A workshop in March organized by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace brought together activists from both the class of 2011 and the class of 2019, from Egypt, Libya, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Tunisia, and Algeria. (I am a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie but was not involved in organizing the workshop.) During a fascinating virtual discussion, group members shared their common challenges and lessons from the past decade. The newfound ease around virtual panels and workshops because of the pandemic has promoted increased connectivity across borders, allowed meaningful exchanges beyond what Facebook or Twitter offered—Clubhouse, for example, is massive in the Arab world—and enabled those who face travel bans or security concerns to participate. The striking aspect of the conversation was the pragmatism they shared about the way forward and the fact that they all seem to have accepted that trying to change the system from the outside, simply as revolutionaries, would not work. They must switch, the consensus seemed to be, from being activists to, in essence, getting their hands dirty, and enter the political game in the hope that if they join in large-enough numbers, their impact will grow, and the taint of “dirty politics” will fade.
They will undoubtedly be running in a system that is rigged, everywhere. Electoral laws, gerrymandering, and preselection of candidates favor those who are part of the system. Elections get canceled or postponed on a whim. Independent candidates are harassed. There will be more assassinations.
No single party is to blame for the killings, jailings, and repression of this new activist class in the Middle East. In Iraq and Lebanon, murders are the work of militia groups linked to Iran and outside the state’s control. During Iraq’s protests, which started in October 2019, at least 500 demonstrators were shot dead, some by Iraqi security forces but many by snipers and men in black plainclothes and masks. Last year, at least 30 prominent activists and civil-society representatives were killed in targeted assassinations blamed on Shiite militias loyal to Iran. Lebanon’s wave of assassinations goes back further, beginning in 2005 with a systematic effort to target progressive thinkers, politicians, and journalists, effectively decapitating a nascent political leadership that could present a viable alternative after years of Syrian occupation and challenge the role of Iran and its local ally, Hezbollah. The assassinations continue to this day. Even if it wanted to, the U.S. could not protect every activist from potential assassins in a country like Iraq or Lebanon.
Read: America’s future might be Lebanon
Elsewhere, under more dictatorial regimes such as those in Syria and Egypt, the violence and forced disappearances are mostly the work of the state, though in areas outside Bashar al-Assad’s control in Syria, anyone who represents a challenge to the Islamist militias who control territory has also been killed or kidnapped. Egypt has turned into a republic of fear under Sisi, with 60,000 political prisoners languishing in jail—including secular activists and Islamist thinkers, as well as journalists, former legislators, men and women, young and old.