I’m seeing some trends emerging in the Middle East that I’ve never seen before.
One is from the streets of Beirut to the streets of Baghdad to streets all across Iran — people are demanding to be treated as citizens with rights, and not just members of a sect or tribe with passions to be manipulated. And they’re clamouring for noncorrupt institutions and the rule of law, not just the arbitrary rule of militias or thugs.
The other trend I’m seeing is the striking contrast between what Middle East politics has long been about in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen and what average people in these countries are now seeking.
For years, Sunni and Shiite party bosses and militia leaders at the top have manipulated sectarian and tribal identities below to cement themselves in power and make themselves the brokers for who get jobs and contracts. But there’s been a stunning shift in the whole flow of politics in some of these countries.
Iranian ayatollahs even had to largely shut down their own internet to prevent the domestic rebellion from spreading. Ever since the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2002, Iran has never wanted to see a stable, multisectarian, secular democracy emerge in Baghdad
Here’s Christine McCaffray van den Toorn, describing the scene in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the demonstrations there for a nonsectarian, civil state in Iraq: “Protesters are seizing their country, which was wrenched from them. In doing so, they reaffirm their Iraqiness in the most positive ways.
They have even set up reverse checkpoints that welcome citizens, but exclude the armed forces. Communities intermingle; different sectors of society stand side by side. Patriotism is on full display. Iraqi flags are everywhere. Women are highly visible. There is a clear rejection of sectarianism, as ‘Iraqi’ identity is emphasised.”
These movements are authentic and inspiring, but their chances of taking power remain remote, largely because their biggest opponent — Iran — is ready to arrest and kill as many democracy demonstrators as needed to retain its grip on Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, not to mention at home. Iran’s clerical regime has emerged as arguably the biggest enemy of pluralistic democracy in the region today.
Iran has used its Shiite Hezbollah militia in Lebanon and Syria and its Popular Mobilisation Forces militia in Iraq to try to snuff out all their bottom-up secular democratic movements — while also crushing the biggest secular-democracy uprising in Iran itself in 40 years.
The Iranian ayatollahs even had to largely shut down their own internet to prevent the domestic rebellion from spreading. Ever since the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2002, Iran has never wanted to see a stable, multisectarian, secular democracy emerge in Baghdad, because then Iranian Shiites would be asking why Iraqi Shiites get to live freely and they don’t.
If US President Donald Trump really wanted to use Twitter for impact, he’d be tweeting every morning at the supreme leader of Iran: “Hey, Supreme Leader of Iran, which nonsectarian Arab-Muslim democracy movement did you crush today? It’s Monday, so it must be Lebanon. It’s Tuesday, so Syria. It’s Wednesday, Iraq. Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, it must be your own people.”
There is no good time for a country like Iran to be suppressing popular movements for pluralistic democracy, but this is a uniquely bad time. We are in an age of acceleration. Technology, globalisation and climate change are all accelerating at the same time. The Middle East has got to get its act together if it has any hope of thriving in the 21st century.
For example, Lebanon’s protests were sparked when the government proposed taxing WhatsApp and other internet calling services to pay down huge government debts incurred by corrupt politicians. But they were also fuelled by the government’s inability to deal with massive forest fires spread by high temperatures and prolonged drought. Meanwhile, in places like Libya, Yemen and Syria, children have missed years of basic schooling. All of this is happening while populations have exploded.
Middle East cannot afford to waste another drop of its water, when every climate study shows temperatures rapidly rising in the region; they cannot afford to misspend another dollar of their diminishing oil revenues on guns, civil wars or corruption, when they need to rebuild so much of their self-destroyed infrastructure that no superpower is going to rebuild for them; they cannot afford to miss another day of school, when life-long learning is more important than ever to secure and hold a decent job.
Nations stand no chance in the 21st century, especially once Mother Nature starts to really hammer them. The entire region could become one giant human development disaster area, with everyone trying to get to Europe.
America, for its part, has to keep looking for ways to collaborate on that pluralism project, to the extent that they want its help, with creative diplomacy, and not just wash US hands of the region.
But the bad guys won’t go easily, quietly or bloodlessly. And since no outside power will be riding to the rescue, it will take sustained, organised, bottom-up mass movements — in Lebanon, Iraq and Iran in particular — to enable the future to bury the past and topple all those who want to use the past to bury the future.
I am so rooting for their success.
— New York Times News Service
Thomas L. Friedman is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and author.