Around the region, dictators and kleptocrats continue to preside over young and restive societies. Most of these leaders are better at filling prisons than delivering basic services or providing opportunity. As a result, protests are now roiling Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt, and they are threatening to spread further. Without a strategy to address this unrest, the region risks a repeat of the cycle of chaos that brought the Islamic State to power in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring.
In Lebanon, the public anger that led to this week’s resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri has been mounting for years. Popular rage has been simmering since a garbage collection scandal in 2015 left the streets teeming with trash. There are daily power cuts in most Lebanese cities, and word on the street is that the electricity contracts are lining the pockets of the prime minister and his foreign minister — who is, not coincidentally, the son-in-law of the president. Youth unemployment hovers close to 20 percent; more than a million Syrian refugees also strain the national system. But the main culprit is the sectarian political spoils system that has dominated Lebanon since its founding. Political patronage and corruption dominate everything from employment to education to access to light and heat. The Lebanese rank their country as one of the most corrupt in the Middle East.
In Iraq, a fragile democracy has struggled — and for the most part failed — to contend with a decade and a half of turmoil since the fall of Saddam Hussein. With a spoils and sectarian spoils system much like Lebanon’s — allocating the presidency, premiership and speakership of parliament based on religion, sect or ethnicity — Iraqis have become accustomed to patronage abuses, power shortages and nonexistent municipal services. In September, the government suspended the license of U.S.-government funded broadcaster Al Hurra after an exposé of graft in the country’s religious endowments. “Ghost employees,” outright theft and pay-to-play have stifled job creation. And as in Lebanon, crowds protesting the government’s corruption have been joined by others angered by Iranian efforts to dominate every aspect of Iraqi political and military life.
In both countries, Iranian proxies have sought to quell protests with little success. In Beirut, Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah called for an end to demonstrations, sending thugs into the street to beat anti-government protesters. But neither Hezbollah’s weapons nor Hariri’s resignation — perceived by many as little more than a stunt — will satisfy. More than 250 have died in Iraq at the hands of security forces and Iranian proxy militias, yet protests continue.
In Egypt, more than 2,000 protesters, opposition members, lawyers and some unlucky random individuals were recently arrested and stuffed into overflowing prisons and police stations in an attempt to nip public rallies in the bud. The spark, allegations from a now-exiled businessman of corruption and waste involving top government figures, will sound familiar to anyone watching other protests across the region. Demonstrations have taken place despite a harsh climate of oppression that has already landed tens of thousands in prison.
Since the fall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and the 2013 military-led crackdown on the Islamist government that followed, President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi has managed to re-create conditions that earned his predecessor the contempt of the nation. The economy has slowly begun to grow, but the benefits are largely invisible to the estimated 60 percent of Egyptians living in poverty, and foreign investors who might generate jobs remain uneasy about the country’s direction and long-term stability.
In the face of this unrest, Western governments caught off guard by the Arab Spring appear just as flummoxed. Many seem to have decided that the predictable dictator-imposed stability of the pre-Arab Spring era is preferable to the turmoil ushered by the revolutions. And looking at Syria, Libya or Yemen, it’s understandable that the devil we know — even Bashar al-Assad — is better than the alternative. But that’s not how these stories end.
The way such dictatorships and kleptocracies end is conflict, violence, civil war and death. All of this is catnip to jihadists like the late Baghdadi.
It’s time to recognize that tyranny only exacerbates a tendency to violence in repressed societies. The Arab Spring taught us that every tyrant has a shelf life, and that failing to manage a transition to more transparent, accountable government results in disaster. Perhaps the time has come to step in with the soft power that should be the antidote to last-ditch military interventions. Perhaps it’s time to tie assistance and recognition (not to speak of presidential phone calls and visits) to real economic reform and measures of accountability. Perhaps the time has come for Western governments to demand collectively that the region’s leaders be answerable to their own people before we face another wave of refugees, the next iteration of the Islamic State and Baghdadi’s successor.