What the Arab World’s Protesters Have Learned

a close up of a stop sign © Getty / Mark Harris / The Atlantic

Ten years on, it’s easy to view the Arab uprisings only as a failure. Democracy remains elusive in the Middle East, dictators are further entrenched, and wars have devastated entire countries. But amid the despair and fear, a new cohort of protesters and activists has taken to the streets since 2019, in places such as Iraq, Sudan, and Lebanon. This new generation has learned a key lesson from their predecessors: A revolution can help bring down a regime, but it cannot build a state. They are getting organized, learning about politics and electoral laws, and planning for the state they want to build—one that serves citizens, not rulers. Most important, they have learned from the setbacks of 2011 that what lies ahead is a long slog, not a quick jog to victory in one election.

Yet in addition to all the usual challenges that activists and dissidents face worldwide, one is emerging as a major obstacle for those in the Arab world: They’re being hunted down one after the other, shot on the street or in their homes, forcibly disappeared or thrown in jail, men and women alike. Some make international headlines, while others only make the local news. Across the Arab world and all the way to Afghanistan, a rising generation of promising new leaders and their mentors, all of whom have a role to play in building the future of their countries, is being decimated—and no one knows how to stop this wholesale, methodical silencing.

Much of this comes down to the culture of impunity that has long reigned across the region, abetted in part by decades-long Western support for dictators. The stability that these dictators ostensibly provided, however, was an illusion, based on repression and torture, which fed rage, extremism, and migration. Leaders in the United States and Europe would counter by asking what the alternative was to the dictators, autocrats, and militias ruling the Arab world. But too often, potential alternative leaders had already been killed, or were languishing in jail. And there cannot be a ready-made, organized progressive or liberal alternative, able to instantly step out of the darkness of dictatorship.

As the Biden administration devises its Middle East policy, it should pay close attention to these protesters and nascent political movements, not simply as part of a human-rights agenda that successive American administrations champion, and not in an effort to promote regime change or yet more revolutions—but because these demonstrations are more like a civil-rights movement: They’re not simply demanding revolution as protesters did in 2011; they’re demanding reforms, an end to corruption and sectarianism. In other words, governance, rule of law, and justice. In Iraq, the chant that echoed across the country from October 2019 until the pandemic hit was “We want a nation.”

[Read: The Muslim world’s question: ‘What happened to us?’]

In March 2011, just after the fall of the Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak, I traveled with then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Cairo. Following a morning spent touring Tahrir Square, she sat down with the young revolutionaries who’d achieved the impossible: putting an end to the 30-year rule of a dictator backed by America. The meeting was closed to the media, but her team relayed some of the conversation to us later. Clinton had asked those young Egyptians how they were preparing for the upcoming parliamentary elections and was left stunned by their response. They were revolutionaries, they had told her; they didn’t do politics. High on their success, they were convinced that the momentum of the revolution would carry them to victory at the ballot box. Of course, they lost, first to the much-better-organized Muslim Brotherhood, and then to the entrenched deep state, with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi taking over in a coup in 2013.

Still, I wasn’t surprised by their answer. In the Arab world, politics has long been a dirty word, or a death sentence. In Algeria and Iraq, in Egypt and Syria, being in politics generally requires being in cahoots with the dictator; building connections with the powerful; genuflecting and acquiescing to their abuses, corruption, and clientelism; and running on empty slogans about geopolitical battles that leave voters hungry. Anyone with integrity stays away. Those who valiantly try to change the system alone are on a quixotic mission. No one in my extended circle of friends in Lebanon is in politics, and certainly no one would have considered running for election—until recently.

A workshop in March organized by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace brought together activists from both the class of 2011 and the class of 2019, from Egypt, Libya, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Tunisia, and Algeria. (I am a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie but was not involved in organizing the workshop.) During a fascinating virtual discussion, group members shared their common challenges and lessons from the past decade. The newfound ease around virtual panels and workshops because of the pandemic has promoted increased connectivity across borders, allowed meaningful exchanges beyond what Facebook or Twitter offered—Clubhouse, for example, is massive in the Arab world—and enabled those who face travel bans or security concerns to participate. The striking aspect of the conversation was the pragmatism they shared about the way forward and the fact that they all seem to have accepted that trying to change the system from the outside, simply as revolutionaries, would not work. They must switch, the consensus seemed to be, from being activists to, in essence, getting their hands dirty, and enter the political game in the hope that if they join in large-enough numbers, their impact will grow, and the taint of “dirty politics” will fade.

They will undoubtedly be running in a system that is rigged, everywhere. Electoral laws, gerrymandering, and preselection of candidates favor those who are part of the system. Elections get canceled or postponed on a whim. Independent candidates are harassed. There will be more assassinations.

No single party is to blame for the killings, jailings, and repression of this new activist class in the Middle East. In Iraq and Lebanon, murders are the work of militia groups linked to Iran and outside the state’s control. During Iraq’s protests, which started in October 2019, at least 500 demonstrators were shot dead, some by Iraqi security forces but many by snipers and men in black plainclothes and masks. Last year, at least 30 prominent activists and civil-society representatives were killed in targeted assassinations blamed on Shiite militias loyal to Iran. Lebanon’s wave of assassinations goes back further, beginning in 2005 with a systematic effort to target progressive thinkers, politicians, and journalists, effectively decapitating a nascent political leadership that could present a viable alternative after years of Syrian occupation and challenge the role of Iran and its local ally, Hezbollah. The assassinations continue to this day. Even if it wanted to, the U.S. could not protect every activist from potential assassins in a country like Iraq or Lebanon.

[Read: America’s future might be Lebanon]

Elsewhere, under more dictatorial regimes such as those in Syria and Egypt, the violence and forced disappearances are mostly the work of the state, though in areas outside Bashar al-Assad’s control in Syria, anyone who represents a challenge to the Islamist militias who control territory has also been killed or kidnapped. Egypt has turned into a republic of fear under Sisi, with 60,000 political prisoners languishing in jail—including secular activists and Islamist thinkers, as well as journalists, former legislators, men and women, young and old.

Seeking accountability requires a different course in each case. In Iraq and Lebanon, going after the militias is almost impossible unless the state finds a way to assert its authority. Pursuing justice in countries with corrupt judicial systems is an exercise in frustration, so people are resorting to courts outside the Arab world, either under the principle of universal jurisdiction, or linked to the citizenship or residency of the accused.

And yet, all these efforts to build governance and the outlines of future post-autocratic states will be for naught unless Washington reframes how it views the region and its understanding of what can deliver lasting stability, prioritizing accountability with partners and foes alike while championing not individual protesters but the movement for civil rights and the concepts of governance. The Biden administration will understandably be wary of a repeat of the upheaval of 2011, but so are people in the Middle East.

But there are some reasons for hope. Changes to electoral laws in Iraq, for example, could lead to small victories for young, reform-minded candidates in October’s parliamentary elections. During the Carnegie workshop, Mohammad Ilwiya, a dentist in Najaf who is active in the protests, described the formation of new national, nonsectarian political parties, bringing together Iraqis from across the country and sectarian divide, potentially generating new enthusiasm and higher voter turnout.

In Lebanon, at least a dozen new opposition groups that emerged from years of protests are actively preparing for legislative elections due next year. Although they are still struggling to present a unified front against an entrenched, corrupt political establishment made up in part of former warlords and Hezbollah, their effervescence is promising and includes the first ever effort at a kind of political action committee in the Middle East, Towards One Nation, which hopes to help bring opposition groups together, back candidates, and mobilize voters, all while fundraising in Lebanon and across the diaspora to support the campaigns.

Sudan, the most successful example of the class of 2019’s achievements, will hold elections next summer. Although progress is still imperfect and tenuous, the civilian-military transitional government has introduced rapid, remarkable change, including repealing 30 years of Islamic law, thereby separating religion and the state, and appointing the country’s first woman chief justice  Though Sudan did not have protests in 2011, Sudanese protesters who took to the streets in 2018 and deposed Omar al-Bashir were part of the greater process of change in the region, learning from the prior revolutions. In a recent online forum, activists in Lebanon spoke with Sudanese revolutionaries to learn from their experience.

[Read: Qassem Soleimani haunted the Arab world]

During the Carnegie discussion, Zine Labidine Ghebouli, a young Algerian scholar currently at the University of Glasgow, oscillated between disappointment that the 2019 protests had not delivered yet and hope that this was the start of a process.

“Street pressure might force the state to make some concessions, but it won’t change the system,” he said. “We have too often waited for the solution to come from outside in Algeria and perhaps in other Arab countries too. But it won’t and we don’t need it. If we are capable of demanding freedom, we are capable of building our nations.” But to do so, they’ll first need to stay alive.

What the Arab World’s Protesters Have Learned