It’s a movement that began with an angry vegetable seller and has already changed the world.
Last December, a 26-year-old Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest the harassment and extortion he had suffered at the hands of municipal officials since childhood. His self-immolation, and death from burns two weeks later, sparked protests and then an uprising that soon spread across the Middle East. Dictatorships that had persisted for decades were toppled in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. Thousands died in those countries and elsewhere, as ruling strongmen scrambled to respond—some, such as King Abdullah II of Jordan, by promising reforms and sacking members of government; others, such as President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, by cracking down on dissidents with murderous force.
The uprising unleashed hope in a region that had seen little of it of late. “People have talked about the end of fear. This is not something that is going to be reversed,” says Marina Ottaway, a senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “I think we have seen the end of the passive Arab public. People have learned that if they protest, if they take things in their own hands, change can take place.”
Unlike in Eastern Europe following the implosion of the Soviet Union, though, dominoes did not fall across the region. “There was no single entity that propped up all the Arab regimes,” says Ottaway, “so the battles are going to be fought country by country.”
The results have been mixed. In Tunisia, free elections were held in October. None have been scheduled in Libya. And in Egypt, the military is still in charge despite president Hosni Mubarak’s fall. In November, more than 30 died when the largest demonstrations since Mubarak was ousted shook Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The ruling military council promised to accelerate democratization, but many Egyptians are distrustful. “The entire experience of the 18 days [of protest to overthrow Mubarak] was almost like a crack in the depressing and disappointing state of Egypt,” says Mustafa Hussein, an Egyptian pro-democracy activist. “We saw a very bright side to Egypt, incredibly full of hope and energy. But then this crack closed again, and we can no longer see this almost-heaven.”
Uncertainty also remains about what forces will rise where the old ruling order is toppled. Islamists did not lead the uprising in Tunisia but have now been elected there. In Libya, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, leader of the country’s transitional government, says Islamic sharia law will be the “basic source of legislation,” and struck down a ban on polygamy.
“If you have reasonably free elections in most Arab countries, the Islamist parties are going to do very well,” says Ottaway. But she predicts these parties will shun radical Islamism in favour of something akin to the governing style of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party.
And while civilian uprisings have swept away seemingly intractable regimes in some countries, they have also been crushed in others. In Iran, a non-Arab country, protests that predated and inspired the Arab Spring were throttled with mass arrests, murder, and prison rapes. The death toll in Syria has climbed above 3,500.
“The fight and the struggle are still ongoing,” says Hussein. But he thinks the long-term trends for democrats in the Middle East are positive. “What happened in 2011 is a paradigm shift in thinking about how we should be ruled. People are much more mobilized and empowered. People are not willing to give up their rights and freedoms, what they saw and felt and dreamt.”