Image: Syrian protests against Bashar al-Assad in 2012. Omar Chatriwala / Flickr
While the Middle East often features heavily in Western news media, it is impossible to fully grasp the region’s changing and diverse political climate in just a few soundbites. Examining Middle Eastern politics and activism since the onset of the 21st century shows us that the region has undergone a series of transformations; some countries have seen war, invasion, revolution, and democracy all within a few short years, while others have experienced a profound shift in economic conditions, for better or for worse. In anticipation of La Pietra Dialogues’ coverage of the Florence Middle East NOW Film Festival (April 10-15 at Cinema La Compagna), we take a look at some key events in Middle Eastern politics since the early-2000s, and how they have shaped the Middle Eastern landscape today, with particular attention to recent activism.
Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, American President George W. Bush announced war against Iraq and strikes on military targets, along with a coalition of countries including Italy, Australia, Japan, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. Saddam Hussein’s rule collapsed and the ruling Sunni elite scattered, and in the ensuing disorder and lack of coordination from ruling powers, many Iraqis took to the streets, destroying statues of the dictator, and looting centers of political and cultural importance. After Saddam Hussein was captured and arrested in 2004, American authorities “officially” transferred Iraqi sovereignty to new leaders. The following year, Iraqis voted in the country’s first free election in 50 years, however violence between Sunni and Shiite factions continued to escalate and stability eluded the new Iraqi government. By 2009, Iraqi authorities and American forces had charted a path for the removal of American military involvement in Iraq, with President Obama declaring an end to the combat mission in 2010.
Image: U.S. Army Soldiers attached to Heavy Company, 3rd Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Mosul, Iraq, Jan. 2008. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Kieran Cuddihy / Flickr.
Following the withdrawal of the American military, tensions and clashes among competing Iraqi factions escalated and members of al Qaeda convened with exiled members of Saddam Hussein’s ruling Sunni circle, establishing themselves as the Islamic State (ISIS), claiming responsibility for a series of bombings in Ibril in 2013, and establishing a strong presence in post-Assad Syria where they have become known for their brutal treatment of civilians, especially minorities and women (al Qaeda and ISIS have since disjoined).
The Islamic State of Iraq seized Mosul in 2014 and the U.S. responded by aiding the Iraqi government in counterattacks and beginning air strikes. ISIS held a significant amount of territory in both Syria and Iraq and claimed responsibility for numerous overseas terror attacks in Africa, Europe, and North America as well; they have since been defeated in Syria and Iraq and have lost hold of their former capitals of Mosul and Raqqa. Many civilians are relieved, however, they are also trepidatious about celebrating too soon.
President Trump has called the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003 a mistake, but his critics are skeptical as he has recently made John Bolton, a proponent of the war, his national security advisor.
The most pivotal events in recent Middle Eastern activism began with the spread of protests in 2011 known collectively as the Arab Spring. These protests were expressions of anger by citizens regarding issues such as corrupt dictatorships, unaffordable living conditions, and unemployment. The Arab Spring began in Tunisia on December 26, 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26 year old fruit vendor, set himself on fire in front of a government building after being harassed by the police. Protests against corruption and economic hardship began within the day and spread nationwide, with many Tunisians demanding that President Zine-al-Abidine step down in January 2011. A month later, Zine-al-Abidine went into exile and this success acted as a catalyst, sparking uprisings across the Middle East.
The grassroots revolts successfully contributed to the fall of governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. The movement has also served as the basis for continuing political advocacy throughout the Middle East.
Image: Anti-Gadafi protests in Libya, May 2011. mojomogwai / Flickr
With major successes also came new difficulties and conflict. Since long-standing authoritarian regimes had crumbled, new governments were in need of formation - but what kind of government would it be and who would be in power? Sunni-Shiite tensions intensified in the wake of the uncertainty, and arguments grew over the presence of Islam in politics and society. The regional balance of power was tipped to favour Iran and Saudi Arabia, famous rivals who frequently dispute over political alignment, religious differences, nuclear arms, and more recently, opposing involvements in Syria and Yemen. Economic hardship also intensified in certain areas. Where authoritarian regimes had toppled, even harsher administrations took their place in some cases; in Syria, Libya, and Yemen, the protests even resulted in the emergence of civil war, with organizations like ISIS capitalizing on the chaos to expand their presence.
As a result of both the successes and challenges spurred by the Arab Spring, social and political activism in the Middle East has increased drastically.
In January, the Tunisian government announced their plan to spend an additional $70M in aid for the poor after nearly 800 people were arrested while protesting against unfair economic conditions. Freedom, work, and dignity are the main goals of the unrest and Tunisia also has many unemployed university graduates who have now formed their own lobbying union.
Image: 2011 Tunisian elections. Stefan de Vries / Flickr.
In late 2017, extending into early 2018, protests erupted in Iran that many thought might escalate into an unraveling of the Islamic Republic. The grassroots protests began as an outcry against poor economic policy and a corrupt regime, and soon became an outcry against the entirety of the regime itself. It spread throughout many major cities and earned statements of support from the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, while foreign officials in the EU and Turkey cautioned against any possible foreign intervention. The protests were put out after the government ordered the Iranian guard to arrest, imprison, and even torture and kill those involved. An estimated 3700 (https://edition.cnn.com/2018/01/09/middleeast/iran-protests-3700-arrested-intl/index.html) were tortured or arrested and 25 were killed. Critics worry that human rights violations enacted against human rights protestors will only result in more serious future turmoil.
Citizens in the Moroccan town of Jerada have been calling for government aid and alternative jobs to help with severe poverty in the area. Tensions escalated when two workers were killed in a mining accident mid-December. On the 24th of March, protesters set five police cars on fire. Several policemen were wounded and nine protesters were detained. Likewise, Jordanian farmers have been protesting against a new high agricultural tax announced by the government in January. The farmers have been staging a sit-in for nearly a month in front of the parliament building.
Women have also demanded more rights since the Arab Spring. On March 10, hundreds of Tunisian women took to the streets to protest the lack of equality in inheritance rights, while, in honor of International Women’s Day, thousands of Palestinian women rallied for their right to employment, healthcare, and education in the Gaza Strip. They also protested against the poor conditions of incarcerated women; prisoner rights have been getting more attention thanks to the work of Emirati economist Dr. Nasser Bih Ghatih and his recent hunger strike against human rights violations in Al-Razin, an infamous Abu Dhabi prison.
This spirit of resistance will travel from the Middle East to Florence from April 10-15, 2018 at the annual Middle East NOW Film Festival, Italy’s largest festival devoted to Middle Eastern cinema and culture. Click here to view the full screening schedule.
La Pietra Dialogues will also be covering the festival closely on our blog and social media and will send an NYU Florence student jury to determine the winner for the festival’s Best Short Film.