A global intifada is emerging–or so it seems. Hong Kong, Sudan, Chile, Haiti, Iraq, Lebanon, Algeria, and Egypt are all sites of revolt, resistance, and hope in 2019. Despite geographical and historical differences, a unifying rallying cry can be heard in each place: People are demanding dignity in the face of global economic pressures and the abuses of corrupt and brutal regimes. Meanwhile, in Europe and North America, massive protests have filled the streets calling attention to the perils of global climate change and demanding that governments and corporations acknowledge the ecological crisis and do something about it. Although it’s exhilarating to see people power in action across the globe, it’s difficult to say what will be the outcome of these mass demonstrations. Blood has run in the streets of Baghdad, Basra, Santiago, and Cairo, where the death toll of the revolutions is climbing daily. Hong Kong has witnessed violent police attacks on protestors, but so far, as in Lebanon, there have not been mass fatalities.
The last time people throughout the world took to the streets in such huge numbers was 2011. The Arab Spring protests rocked Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, and Syria. In the United States, the autumn of 2011 brought us the Occupy Wall Street movement, which began in New York City but soon gained traction in dozens of U.S. cities. Eight years later, only Tunisia has benefited from the uprisings of 2011. Syria has descended into a brutal civil war, giving rise to the largest refugee crisis since World War Two, Yemen is destroyed, Egypt now has a worse leader than Mubarak, and Libya is a hell-scape of chaos.
In the United States, the excitement and passion of the Occupy movement fizzled out in a matter of months, achieving nothing despite the huge protest marches and tent cities that sprang up in New York, Washington, DC, San Francisco, and Pittsburgh. If anything, the ravages of neoliberalism are worse now, as we see the emergence of a new class–the working homeless–and a rollback of regulations on big corporations and financial institutions under the Trump Administration. Are massive global protests simply a periodic psychological pressure valve for defusing popular anger and frustration? Is the current florescence of revolutionary protest going to end, to quote T.S. Eliot, “not with a bang, but a whimper?”
Although American columnists and commentators are framing Lebanon’s current protests as a delayed echo of the Arab revolts of 2011, Lebanon was actually the first Arab country to experience an Arab Spring, back in 2005 in the aftermath of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri’s assassination. Those protests, called the Independence Intifada in Lebanon and the “Cedar Revolution” in Washington, definitely accomplished something: the retreat of the Syrian Army from Lebanon and a change–albeit only cosmetic–in the composition of Parliament. In 2005, there were two oppositions to Lebanon’s status quo under Syrian tutelage: The March 8 and the March 14 Alliances. This time, however, the opposition appears to be united: It’s the people versus the corrupt state, with Hezbollah and Amal shouting from the sidelines and, so far, being drowned out by the passion, creativity, bravery, and humor of Lebanese citizens of all ages, social classes, and sects.
But where will it all lead? The joy and excitement of demonstrations cannot sustain people for weeks, let alone months, particularly given Lebanon’s dire financial straits. Something has to give–either the regime or the people. In Iraq, Haiti, Egypt, and Chile, protestors are paying daily with their lives, and it doesn’t look like those regimes are going to give an inch to their citizens’ demands.
Lebanon and Iraq are more vulnerable to international dynamics than are the revolts in South America and Hong Kong. Context is key. When Lebanese took to the streets in 2005, George W. Bush was president, neoconservatives were strategizing to topple more Arab regimes after the ill-advised U.S.-U.K. invasion of Iraq, and Lebanese protestors had to fend off accusations that they were doing Bush and Cheney’s dirty work by falling for American lies about democracy and Bush’s ravings about the “untamed fires of freedom.” This certainly gave the March 8 Alliance added legitimacy and raised the specter of the fall of the last Arab frontline state opposing normalization with Israel: Syria.
Then came Barack Obama’s historic speech in Cairo, entitled “A New Beginning.” Obama’s campaign in 2008 had promised a very different U.S. approach to the Middle East, and the message he delivered at Cairo University in June 2009 resonated strongly with young people: “America does not presume to know what is best for everyone…[but] I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose.” In other words, “the United States is no longer interested in changing your regimes, but if you want to change them, we won’t stop you.”
Lebanon’s protests are now unfolding in a setting where no one takes the United States or its president seriously, Syria is fractured and fragile, and Russia and Turkey, not the United States and the United Kingdom, are poised to shape political realities in the region for the foreseeable future. Not having neoconservative hawks circling over the embers of Syria and Iraq probably takes away the sting of accusations that Lebanon’s protests will only buttress American imperialism at the expense of Arabs at the end of the day. But what will Russian imperialism bring? That’s a pressing question now.
Iraq cannot help but be ensnared in the bloody chaos that has erupted in the wake of President Trump’s sudden decision to pull U.S. troops out of northern Syria, leaving America’s Kurdish allies to the tender mercies of the Turkish Army. Kurds in Iraq will be paying close attention to these developments, to be sure. Since 2014, the border between Syria and Iraq has all but disappeared, and although President Trump is boasting and crowing on Twitter that he has killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr Baghdadi, ISIS is not gone, and might even re-emerge, particularly since many ISIS prisoners under Kurdish guard escaped two weeks ago. (Americans have a cowboy fantasy that killing one high profile leader can change the rules of the game. It never has and it never will.)
Although the regime of Bashar Al-Assad can no longer call the shots in Lebanon, developments and dynamics taking place on the scorched landscape of the fragmented Syrian state, particularly Turkish, Russian, and Iranian interventions, will impact the outcome of Lebanon’s revolution. Much depends on how Hezbollah decides to play its cards in this tense setting.