Reasons Behind "Provincial" Protests in the Middle East
Sunday، December 04، 2016
Some regions or provinces in Middle Eastern countries endure seasonal protests caused by political marginalization, developmental neglect, sectarian discrimination, cultural integration, or lawlessness. This was seen in Egypt, Libyan, Tunisia, Algeria, Eastern Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Iraq, Iran and Israel. The gap between rural and urban areas and large cities and peripheral provinces, translates into discrepancies in income, services, infrastructure, roads, transportation, education, healthcare, job opportunities and security conditions. Thus, these regions or provinces became “fragile pockets” and “infinite revolutions” that compound instability in the Middle East.
In theory and in reality there are several factors to explain the eruption of regional protests, including:
Areas of tension:
1- Exacerbated uneven economic development: There were broad protests in 2016 in several Arab cities, including such as Al-Qasrein in Tunisia (ranking last on the development index of states at 23 per cent unemployment compared to the national average of 15 per cent, according to the National Forum for Economic and Social Rights). Especially, after consecutive governments failed in managing inland regions. Demonstrations expanded and gave the impression they were a “second revolution”, especially since they are part of the “legacy” of former President Zein El-Abdeen bin Ali. Under his rule several governments allocated 82 per cent of public spending on coastal areas, and only 18 per cent for inland regions especially in the northwest, central west and south.
Thus, one of the main challenges facing Youssef Al-Shahed’s government is addressing the imbalance in development between the advanced north and neglected south. This is not true of Tunisia alone; Libya is similar where residents in eastern areas in Libya protested against weak infrastructure, low living standards and negligible human development in terms of clean water and sewage plants, despite the immense oil wealth in Benghazi – the second largest city in the country. The protests seemed like a rebellion in rural areas against weak authority, since the problems of the province indicate there have been no changes in social and economic policies during political transition.
2- Forming a new political power: On 20 November, 2016, demonstrations escalated in Iraqi Kurdistan against a growing crisis over civil servant wages after a years-old deal with Baghdad collapsed which allocated a quota for the region as part of the annual federal budget. The “Change” movement demanded the formation of a new government in the province of Kurdistan, empowering parliament to monitor executive powers and electing a new leader, which is a key move to resolve local problems before addressing them with the federal government in Baghdad.
3- Putting pressure on executive powers: Protests in Al-Hasima in northern Morocco reignited on 20 November, 2016, calling for the urgent release of findings investigating the death of fishmonger Mohsen Fikri who was shredded inside a garbage disposal truck after his fish were confiscated at the end of October 2016. Protesters demanded broader investigations to include all officials involved in the incident and not cover-up the findings. They threatened to escalate if their demands are not met by dealing with rural areas with “equity” and dignity for the people. After some artists from rural areas joined the protests, demonstrators called for continued mobilization to mark the 40th day anniversary of his death next month. They raised large banners covered in thousands of signatures around the phrase “We are all Mohsen Fikri”.
Harassment by security:
4- A hike in crime: Arab towns in Israel witnessed growing protests against lawlessness, which according to current statistics show that 60 per cent of murders and 47 per cent of armed robberies in Israel take place among Arabs who constitute 20 per cent of the population. The activities of “crime families” have expanded in several Arab towns and villages, whereby shootings are a daily occurrence at night. According to police estimates, there are 10,000 unlicensed weapons in Arab towns but the authorities do nothing about it.
5- Opposing privatization of government-owned land: Protests by Nubia residents in southern Egypt in November 2016 were triggered by the government decision to include a portion of Nubian land – including Toshka and Khorqandi village – in the 1.5 million land reclamation project that will be offered to private investors. Their anger, manifesting in roadblocks, sit-ins, blocking tourist and trade movement between Egypt and Sudan, is based in their desire to hold on to what remains of their lands, according to some protesters.
6- Recognition of cultural identity: Residents of the Algerian tribal region celebrate the anniversary of the Amazigh Spring on 20 April every year. The most recent protest marches led by Amazigh activists demanding recognition of the Amazigh identity in April 2016 resulted in clashes with security forces in the town of Tizi Ouzou.
Regional protests in the Middle East cause several effects, including:
1- Spread of protests to border provinces: Iranian security agencies are tightening their grip on Kurdish provinces out of concern that clashes in border areas with some armed groups coming from Iraq’s Kurdistan province will spread to other regions. This happened at the end of June, 2016, when Iranian forces and others were killed by armed Kurds.
2- Demands for separatist entities: Some worst-case scenarios suggest there are separatist calls within entities demanding secession, which causes widespread violence and chaos in several geographic locations. The Yemeni model could be an example of this in the future, especially since there are precedents. Some leaders in southern Yemen, known as the Hadrami Forces League Bloc, called on the secession of Hadramout on 20 December 2012, from the southern province. This contradicts the calls of the southern movement of retaining the southern region.
3- Facing a wave of terrorist attacks: This is apparent in the overlap between intermittent protests in Shiite areas in eastern Saudi Arabia in Qatif, Ihsaa, Damam, Tarout, Safwa and Aawamiya, and some Shiite villages in Bahrain, which clearly surfaced after Arab revolutions in 2011. There are also concerns that protests in Qasrein in Tunisia will transform into terrorist attacks that threaten state and society, especially with the possibility of terrorists infiltrating that village near Al-Shaanbi Mountain where terrorist groups loyal to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb are taking refuge. Algerian military intelligence has warned of this threat for some time.
4- Shiite threat to the Arab region: Some reports discuss what is known as “sectarian provinces”, where there is a majority of certain sects. Especially if linked with a geographic region in a neighboring country, which could result in similar demands especially among Shiite forces. Thus, sectarianism is seen as a driving force for radicalism that could undermine the stability and coherence of regional countries. Countries such as Iran, for example, are trying to have an impact as seen in some areas in Bahrain, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Sudan.
5- Emergence of a parallel trade: Especially along the border such as in Tunisia, Algeria and Libya, since these peripheral areas suffer significant regional disparities and thus resort to unlicensed economic activities that deprive the state of tax revenues. Accordingly, some domestic players are seeking to foment tension in peripheral regions whenever they sense a threat to their interests such as smuggling commodities, drugs, arms, money and people. It is a form of informal economics that goes beyond the formal economy in terms of GDP.
6- Making domestic issues an international cause: Some in Egypt attempted to promote a negative image of Nubians among Egyptian public opinion and claimed they wanted to secede from the state, and are seeking to file a complaint against the Egyptian government with the African Union’s African Human Rights Committee. Nubians denied this and some of them quickly issued a unified statement by several tribes asserting that “reports that the Nubian issue will be made an international cause or used as leverage is objectionable because it is primarily a national issue, and is of no concern to anyone overseas.” They added that, “anyone toying with making it an international issue must leave Nubian territories”.
Mechanisms for confrontation:
There is a trend that believes decentralization is the correct approach to address the problems of Arab countries, especially in view of the troubles facing maintaining the “structure” of state and difficulties restoring the legitimacy of the state amid growing societal demands for a state role. On the condition that this does not happen through government promises, but rather actual decisions that guarantee action on demands by the provinces through passing legislation for developing border regions, for example. Even better, embedding the principle of balanced development for all provinces and establishing new development projects in marginalized areas.
Saudi Arabia’s current policy in dealing with the problems of eastern provinces is notable. King Salman bin Abdel-Aziz inaugurated several mega developmental, economic and industrial projects in the eastern region on 29 November, 2016, on his first visit to the region since he became monarch in January, 2015. Projects include housing, infrastructure, petrochemicals and energy ventures, as well as the launch of the King Abdel-Aziz Cultural Center. The second phase of developing the King Fahd Oil and Mineral University compound was also launched at a cost of $2.7 billion.
Another key project King Salman will launch is Manifa, an oil field submerged in Saudi waters north of Jubayel in the Arabian Gulf. The project is part of the 2030 vision which focuses on the importance of prospecting and benefiting from natural wealth, especially since some international estimates indicate that Manifa is the fifth largest oil field in the world. King Salman will also launch the Kharis oil field next to Ghwar, the largest oil field, and will also inaugurate medical and social projects for mental health.
These regional problems can be addressed by boosting social capital between the state and citizens who live in these areas, by rebuilding trust through dialogue with their representatives and prominent intermediaries. The Egyptian government sought the help of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi during the Nubian protests for the first time since he left power in 2012, by holding meetings with Nubian leaders to calm tensions and discuss demands. MPs also played a mediating role, which enabled Egypt to successfully handle the Nubian problem.
One cannot ignore the role of civil society in this matter, such as the General Nubian Union in Aswan and the Arab Tribal Coalition, which drafted the demands of protestors in specific points, most notably that priority be given to Nubians and Aswan residents in the Toshka project as part of the government’s 1.5 million feddan land reclamation plan. Also, passing a law for the creation of a Supreme Commission for Construction and Development of Ancient Nubia, since Article 236 of the Constitution states the state shall guarantee implementing an economic and urban development plan for them and residents in other regions. Article 236 adds that the state will plan and implement projects to send them back to their original regions.
Window of opportunity:
Growing interest by some regional governments in the messages of provincial protests is one step in a long journey. This method for citizens to express their opinion and prioritize their demands forces decision makers to pay attention to the input of individuals, and society as a whole. This lends special importance and momentum to the “political opportunity” theory, which states that the deciding factor for the success of these protests depends on the ability of the regime’s structure to accommodate various protest movements.
In conclusion, provincial protests in Middle East countries are mostly an expression of the inability of Arab revolutions to end marginalization, underdevelopment and unemployment. This raises the problem of economic and social risk management, and bolstering the presence of the state in remote areas, at the heart of which is a crisis of partial citizenship with a substantial degree of regional interference that impacts the stability of these countries, the integrity of their provinces and co-existence amongst its citizens. It portends future social explosions, which no can predict their course.