “The military was either the government or propped up a dominant political party” – the Asian nations succeeded for the most part in transitioning from military-backed (or security force-backed) regimes to democratic ones, whereas after the popular uprisings of 2011, apart from Tunisia, the MENA states failed to do so.”


Sudan, as we just saw, will hopefully be joining Tunisia in successfully sidelining its military’s dominance in political life. God willing, I will lead you in the next two-part blog post to discover a similar process now unfolding in Algeria.