Second „Arab“ Spring: a trend towards new nationalism and secularism

Meanwhile, in the face of militant protests in Algeria, Tunisia, Sudan. Lebanon, Iraq and Iran some observers are now talking about a continuation of the Arab Spring of 2011, whose fermentation is far from over. But in the case of Iran you have to see this again separately, because it is not an Arab country. However, social causes and an inefficient system, as well as unfulfilled expectations, are also the trigger for the protests that have just picked up speed with US sanctions.

The FAZ notes in an editorial that in the case of Iraq and Lebanon we are witnessing the emergence of a new Arab nationalism calling into question pan-Arabism, Islamism and sectarian ethnic denominations. The movements are predominantly non-denominational, non-sectarian, mixed-ethnic, united in a new Arab nationalism, which calls for a good, non-corrupt and efficient national unity government that does not play the population against each other by sectarian denominations and ethnic groups to fill its own pockets. It was also significant that before it came to these militant protests in Lebanon and Iraq, the electoral list of the nationalist Islamist Muktadar El-Sadr was interdenominational, multi-ethnic and even included communists and atheists and thus could serve as a model. Although Mukatadr’s electoral alliance is involved in the current Mahdi government, whose removal the demonstrators demand, it has meanwhile distanced itself from Mahdi.

However, one must see that Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to try to further the schism and sectarian fighting between Sunnis and Shiites, as well as the established power elites of these countries, who for quite some time have been doing very well with this divide-and-impera policy, but the drastically worsening economic situation, poor governance, which can not solve the most basic tasks of garbage disposal, social welfare, education, job creation, and infrastructure, has promoted a rethinking of the population, the emergence of a new nationalism and the demand for a clean, efficient, well governing, promoted non-corrupt interdenominational unity government. Whether this new nationalism produces an authoritarian form of a strong man or a charismatic Democrat is still open.

In the case of predominantly Shiite, non-Arab Iran, where proportional systems such as Iraq and LIbanon play no role, other factors come up. The last major protest movement, the Green Revolution was still supporting reform mullahs, also was a movement that aimed at reforming the existing regime, not its overthrow. It was defeated and Ahmadinejad became again president of Iran, which led to a broad frustration. For the time being, this dissatisfaction could be dampened by the election of Rouhanni, who by means of the nuclear deal brought perspectives and hopes for an end to the sanctions, a reintegration of Iran into the world community, and an economic upswing. But it did not happen, not even before Trump’s termination of the nuclear deal. The sanctions exacerbate Iran’s mismanagent, but with increasing numbers of the population, this is also attributed to the corrupt, inefficient system of Iranian theocracy and increasingly directed against the system itself which invests billions in foreign policy adventures and armament in the Shiite crescent of Lebanon, to Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

Suzanne Maloney describes the situation in Iran in an artcle fort he Brookings Institution „Iranian protesters strike at the heart of the regime’s revolutionary legitimacy“ (Tuesday, November 19, 2019 ):

The demonstrations echo the unrest that convulsed Iran in late 2017 and early 2018, although this latest round appears to be more widespread and more violent. The Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” strategy has surely contributed to Tehran’s fiscal predicament. However, Iran’s turmoil is not driven by U.S. policies, nor is it merely some circumstantial spasm. The protests are the latest salvo in the Iranian struggle for accountable government that stretches back more than a century. And the fury and desperation of the Iranians on the streets this week strikes at the heart of the legitimacy of the revolutionary system. (…)

Rarely have these demonstrations threatened the viability of the Islamic Republic, whose security forces have overwhelming capabilities to manage or repress discrete demonstrations. And so far these latest episodes have remained quite modest by historical standards — at least an order of magnitude smaller than the million-plus Iranians who came to the streets in 2009, after the contested reelection of hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Even then, the regime managed to rebound.

The durability of the Islamic Republic is perhaps the most important legacy of 1979 revolution. None of the extraordinary developments within or around Iran over the course of the past 40 years has managed to significantly alter it — not the considerable evolution of Iranian society, nor the country’s steady reengagement with the world, nor the incremental reforms advanced by various factions within the establishment. In many respects, the structure of power in the Islamic Republic seems even more firmly embedded today than it was at any point since its precarious creation.

In many respects, the structure of power in the Islamic Republic seems even more firmly embedded today than it was at any point since its precarious creation.

The staying power of Iran’s post-revolutionary system lends itself to a certain fatalism; if war, internal upheaval, regional turmoil, natural disasters, crippling economic sanctions, and near-constant infighting among the political establishment have failed to weaken theocratic authority, perhaps any hope for change is simply futile. Not long ago, this perception prompted some younger Iranians to disengage from politics. A reporter who interviewed young Iranians in 2005 found “an overwhelming picture of a generation lost, disaffected and stained by longing.”

WHAT HAS CHANGED

Nearly 15 years later, however, Iran’s “lost generation” is now approaching the age of the revolution itself, and the absence of a promising political or economic horizon has become painfully acute — and not simply for elites, but for the larger population of Iran’s post-revolutionary youth. These Iranians have benefited from the revolution’s dramatic expansion of educational opportunities and broader social welfare infrastructure. That legacy and the regime’s populist promises have shaped their expectations for a better life and sense of political entitlement to a functioning, responsive government.

After 40 years, Iran’s political zeitgeist has moved from revolution to reform to repudiation.

The 2015 nuclear deal only supersized those aspirations. Tehran’s narrative around the agreement stoked expectations of monumental economic opportunities and perhaps even more than that. “This will bring hope to our life,” an Iranian man commented in the midst of the jubilant celebrations that greeted the deal’s conclusion. “Now we will be able to live normally like the rest of the world,” another remarked. It was not to be. Even before Washington withdrew from the nuclear agreement in May 2018 and began reimposing sanctions, Iranian frustrations with the slow pace of the deal’s peace dividend fed a broader sense of disenchantment — not simply with an individual policy, official, or institution, but rather with the entire political establishment and the ruling system. After 40 years, Iran’s political zeitgeist has moved from revolution to reform to repudiation.

Those frustrations began to manifest in a higher pace and intensity of instability. The Iran Human Rights Documentation Center recorded more than 1,200 labor actions related to non-payment of wages between January 2017 and November 2018. The apex came in the final days of 2017 and early 2018, when what apparently began as a provincial political stunt quickly flared into a spasm of furious demonstrations. Within 48 hours, protests were convulsing in at least 80 cities, and the refrains of the demonstrators had catapulted from economic grievances to explicit denunciations of the system and the entirety of its leadership.

That episode, like the current one, highlights the dangers posed by the pervasive frustration and alienation. It is clear from Tehran’s reaction to the latest eruption of protests that the leadership is unnerved, and for good reasons: the rapid progression from mundane, localized demands to radical rejection of the system as a whole; the transmission and coordination of protests via social media rather than mediated through the more manageable traditional press; the engagement of the government’s core constituency, the rising middle class; and the near-instantaneous dispersion from local to national. These factors expose the profound vulnerability of the Islamic Republic at a time when U.S. sanctions are severely limiting resources that might enable Tehran to address or preempt the sources of dissatisfaction.

WHAT NEXT?

Economic grievances have served as the backdrop for each of Iran’s prior periods of political ferment during the past century. In each of Iran’s most significant turning points over the past 150 years — the Tobacco Revolt, the Constitutional Revolution, the oil nationalization crisis, the 1979 revolution — financial pressures intensified and expedited the political challenge to the status quo.

Tehran today is facing an epic, interconnected set of crises: the crisis of unmet expectations, which feeds a crisis of legitimacy for a system whose waning ideological legitimacy has been supplanted by reliance on a more prosaic emphasis on state performance and living standards. Iran’s predicament is exacerbated by the uncertainties surrounding leadership succession, both with respect to the position of the supreme leader, who marked his 80th birthday earlier this year, and the legions of senior officials from the same generation who helped shape the post-revolutionary state from its inception.

To overcome its internal liabilities, the Islamic Republic can rely on a time-tested playbook of repression and cooptation. But each collision between a furious citizenry and an inflexible structure of power leaves fissures in the system. Eventually, as happened 40 years ago in Iran, even the most well-fortified regime will shatter. „

The protests, which are also part of a youth bulge, are increasingly directed against the regime itself, no longer hope for reforms such as in the Green Revolution or on Reformajatollahs such as Khatami or Rouhani. This grand narrative is played out from the point of view of the protesters. Likewise, according to FAZ new surveys show that a large number of young people in the Greater Middle East now reject the role of religion in politics, are adopting an increasingly skeptical position on religion and advocating separation of politics and state, so that we face not only the rise of a new nationalism but also of a corresponding new modern secularism. However, in the event of a military attack by the USA on Iran , the question will be if this new nationalism and secularism will use the opportunity to topple the Islamist regime or if the new nationalists will unite with the Islamist regime to protect the fatherland as it was during the Iraq-Iran war in the 80s. Same with a military attack by Israel. Or would the new nationalists even split over this issue?

Nevertheless, with all too hopeful expectations for the next „Arab“ spring, one should not forget that the Iranian theocracy and the elites in the other Arab countries still have an enormous repressive apparatus , militas and supporters on their side. It is also unclear whether the protests produce a more organized, powerful form that is not so anarchic and spontanious, even though the protests have now spread from the regional level to the national level. One should not forget what euphoric hopes at the time existed for the Arab Spring in Syria and Libya in the beginning and how it ended.

A former diplomat wrote:

„I do not see the trend! And I consult surveys with the utmost skepticism, which you also share. The secular-nationalist tendency was always there, but in my estimation unfolds effect in a small urban milieu at most. Just as Western socialism. „

I am also a bit more skeptical about the polls than the FAZ is. But the polls are not only about urban youth, but also rural youth, especially as there is more urbanization now in the Greater Middle East. But you have to see that there are still 40 -50% of young people interviewed who have no problem with Islam or an important role for it in politics, especially since urbanization often means that the urban population does not automatically think modern-day, but rather highly conservative and religious parts of the rural population flood the cities and the bazaars and mosques can become recruiting material for Islamists.

Daniel Pipes thinks that Islamism has already passed its peak in the Middle East and now, as in case of Pan-Arabism, tendencies to splits and fragmentation can be observed. Alexander Rahr and the Indian General Asthana see a large united Islamist bloc as Samuel Huntington, but I think this is more wishful thinking and are constructions of Russian and Indian propaganda. But in my opinion, the Muslim Brotherhood has not yet passed its zenith and the Islamic State or other Islamists can quite recruit supporters among the Muslim population of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir India and Bangladesh, although I do not believe, like General Asthana, in a pan-Sunnite Califate in the making that ignores the differences between the Taliban, IS and other Islamists and their rivalry in favor of the nightmare painting of pansunnitic cooperation and conspiracy against India which is more anti-Pakistani propaganda.

Conversely, I believe that in the case of Iraq, Iran and Lebanon, the Islamists are weakened. To this end, the Islamic State has also triggered a fundamental debate in the Muslim states on the relationship between religion and politics, which is more fundamental than the IS. There are rather mixed trends and forces, the results of these struggles and discussions are still open. And the new nationalism and new secularism is there a counter-tendency that is just emerging, but this does not automatically lead to their final victory if there are any endings in history at all and if one sees history not more like Trotsky, Mao, and Taoism that one contradiction gives birth to the next, and the dynamic of history is more of a permanent revolution of existing conditions, though in the meantime it will produce a main tendency and a stable system, but because of its inherent antagonisms it also does not last forever-be it the Soviet Union, the Third Reich, or the post-war order which is now in transition to a new world order.

Über Ralf Ostner

Ralf Ostner geboren 1964 in Frankfurt am Main, 1984 Abitur in Bayern--Leitungskurse: Physik und Kunst/ Schülerzeitung. Studium der Physik (Nebenfächer: Mathematik, Chemie), Wirtschaftsgeographie (Nebenfächer: BWL, VWL) und Studium der Sinologie. 1991 Abschluss als staatlich geprüfter Übersetzer in der englischen und chinesischen Sprache am Sprachen- und Dolmetscher-Institut/München (Leiter der Chinesisch-Abteilung: Herr Zhang, ehemaliger Dolmetscher von Deng Xiaoping und Franz-Josef Strauß).Danach 5 Jahre Asienaufenthalt: China, Indien, Südostasien (u.a. in Kambodscha während des ersten Auslandseinsatzes der Bundeswehr, Interviews mit Auslandschinesen, Recherche im Karen-Guerillagebiet in Burma, Unterstützung einer UNO-Mitarbeiterin während den Aufständen in Nepal und bei UNO-Arbeit in Indien), Australien. Danach 5 Jahre als Dolmetscher, Delegationsbegleiter und Übersetzer in München. Abendstudium an der Hochschule für Politik /München (Schwerpunkt: Internationale Beziehungen). Abschluss als Diplom-Politologe (Diplomarbeit: Die deutsch-chinesischen Beziehungen 1989-2000 unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der SPD-Grünen-Regierung). Delegationsbegleitung von Hu Ping, Chefredakteur der chinesischen Dissidentenzeitung "Pekinger Frühling" (New York)und prominentester Vertreter eines chinesischen Liberalismus bei seiner Deutschlandtour (Uni München, Uni Mainz, Berlin/FU-Humboldt) bei gleichzeitigem Kontakt mit Liu Liqun (Autor des Buches "Westliches Denken transzendieren"/ heute: Deutschlandberater der chinesischen Regierung).Chefredakteur der Studentenzeitschrift UNIPOL . Projekte am Goethe-Institut und bei FOCUS TV. Seit 2000 Übersetzer (chinesisch-deutsch), Graphiker, freier Schriftsteller und Blogger.
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