The dwindling promise of popular uprisings in the Middle East

From Iran to Palestine, protest movements are fighting regimes that have grown stronger and smarter since the Arab Spring. Can this time be different?

An Iraqi protester waves a flag at a protest during the October Revolution, November 1, 2019. (Mondalawy/CC BY-SA 4.0)
An Iraqi protester waves a flag at a protest during the October Revolution, November 1, 2019. (Mondalawy/CC BY-SA 4.0)

On Sept. 16, 2022, Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman from the Iranian city of Saqez, died in police custody after being apprehended and brutally beaten by the notorious morality police, who accused her of wearing her hijab incorrectly. News of Amini’s death spread rapidly across social media, sparking demonstrations that spread to dozens of cities across Iran with calls for the downfall of the Islamic Republic.

Millions of Iranians, led by the country’s vibrant and restless youth, saw themselves in Amini — one of the latest victims of an oppressive, autocratic regime that many view as a central source of Iran’s economic and social hardships, alongside crippling American sanctions. But the response by Iranian authorities has been swift and severe, with at least 320 people killed so far in the ongoing crackdown.

The scenes emerging from Iran today elicit a mix of reactions across a region still reeling from the dark legacy of the “Arab Spring,” which itself came on the heels of the “Green Movement” protests in the wake of Iran’s 2009 presidential election. Many Arabs cannot help but recall the sense of hope that reverberated from Tunisia to Yemen, only to be shattered by unyielding repression, war, and the resurgence of authoritarianism. Subsequent protest waves, including those that began in 2019 in Lebanon, Iraq, and Sudan, were similarly met with brutality, co-optation, and dissolution.

Despite this record, more recent popular uprisings — including Palestine’s 2021 Unity Intifada and the current demonstrations in Iran — have been accompanied by the phrase “this time is different.” But can this time really be different?

Protests in the evening of Lebanon's 76th Independence Day celebration in Martyr's Square, Beirut, November 22, 2019. (Nadim Kobeissi/CC BY-SA 4.0)
Protests in the evening of Lebanon’s 76th Independence Day celebration in Martyr’s Square, Beirut, November 22, 2019. (Nadim Kobeissi/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Over a decade on from the Arab uprisings, the path toward democracy and freedom for youth across the Middle East has become more treacherous than ever, as liberation movements find themselves fighting against stronger, smarter, and more entrenched regimes that have adapted to modern challenges to their domination.

Indeed, accumulated experience has enabled authoritarian governments to perfect their divide-and-conquer tactics. Technologies that many hoped would help to evade state censorship and facilitate mobilization have been co-opted as repressive surveillance tools. Autocrats are capitalizing on great power competition to entrench their rule without fear of being held accountable for human rights violations. And many of the region’s youth have become immobilized by revolutionary fatigue left by the tragic, violent trauma of the Arab Spring’s aftermath. These obstacles need to be reckoned with if the people of the region are to have a real chance at affecting revolutionary change — otherwise, they too may be doomed to fail.

‘You operate on the assumption that you are being surveilled’

In an age in which state actors are monopolizing increasingly asymmetric and repressive capabilities, the long-term prospects of resistance movements and popular uprisings appear to have declined significantly. It is telling that since 2010, according to some studies, less than 34 percent of nonviolent revolutions around the world have succeeded in accomplishing their ultimate goals.

Technology has played a significant role in this outcome. Breakthroughs in surveillance methods are allowing intelligence outfits across the Middle East to infiltrate just about every crevice of civil society, making it almost impossible to communicate or organize without the government’s knowledge. Some of the most sinister of these weapons have been manufactured in Israel, which has emerged as a leading global exporter of surveillance technologies that are now being deployed against oppressed populations worldwide.

A woman standing with her phone next to the NSO Group company logo, outside the NSO Group offices in Sapir, southern Israel, April 2, 2022. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
A woman standing with her phone next to the NSO Group company logo, outside the NSO Group offices in Sapir, southern Israel, April 2, 2022. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Chief among these is Pegasus, a spyware program developed by the Israeli cyberarms firm NSO Group, which can be covertly installed on electronic devices anywhere in the world allowing authorities to read text messages, track calls and locations, and harvest information from anyone it deems a threat. Pegasus has already been used to target activists and journalists around the world. It was recently found on devices belonging to colleagues and family members of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi just months before he was brutally murdered in Istanbul by Saudi government agents. With such pervasive surveillance, popular mobilization may become simply unfeasible under increasingly watchful eyes.

The prospect of acquiring dystopian surveillance tech like Pegasus has become a driving motive for authoritarian Arab leaders in their rush to normalize relations with Israel, against the will of their people. Bahrain — which was one of the first to officially normalize relations with Israel, and reportedly purchased Pegasus as early as 2017 — was the site of mass protests calling for democratic reform, freedom, and justice during the early years of the Arab Spring, before the movement was violently quelled by a combination of Bahraini and Saudi security forces. Just last year, forensic investigations found that the devices of several activists in Bahrain were infected by Pegasus spyware. Bahraini authorities have purchased similar surveillance technology from a range of suppliers, including Germany-based FinFisher and Trovicor, and the Israel-based Cellebrite.

“Unfortunately, there’s a lot of money to be made from violating your rights,” Maryam, an activist based in Bahrain, told me in an interview on this subject (her last name has been omitted at her request for her safety). “You do your best to protect yourself and your circle, but no amount of cyber security measures will give you 100 percent protection. So you operate on the assumption that you are being surveilled.”

Realpolitik over rights

While arming themselves with the latest repressive tools, autocratic regimes across the Middle East continue to be encouraged by their external benefactors to prioritize security and foreign interests at the expense of democracy and human rights at home.

President Joe Biden stands beside leaders of the GCC, Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan at the Jeddah Security and Development Summit, Saudi Arabia, July 17, 2022. (The White House)
President Joe Biden stands beside leaders of the GCC, Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan at the Jeddah Security and Development Summit, Saudi Arabia, July 17, 2022. (The White House)

During his presidential campaign, Joe Biden drastically distanced himself from U.S. policy precedent by promising he would not sell weapons to Saudi Arabia in light of its war crimes in Yemen, and would instead make Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “pay the price” for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. “We are going to make them in fact the pariah that they are,” Biden said at the time.

Three years later, however, Biden traveled to Jeddah in a desperate effort to reset relations with the oil-rich kingdom amid a gas price crisis, to further isolate Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, and to encourage steps toward Saudi normalization with Israel — which the president visited just before flying to Jeddah.

The stark about-face from the campaign promises signified much more than a victory of realpolitik over the rights-based framework which the United States claims to uphold. It was the inevitable culmination of the longstanding policy of unconditionally propping up dictators who blindly serve U.S. interests. Now, with the United States declining as a global hegemon, authoritarians are selling their allegiances to the highest bidder, with human rights, democracy, and accountability falling further by the wayside.

Washington, of course, does not bear sole responsibility for stifling hopes of democracy in the Middle East. Since 2011, Russia has doubled down on its support for some of the most brutal regimes in the region. When forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad found themselves on the brink of collapse in 2015, Russia’s direct military deployment and diplomatic sway tipped the scales in Assad’s favor.

Demonstrators protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Idlib, northern Syria, February 6, 2012. (Nasser Nouri/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Demonstrators protest against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in Idlib, northern Syria, February 6, 2012. (Nasser Nouri/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Almost a decade of civil war has left half a million people dead, at least six million as refugees, and vast swathes of the country shattered beyond recognition. Russia helped ensure that the slogan “Assad or the country burns” would not only define its strategy in Syria, but would provide a viable template for dictators across the region, serving as proof that brute force can work. Autocrats from Egypt to Iran have undoubtedly taken notes.

Revolutionary fatigue

While violent coercion has succeeded in quelling most of the Arab uprisings, it simultaneously continues to fuel deep-rooted grievances, with the core issues that sparked calls for revolution still persisting today.

About 60 percent of the region’s population are under 25 years old, and the dire socio-political and economic conditions that much of the Middle East’s youth face have changed little since the thwarted revolutions of 2011. Youth unemployment has, in fact, worsened over the past decade, increasing from 23.8 percent in 2010 to 27.2 percent in 2020. The lack of opportunities continues to fuel brain drains and mass migration across the region.

Youth in the Middle East are also more politically aware than ever, but many still lack the spaces and outlets through which to channel their energy and potential. The conditions for revolt remain, but lost is the sense of hope that revolt can triumph.

A mass anti-regime demonstration in Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt, July 15, 2011. (Ahmed Abd El-Fatah/CC BY 2.0)
A mass anti-regime demonstration in Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt, July 15, 2011. (Ahmed Abd El-Fatah/CC BY 2.0)

Meanwhile, dictators driven by paranoia have continued to hollow out civil society, ensuring that no viable political alternative to their rule exists. Press freedom across the region has declined drastically; Egypt, for example, has become one of the world’s top jailers of journalists since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came to power in a military coup in 2013. In Tunisia, President Kais Saied has undone many of the country’s democratic advances by dissolving the government and enhancing his powers through a new constitution.

This aggressive trend has intensified in Palestine, too. Following the 2021 Unity Intifada, Israeli forces arrested hundreds of political activists and are now stepping up efforts to target civil society and human rights groups that expose Israeli war crimes and rights violations. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority has entrenched its role as a subcontractor of the Israeli occupation, stepping up arrests of political activists and resistance fighters alike across the West Bank at Israel’s behest. In the face of the PA’s acquiescence to perpetual occupation in the West Bank and Hamas’s repeated crackdowns on popular protests in Gaza, Palestinians continue to find themselves divided up against a multilayered system of oppression.

In the face of all these challenges, revolutionary fatigue is increasingly immobilizing an entire generation. A recent study by The Guardian and YouGov found that although a majority of respondents in Sudan, Tunisia, Algeria, Iraq, and Egypt do not regret the uprisings, more than half of those polled in Syria, Yemen, and Libya say their lives are now worse. It should come as no surprise, then, that many reluctantly yearn for a bygone era before the Arab Spring — a time when socio-economic woes abounded, but a sense of “stability” prevailed. Despite their unparalleled resilience, we must remember that those who take to the streets against their oppressors are still human, and they have sacrificed just about everything for daring to demand their freedom.

Is this time different?

Despite the widespread sense of defeat and despair that grips youth across the region, Mahsa Amini’s murder is currently mobilizing a new generation in Iran to take matters into their own hands against an archaic regime. Already, young Iranians are fighting to ensure that this time is different. The uprising has attracted unprecedented international support, but more importantly, Iranians across the social and political spectrum have shown that they will not back down without meaningful change.

Students at Amirkabir University of Technology protest against the Islamic Republic in Tehran, Iran, September 20, 2022. (Darafsh/CC BY-SA 4.0)
Students at Amirkabir University of Technology protest against the Islamic Republic in Tehran, Iran, September 20, 2022. (Darafsh/CC BY-SA 4.0)

What makes the movement particularly enduring is that it is so far leaderless — a grassroots effort that cannot be stifled with the usual tactic of killing or arresting key figureheads and expecting subsequent disorganization and collapse. The protests are also more spontaneous and inclusive than ever, led overwhelmingly by young women and a generation of young Iranians publicly taking part in political dissent for the first time. The prospect that popular mobilization can continue over a more protracted period means the Islamic Republic will have to answer demands for serious change.

Still, while it would be premature to ascribe comparative trends to their unique situation, the obstacles Iranians face today are eerily familiar to those we have seen across the region. The widespread and resounding rejection of the current system reflects a legitimacy crisis that the Islamic Republic will have no choice but to face. But the regime will not give up power without a fight, and as evidenced by its violent interventions in Syria and Iraq, it has no qualms about maintaining its grip at any cost.

By shutting down spaces for Iranians to realize their imagined future, Iran’s leaders have ensured that any substantial transfer of power will be violent. With protests showing no signs of abating, Iranians have proved that they will not quietly acquiesce to the regime’s repressive laws. However, the question of who will retain political power in the long run remains yet to be answered.

As young people across the Middle East look to Iran for inspiration, it is impossible to shake the legacy of the Arab Spring or to ignore the growing power asymmetry that fortifies authoritarian rule. There still exists a much brighter path for the region — one that entails both internal and external efforts to strengthen civil societies and cultivate democratic foundations, while holding authoritarian systems accountable and incentivizing reform. But that path is quickly disappearing, and an entire generation is losing hope in a world that has stacked the odds against them at every turn. Much still needs to be done to make sure that this time, and the time after, will indeed be different.