The Arab Spring in 2010-11 challenged and overthrew authoritarian governments in the Middle East and North Africa. They commenced in Tunisia and spread across the region covering Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya an Syria.
Some countries such as Algeria, Jordan, Morocco and Oman offered concessions including constitutional changes to stall protests. Ukraine’s famed ‘Maidan Protest’ in 2013-14 led to the overthrow of pro-Russian dictator, Yanukovych.
These protests were a consequence of public anger. It was the trigger for the current Russia-Ukraine crisis, as Ukraine began tilting westwards, which Russia considered a threat.
It also resulted in Russia annexing Crimea. In 2019, Hong Kong witnessed its worst protests in history. These continued despite excessive use of force including firing of rubber bullets and mass arrests. The extradition bill, which ignited the protests, was withdrawn, which did little to quell public anger.
Protests subsided with the outbreak of Covid in early 2020. Iran is facing its worst agitation, since the Islamic government took hold, triggered by the death of Mahsa Amini on 16 September, at the hands of the morality police. Started by women, the protests have drawn people from both sexes and all ages. They have challenged the power of the state. Ramyar Hassani, spokesman for the Hengaw Organisation for Human Rights, mentions, “Women and men are shoulder-to-shoulder (in protesting).
All of Iran is united. For the first time since the Islamic Revolution, there is this unique unity between the ethnicities. Everyone is chanting the same slogan. Their demand is similar.” Hijabs are burnt, women are dancing and cutting their hair in public in a sign of defiance.
Threats of death sentences, arrests and use of force have failed to deter the protestors. Iran’s football team refused to sing the national anthem at their first game in the ongoing FIFA World Cup as a sign of solidarity with the agitators. Unofficial reports state that over 440 have been killed and thousands arrested. The government claims 300 including 20 security force personnel have lost their lives.
Unlike earlier, the Iranian leadership has been pushed to the backfoot. Iran currently faces economic setbacks due to sanctions and the agitation has resulted in reduced output in the oil sector. The Iranian government has abolished the morality police as a first sign of surrender. It is also reviewing the mandatory Hijab law. Will this stop the protests is unknown.
The Arab Spring commenced on 17 December 2010 with the self immolation of 26-year-old Tarek Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor, outside the governor’s office in the Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid. The Tunisian police had expropriated his fruit cart a little while earlier. The root cause for the uprising was corruption, which was endemic. The suicide was the spark. The Arab Spring rapidly spread gained steam. Ukraine’s ‘Maidan Protests’ were activated by Yanukovych refusing to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union.
Iran’s latest and most violent protests were ignited by one death. Hong Kong’s protests were initiated with the passing of the extradition bill, which would allow those arrested in Hong Kong to be sent to mainland China for trial and incarceration. In all cases latent public anger against the government and the system existed, needing only a spark.
All nations where rulers were overthrown were authoritarian regimes. In nations where protests succeeded, members of security forces joined protestors, albeit singly, or refused to act against them. Where they did not, as in the case of Iran, China and Hong Kong, the governments either continue to struggle to suppress protestors, as with Iran, or are forced to offer sops to contain them as in China and Hong Kong.
Authoritarian rulers are aware that anger of the masses can bring about their downfall. Hence, they use all means to nip protests in the bud. If retaliation is illtimed, it could backfire. As a norm, these regimes blame adversarial nations of fuelling uprisings. China’s worst protests since the Tiananmen Square incident of 1989 have flowed from stringent Covid curbs.
The Tiananmen uprising was sparked by the suspicious death of popular Chinese reformist leader, Hu Yaobang. The current protests began post an apartment building fire in Urumqi in which 10 people lost their lives. This was due to residents being locked within on account of Covid restrictions which also impeded move of fire engines. It was an expression of discontent on Xi Jinping’s Zero Covid policy, which has impacted China’s economy and increased unemployment.
The Urumqi incident where people were killed in a fire was the trigger. Hints of dissatisfaction were visible but ignored. Protests spread across the country including universities. In industrial regions where factories functioned with workers locked within, such as the Zhengzhou Apple factory, protests erupted due to delayed payments and Covid restrictions.
This will act as a catalyst for industries to leave China. Severity of the protests have diluted the carefully crafted image of Xi and the CCP. As in Hong Kong, China is suppressing them by force. Universities have been shut down and students sent home, while in cities agitators are being identified and arrested.
The Chinese government has limited choices on Covid management. Its vaccines are a failure, as also it has an aging population, which it must protect. Its medical facilities would be overwhelmed in case Covid numbers increase.
Further, for the past two years, China has been broadcasting a successful Covid management policy, which it cannot reverse, nor can Xi alter his policies announced in the 20th Communist Party Congress. The Chinese government amended its Zero-Covid policy to stem public anger; however, protests convey rising levels of dissatisfaction, which
could be exploited by adversaries.
Hints of disillusionment against the system were visible but ignored. Simultaneously, China has cracked down on protestors seeking to send a message of zero tolerance. Will this crackdown rebound in public retaliation is unknown. Within China, the trust between the CCP and the populace has eroded.
Another incident could spark fresh waves of protest as discontentment continues. Will the next be suppressed with force or would members of the PLA join hands with the public forcing a change remains to be seen. However, the myth of a popular Xi and progressive China has eroded dramatically.
(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army.)