Middle EastThe Economist

Middle East – 2019 in review: More Arab revolutions, but how much change? | Middle East and Africa

Big protests felled more autocrats in the Middle East, as America squared off with Iran


IT HAS BEEN nine years since the self-immolation of Muhammad Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit-seller who despaired over corrupt officials and the lack of work. His act inspired the “Arab spring” uprisings that toppled the leaders of four countries. No name has been given to the wave of protests that washed over the region in 2019. Yet more Arab leaders fell this year than in 2011, as millions of demonstrators loudly echoed Bouazizi’s complaints.

Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the president of Algeria, was the first to go, stepping down in April in the face of unrest after 20 years of dictatorial rule. Just over a week later Omar al-Bashir, three decades in charge of Sudan, was pushed out by a combination of street protests and the intervention of the army. Protesters thought both leaders had overstayed their welcome, but have they achieved real change? Sudan’s generals signed a power-sharing agreement with leaders of the protest movement in August. But an election in Algeria was widely seen as an effort to entrench members of the old regime.

The demonstrations continue in Algeria and elsewhere. In Iraq and Lebanon they pushed out prime ministers, but many want to tear down entire political systems. Both countries share out power among their religions and sects to keep the peace between them. That has led to corruption and poor governance. In Iraq the authorities responded violently to the unrest, killing hundreds. Lebanon, meanwhile, sank into an economic crisis. Iran, which wields influence in both countries, backed those resisting change. But it, too, was rocked by protests, over a rise in the state-controlled price of fuel.

The president, Hassan Rouhani, began the year by saying that Iran was facing its worst economic predicament in four decades. He blamed the “maximum pressure” campaign of his American counterpart, Donald Trump. In 2018 Mr Trump ditched a deal that curbed Iran’s nuclear programme in return for economic relief. He has since heaped sanctions on Iran. Cut off from the global economy, Iran lashed out in 2019. It intensified its nuclear work, in contravention of the deal and to the chagrin of its European signatories. It was also suspected of attacking commercial shipping and Saudi oil installations, leading Mr Trump to order, then countermand, a military strike on Iranian targets.

It has been that type of year for Mr Trump in the Middle East. He ended 2018 by pulling out of war-torn Syria—or, at least, saying he would. Around 1,000 American troops were still there in October, when Mr Trump ordered some of them to abandon their position in the north, where they were keeping the jihadists of Islamic State in check. The retreat gave Turkey a green light to push America’s Kurdish allies out of a buffer zone, crippling the proto-state they had created in the region. It also allowed Iran and Russia, which rescued the regime of Bashar al-Assad, to exert more influence in Syria. Mr Assad now looks set to retake Idlib, the last province held by Sunni Arab rebels. But he rules over a wretched and divided country.

Neighbouring Israel is also divided. It held two inconclusive elections in 2019, so it will hold yet another in March. In November the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, was indicted on charges of bribery and fraud in three corruption cases. Mr Netanyahu denied any wrongdoing, called the indictments a “coup” and promised to fight the next election. In the earlier campaigns he boasted of his relationship with Mr Trump, whose administration recognised Israeli settlements in the West Bank and its sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights. Meanwhile, the economic portion of Mr Trump’s “ultimate” Israeli-Palestinian peace deal failed to impress. The political portion may never see the light of day.

Tunisia lost its first democratically elected president, Beji Caid Essebsi, in July, aged 92. But the election of Kais Saied, an awkward law professor, in October brought a new sense of hope to the country, which has struggled with corruption and a poor economy since embracing democracy. After hearing the news of his victory, thousands of Tunisians gathered in the capital, many chanting the same slogans from the Arab spring. Tunisia is the lone success story from that period of unrest. As protesters continue to press for change around the region, it remains a beacon of hope.

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