Wrapping Up the Arab Spring (2011-2013) Part 5: Relative Calm in (formerly) War-Ridden Countries: Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestinian Territories

ISM Palestine via Flickr
ISM Palestine via Flickr

While several Arab republics have witnessed regime transitions, there are some other republics that  have experienced only very limited unrest. The republics that faced little or no major unrest during the Arab Spring are Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories. In addition to not facing severe threats to regime stability during the Arab Spring, these countries are also united by their common experience of war, either concurrently with the Arab Spring or in the very recent past. The common experience of war combined with other highly salient domestic factors has prevented regime change from occurring.

Algeria faced some major protests in early 2011, which both larger rallies on the streets of major cities and self-immolations. Protesters demanded the creation of jobs and housing, the stabilization of food prices, an enhanced fight against corruption and more political freedoms. The regime responded by increasing wages and repressing major protests. This repression, did not pacify the unrest but the protest movement rallied more and more people every week throughout the country, eventually forcing the Algerian government to lift the state of emergency in late February 2011. Despite their violent crackdown and widespread unrest, the protesters avoided pursuing more radical measures or calling for outright regime change . Parliamentary elections on 10 May 2012 confirmed president Abdelaziz Bouteflika and his coalition government into office, while the Islamist ‘Green Alliance’ lost seats.

In addition to the resilience of the Algerian regime and the other aforementioned factors, Algeria’s recent experience with civil war is also a crucial explanatory factor in the regime’s survival. Algeria experienced a bloody civil war from late 1991 until early 2002 which erupted after the Islamic Salvation Front won the elections. Although protests are the rule rather than the exception in Algeria and resurfaced after the situation did not improve, a phase of complete instability does not seem feasible, as it would be a price most people are not willing to pay.

Iraq also witnessed some protests, starting in February 2011. Again, corruption and unemployment were the most significant grievances, but the protesters also denounced the lack of security in many parts of the country. On February 25, 2011, this unrest reached its climax and at least 23 protesters were killed during the ‘day of rage’. In March 2011, the GCC intervention in Bahrain added another layer to these demonstrations. However, the spark of the regional protests only kindled briefly as the rallies in Iraq were cracked down in March 2011 already. Iraq has experienced a spiral of violence, mostly along sectarian lines, after the withdrawal of the last US troops in December 2011, yet the events in Iraq bear little connection to dynamics of countries that experienced regime change during the Arab Spring. However, the Iraqi experience with sectarian violence has been frequently cited as a negative model for regime change in the Arab world. For example, Bashar al-Assad used the failed attempts of ‘democratization’ in Iraq to warn against the adoption of democracy in Syria.

Beirut's Martyr Square: Protest for and against Bashar al-Assad on 17 March 2012
Beirut’s Martyr Square: Protest for and against Bashar al-Assad on 17 March 2012 (picture taken by the author)


In Lebanon, the protests that erupted are mostly caused by the situation in neighboring Syria  rather than domestic factors. The Lebanese experience with civil war from 1975-1990 has created widespread skepticism towards the efficacy of mass protest and the sectarian cleavages that emerged from the war are still dominant in the country’s politics. Those sectarian divides became increasingly overt as the Syrian crisis escalated and spilled over into Lebanon’s borders. Repeated clashes in the northern Sunni city of Tripoli, along the border, some neighborhoods of Beirut, the southern Shiite city of Saida and the Bekaa valley (Shiite Baalbek in particular) exemplify this trend  and members of the different groups within Lebanon began to align with or against the regime in Damascus. Meanwhile, others have tried to de-escalate the situation in order for these sectarian cleavages not regain their dominance. The growing involvement of both Sunni fighters from the Tripolis area against Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah on the side of the Assad regime makes complicates these efforts. Further developments in Lebanon are tied to those in Syria. If Syria keeps drifting into chaos, the ‘Somalization’ Lakhdar Brahimi already warned of in late 2012. Lebanon will be severely affected as well. In that case, the already entrenched civil war sectarian cleavages will become even harder to overcome.

The Palestinian territories have largely remained disconnected from the regional developments. It was only in late 2012 that protests erupted in the West Bank against the Palestinian National Authority PNA, and those protests are independent of the Arab Spring. While grievances were similar, it was the PNA’s policies that sparked the demonstrations, in particular, the announcement of an increase in fuel prices as well as in the value added tax rate to be implemented by September 1, 2012. The subsequent protests affected several cities in the West Bank and consisted of rallies,  street barricades, tire burning, strikes, stone throwing and attempted self-immolations. The PNA’s response was limited; it blamed the unrest largely on delays in the payment of development aid from other countries and the decreasing amount of arable land due to the growing number of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The reasons for protest were thus mainly domestic and disconnected from the Arab Spring, though the decision of Palestinian protesters to take to the streets may have been inspired by revolutionary techniques that diffused from Arab Spring countries.