Decade in review2010-2019

How the 2010s Changed the Face of the Arab World – and Iran

Oppressed masses awoke after a single slap at a Tunisian market, Tehran won legitimacy with its nuclear deal, and ISIS may be down but it’s not out

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Iraqi female students taking part in the anti-government protests in Najaf, Iraq, December 26, 2019.
Iraqi female students taking part in the anti-government protests in Najaf, Iraq, December 26, 2019.Credit: Alaa al-Marjani / Iraq
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

It was December 17, 2010, in the central Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid. In front of dozens of people, municipal inspector Faida Hamdy slapped a young vegetable vendor and confiscated his produce. The young man, Mohamed Bouazizi, will be remembered by millions throughout the Middle East in the decade to come.

Humiliated, Bouazizi set himself on fire, unleashing a storm that changed the region and ironically came to be known as the Arab Spring. He spent 18 excruciating days in the hospital before his death, while tens of thousands of Tunisians flooded the streets, calling for the demise of the dictatorship and the ouster of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who would be forced into exile.

This civil awakening was met with disbelief. Many analysts and experts never imagined that everyday Tunisians, thought to be submissive, would rally against such a powerful regime, let alone keep on demonstrating and getting killed.

With their rebellion, the Tunisians infected the great Egypt, too, along with neighboring Libya, faraway Yemen, and eventually Syria. Leaders who had shaped the Middle East for decades lost their thrones, and in Libya, Yemen and Syria, civil wars are still going on. Elsewhere in the Arab world it became clear that public opinion, long considered irrelevant, had the potential to unleash a revolutionary force.

In terms of immediate political gain, most of the popular uprisings failed to root out the long-standing injustices that brought people to the streets. Egypt is still ruled by an authoritarian president who quashes even the smallest sign of criticism; the seeds of democracy planted with its first free democratic election in six decades were brazenly trampled. The notion of human rights, gloriously celebrated in Egypt’s post-revolution constitution, remain only empty words, and the promise of an egalitarian economy has been put aside.

Manoubiyeh Bouazizi, the mother of Mohamed Bouazizi, holds a picture of him, in the town of Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, March 8, 2011.
Manoubiyeh Bouazizi, the mother of Mohamed Bouazizi, holds a picture of him, in the town of Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, March 8, 2011.Credit: Giorgos Moutafis/AP

Libya, which never managed to establish an effective government, is run by two governments, alongside dozens of armed groups fighting one another. Yemen has become a killing field; over 100,000 people have died in the war or from disease. About six times as many people have died in Syria, where millions have been displaced as foreign countries scramble for power on the people’s backs.

Tunisia, where the revolution began, is the only country that somewhat achieved democracy. But all across the Arab world, even where, as with Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait, the seismic pressure didn’t burst out onto the streets, change came. Public opinion has become a political force in countries where fair and reliable government institutions don’t exist, or where they have become rubber stamps.

The latest events in Iraq and Lebanon, where the people have taken to the streets, bare the fingerprints of the revolution that Bouazizi set in motion. In both countries, protesters faced down deadly government and paramilitary violence to force political leaders to resign. In Iraq, the regime and militias have shot hundreds dead, while Lebanese demonstrators have endured violent clashes with Hezbollah and other security forces.

In the past decade, millions of young Middle Easterners made public opinion a crucial component of the political process. In the decade to come, it won’t be possible to ignore their voices.

Moderate Iran?

If the Arab Spring reflected people power in the Middle East, the most important revolution in the region in the past decade concerns Iran. For the first time since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 – which was also based on despair, frustration and fury against a repressive regime – Iran joined the international community – on the back of the 2015 nuclear deal.

In addition to the accord’s enormous importance in preventing a war on Iran and maybe even a regional or even broader war, it shattered the West’s view of Iran as a lunatic country, or at least an irrational one led by intractable religious scholars whose only aim is to fight the West, especially Israel.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at a meeting in Tehran,  December 22, 2019.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at a meeting in Tehran, December 22, 2019. Credit: Atta Kenare / AFP

The agreement didn’t do away with extremist ideology, or the dream to export the Islamic Revolution, but it created a chance of restraining this ideology through realistic policy, profit and loss, cost and benefits. Iran became a legitimate country that translated the strategic threat inherent in its nuclear program into diplomatic leverage, giving it the status of a regional power that may take part in the international economic game.

The dispute about the nature and chances of the nuclear deal never stopped for a moment. The suspicions and doubts didn’t disappear,  as is proved by the strict supervision imposed on Iran – with its consent.

Despite this strict adherence regarding the nuclear deal, Iran never stopped acting as a political and strategic competitor in the Middle East. It has worked to obtain influence in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and it continues to cultivate Hezbollah, dictate politics in Lebanon and Iraq and support the Houthi rebels in Yemen. And it continues to develop its ballistic missile program.

But the nuclear agreement was never planned to prevent these actions. The hope was that the deal would make it possible to reach further agreements with Iran to address West-Mideast relations. This was a radical effort, both by the West and Iran.

Despite the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal in 2018, and Iran’s open violations in response to the additional sanctions imposed by  President Donald Trump, the agreement is still in force. The other signatories – Iran, the European powers, Russia and China – didn’t join the American withdrawal, and the agreement provides a basis for continued negotiations with Iran over the way it’s implemented.

But even when the deal’s fate and the implications of Washington’s Iran policy are guesswork, the nuclear agreement remains the catalyst of a regional and international revolution in the past decade. It divided the Middle East into two clear blocs. One includes the countries that declared war on Iran’s aspirations for regional hegemony, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Israel. The other bloc views Iran as a legitimate partner, or at least a country worthy of partnership.

These countries include Qatar, Turkey, Oman and of course Syria. The nuclear agreement created coalitions whose likes haven’t been seen in decades, such as the joint interests, or even diplomatic closeness, between Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – along with the new alliances between Turkey and Qatar.

At the same time, the nuclear agreement has dented the firm relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, which feared that Barack Obama planned to drop Riyadh for Tehran. The agreement put Israel into unflattering isolation as it remained the most vocal country opposing the nuclear deal – after it won an enormous victory by enlisting Western nations against Iran.

The U.S. withdrawal from the agreement created the deep rift between the European Union and the United States until this deteriorated into mutual threats and a (failed) European attempt to bypass the U.S. economic sanctions. Paradoxically, Trump’s attempts to hold direct talks with Tehran grant Iran a stamp of approval as a rational country with which deals can be done. The nuclear agreement and the “Iran problem” overall will be handed down into the next decade.

Creation of a caliphate

The third Mideast revolution of the past decade belongs to the Islamic State, the first implementation of a religious-military strategy based on transnational control of territory. ISIS seeks to unite the Islamic world in a contiguous space under the rule of a supreme religious leader à la the caliphs who ruled after the death of Mohammed.

The organization deftly exploited the political and military failures of the regimes in Iraq and Syria and established in parts of these countries extreme Islamist rule in a quasi-state. In this way it distinguished itself from the likes of Al-Qaida and Islamist terror groups in Egypt – before they joined the Islamic State.

Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is seen in a video released by the group's Al Furqan network on April 29, 2019.
Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is seen in a video released by the group's Al Furqan network on April 29, 2019. Credit: AFP

Such groups are still trying to replace the government with a religious regime based on a radical interpretation of sharia law. This vision – to form a united Islamic state in place of the existing countries they view as a Western invention against Muslim unity – is no different than that of the Islamic State.

But ISIS’ institutions such as courts, schools and hospitals, and funding mechanisms based on taxes, fees, extortion, oil sales and donations create the image of a country that can rule millions of people while expanding its territory.

The group’s murderousness and efficient use of alternative media, including social media, helped it manage its realm and impose fear that prevented civilian uprisings – so much so that in some regions, especially in Iraq, the Islamic State was seen as an acceptable alternative to the central government that treated the Sunni minority as a hostile population, or at least a subversive one.

Despite its territorial defeat, the Islamic State isn’t dead as an organization. It has turned into a “regular” terror group fighting for its existence. It has lost its main sources of funding, and with them the unique experiment of establishing an Islamic state as an alternative to a nation-state.

It’s hard to assess whether there will be another such experiment in the foreseeable future, but the fragments of the demolition of the Islamic State will continue to scatter all over the world.

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