Some years seem to just quietly slip by, with the odd happening here and there – an anniversary, a sporting event, a mild protest or two, before retreating into oblivion and the annals of history. Not 2011 however, which will be remembered for many things, particularly the Arab Spring which has maintained its momentum since it started in the summer of 2011.
Over the years it increasingly looked as if meaningful protest was finally, and firmly, confined to the edge of politics; the agitations of 1968 and the Velvet revolution in former Czechoslovakia little more than hazy memories. However, all that was to change on December 17, 2010 following the momentous decision by Mohamed Bouazizi, a young street vendor from Tunisia to douse himself in paint thinner, strike a match, and bid farewell to the daily humiliations he had long endured at the hands of the government. Following his death, popular protests ensued in the country, bringing down the dictatorship of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in only a month. As is well known, inspired by events in Tunisia, people all over the Arab world in Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria and beyond, rose up to demand their freedom from repressive regimes. Even the usually politically placid Americans and Northern Europeans awoke from their stupor to join the ranks of the global malcontents.
It was not long before commentators and intrigued onlookers across the world claimed a regional revolution. A key question however, is whether the protests in 2011 will usher in a new era of freedom and genuine democracy, or whether the momentous events that shook 2011 will end up being a mere footnote to the onward march of history?
Yet, in spite of the oft-repeated refrain that there is something about Arab culture that is anathema to democracy, the region has challenged assumptions that autocracy will always prevail in the Arab world. Notwithstanding the recent setbacks in Egypt with the military’s continued grip on power, it seems the Arab Spring has signalled a paradigm shift unlike previous demonstrations in the region. For the first time, civilians in the Arab world have seen that popular protest can work to force even the most entrenched despots to retreat, albeit at a bloody price. Few would have predicted the day that images of a bedraggled and beaten Muammar Gadaffi or an ailing and accused Hosni Mubarak being stretchered into a courtroom would be beamed to their television screens. The chronic fears of a restrained and discontented citizenry mobilised against high unemployment, declining socio-economic standards and repressive regimes. Beaten, abused and often killed, the protestors still came back and continue to come back, day after day, to demand change.
In contrast to opinions that the Arab Spring has peaked and is on its way out, I would hasten to predict that in the Middle East and elsewhere, we are just seeing the beginning. Revolutions do not happen overnight, and although some look to the retreat of protests in Bahrain, or the escalating use of torture against protestors in Syria, it is hard to imagine that these populations that rose up so firmly will shrink back into the shadows, and accept things as they were once were. It is also unlikely that we have heard the last from states that have been relatively quiescent so far. Although Jordan has remained on the fringes of the Arab Spring, there has been growing discontent amongst loyal East Bankers in tribal strongholds. This is prevalent in the country’s south, as the public sector upon which they depend has continued to shrink. It remains to be seen what the final outcome will be in Yemen and Syria.
While it looks likely that old orders will not return to the way they were with the decline of the secular autocrats for now, who or what will replace them is a lot less certain. Although protests in places such as Egypt and Tunisia were spearheaded by secular, young liberals, they have started to give way to other more organised groups. Egypt’s on going parliamentary elections have seen the success of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic parties, which have garnered the majority of votes in what has been recognised as a free and transparent process.
Across the region, popular protests brought together people from all walks of life, ethnicities and religious affiliations, demanding an end to years of repression. However, whether this unity will stick is another matter: Libya continues to negotiate between its powerful tribal groups; in Egypt, whether secular and religious forces will find a consensus remains to be seen; and in Syria, highly charged protests are mixed with ethnic and sectarian divisions.
Whatever transpires, one thing is for sure, people across many states of the Middle East have found their voice. If what the revolution yields is not what people had hoped for, it is naive to think they will not make some noise about it again.
Image from: http://gubu-world.blogspot.com/2012/01/arab-spring-west-and-israel.html
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