Lebanon last month joined the wave of unrest that has swept across several countries that were barely affected by the 2011 uprisings. Some commentators are already talking about an “Arab Spring 2.”
In reality, the protests are in many ways a continuation of the same anger with authorities and demands for change that we saw in 2011. Sadly, protests in Iraq have been met with shocking levels of violence. Since young protesters first took to the streets on 1 October, they have defied curfews and government appeals to end their protest. Disturbing reports have revealed protestors being targeted at close range with tear gas cannisters and live rounds. On 29 October in the Shia city of Karbala unidentified masked men opened fire on protesters fatally injuring at least 18 people.
Protesters took to the streets in Baghdad and many southern cities because of growing anger at unemployment, endemic corruption and the low level of public services despite Iraq’s oil wealth. There has been international criticism of the response by security forces that has resulted in over 300 deaths and some 15,000 injuries. On 28 October, Baghdad Archbishop Most Revd Louis Raphael Sako visited wounded protesters in hospital and urged officials to “listen seriously to their people”. He and other church leaders issued a statement endorsing calls for a non-sectarian Iraq “based on civil society and respect for pluralism”. They also urged the government to protect the lives of protesters and their right to express their opinions peacefully.
In Lebanon, both the protests and political stalemate continues. Government austerity measures to tackle escalating national debt saw the announcement of increased taxes and a new tax on the widely used WhatsApp service. This was the last straw that triggered nationwide mass protests starting on 17 October. These have been remarkable, not just in bringing the country to a standstill, but in uniting people across the religious spectrum. People took to the streets even in Hezbollah-controlled areas in the south where public criticism is rarely tolerated.
In an official statement, church leaders from the Evangelical, Catholic, and Orthodox communities backed protesters’ “demands for reform, transparency and full civic services”. SAT-7 broadcast nine panel discussions in which Christian leaders and social commentators addressed public concerns and invited prayer for the country’s future. SAT-7 Lebanon studio director, Maroun Bou-Rached, asked Christians abroad to “pray specifically for a way forward – a vision for the country – a peaceful roadmap for our future that will show the way for tomorrow and the future”.
The government responded by announcing a raft of overdue reforms, followed by the resignation of President Hariri and his cabinet. However, many fear that the country’s political and economic elite are unwilling to step aside and pursue substantial change. The risk is that many of the most talented and educated Lebanese youth will emigrate from the country.
In Algeria, tens of thousands marched in Algiers demanding reform on the anniversary of the country’s independence from France. This was the largest protest since February when demonstrations began. Here, protesters are rejecting government plans to hold elections in December, as they believe these would not change either the ruling parties or their policies and that election results will not be reliable.
Meanwhile, Algerian church leaders continue to pray for the reopening of 13 church buildings, including several that serve some of the country’s largest Evangelical congregations. Nevertheless, believers are meeting in homes and a SAT-7 Algerian producer said the closures have given them opportunities to speak to more people about the Church’s beliefs and ministry.
Chaos in Syria
In northeast Syria, the mess and chaos continues. After a US decision to pull troops out, Russia and Turkey began undertaking joint patrols in the North. However, an expanded US operation was then announced to protect oil fields and prevent any resurgence of so-called Islamic State. The Turkish operation in the North has now stalled after thousands, including hundreds of local Christians, fled their homes. While some have returned, many fear that Turkey will seek to transplant thousands of the Syrian Arabs it currently hosts into towns with largely Kurdish populations. Turkey is coming under substantial international pressure and it is unclear what it will achieve in the long term.
As we compiled this Briefing, we heard the tragic news that an Armenian Catholic priest from Qamishli, Fr Hovsep Bidoyan, and his biological father, were both gunned down at the entrance of a church they were visiting in Deir Ezzor. Some days before, Father Nidal Thomas, a senior priest of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Hassakeh, spoke to Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) of the vulnerability of the area’s Christian community. He explained that their rejection of war and lack of an army made them the region’s “weakest link”. He appealed for international help, saying, “Two-thirds of the Christians have left the country and the remaining third risks being unable to survive.”
Meanwhile, the battle for Idlib in Syria’s northwest continues to exert a terrible toll. Up to three million civilians are living under relentless aerial bombing by Russian and Syrian forces. On 8 November a US State department spokeswoman condemned air strikes that ” over the last 48 hours have hit a school, a maternity hospital, and homes, killing 12 and injuring nearly 40″. She said, “The latest reported incidents reflect a well-documented pattern of attacks against civilians and infrastructure by Russian and Syrian forces.”
In Iran, the collapse of the nuclear enrichment deal has led Iran to step up its production of enriched uranium tenfold in two months. The Iranian regime also marked the 40th anniversary of the takeover of the US embassy in Tehran in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian revolution. Thousands of Iranians rallied in Tehran and new wall art was painted on the former embassy’s walls. In a positive economic development, Iran’s oil minister announced the discovery of a new oil field that will provide an estimated 53 billion barrels.
In Tunisia, while national politics have been ticking along after October’s presidential elections, a Facebook post has sparked outrage over sexual harassment. A 19-year-old student uploaded pictures of a prominent parliamentary candidate alleged to have harassed her outside her school. This triggered Tunisia’s own “#MeToo” debate online, where women are sharing stories of abuse and harassment and demanding change. The newly elected parliamentarian will become immune from prosecution on 13 November, as he takes his seat in the parliament.
In Turkey, a military intervention in Syria, and diplomatic clash with the United States and heavy-handed rule at home hide deepening economic despair in the country. The country was shaken by reports of two collective family suicides. Police in Antalya found the bodies of a man, his wife and two children in their home and a note left by the father, saying he had been unemployed for months and could not carry on. In the same month, four adult siblings took their lives together in Istanbul, citing economic conditions.
Meanwhile, Turks marked the anniversary on 10 November of the death of Kemal Ataturk, the country’s founding father. Some suggest that growing annual attendance at the event reflects concerns that President Erdogan’s policies are undermining Ataturk’s secular legacy. Two weeks earlier, on Republic Day, the Turkish president affirmed his country’s resolve to overcome all difficulties and take its place as a leading country in the world, in keeping with its vision for the 100th anniversary of the Republic in 2023.