Recent disturbances in Arab countries have not yet become as far-reaching as what ensued after a Tunisian fruit vendor immolated himself in protest nine years ago, but observers are already talking about an Arab Spring 2.0. Extensive unrest has materialized in the streets of Iraq and Lebanon, along with less salient protests in Algeria, Sudan, and elsewhere. Two striking aspects of the current protests stand out and are relevant to Western policies toward the region.
One is that the sources of discontent are primarily old, familiar ones that also underlay the first Arab Spring. They involve the basic human desire for a better life. Simply put, the target of the discontent is the inability of existing political systems to deliver services and economic opportunity in a fair, uncorrupt, and effective way.
This source of unhappiness is shared by many people from different communities and with different political affinities. The unrest is not defined mainly in terms of specific ideologies or even religious and ethnic identities. Arab journalist Mina Al-Oraibi has observed that some of the unrest in Iraq “highlights how Shiite-majority provinces haven’t benefited from political parties using ‘Shiite identity’ to gain and retain power.” Understanding of the roots of the unrest is to be found not in any party’s manifesto but instead in the social and economic shortcomings analyzed in the series of United Nations-sponsored studies, the first of which was published in 2002 and issued under the name of the Arab Human Development Report.
The other major attribute of Arab Spring 2.0 is that it differs from common U.S. perceptions of troubles in the Middle East. One dominant theme in those perceptions, promoted by the neoconservatives whose control of policy in the George W. Bush administration culminated in the Iraq War, has been democracy and the concept of Middle Easterners yearning to be free of authoritarian rulers. Many Iraqis surely were happy to be free of such a rule, but in the short-term, any gratitude for assistance in shedding such a yoke was outweighed by resentment over foreign occupation—a sentiment that has influenced Iraqi policies ever since. The U.S. occupiers were met less with flowers and sweets than with insurgency.