The Arab Spring: The Uprising and its Significance

The Arab Spring: The Uprising and its Significance

by Caryle Murphy ’68

Caryle Murphy '68

Caryle Murphy ’68

I was in my mother’s living room in Massachusetts. The television was on low, and my ears barely caught the news: Tunisia’s long-time strongman, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, had fled his country.

I rushed to turn up the volume, eager to know what was going on. A seemingly impregnable Arab dictator was running away? From what?

That was January 14, 2011. I recall the scene so vividly because it was my first inkling that something momentous had begun unfolding in the Middle East.

Less than a month later, I was swept up in the exhilaration gripping the region as what came to be called the Arab Spring gusted out of Tunisia and into Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous and influential nation. Vacation over, I had returned to Saudi Arabia, where I was working as a free lance journalist. And on the night of February 11, the television in my tiny apartment in Riyadh was tuned to Al Jazeera’s live news feed from Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the tempest’s epicenter. It was an unprecedented scene. Rebellious crowds – too huge for even Egypt’s baleful security police to disperse – were clamoring for President Hosni Mubarak to quit. My laptop was open to Twitter, where tweets came so fast and furious I could barely read them.

It was electrifying. An audience of millions around the world watched to see how the historic, nail-biting drama would end. Would Mubarak, after ruling for nearly 30 years, step down and open a new panorama of opportunity and uncertainty for his 80 million countrymen, indeed for the whole region? Or would he stubbornly hold on, perpetuating the sclerotic, oppressive political order that had smothered the Arab world for so many decades?

When news of Mubarak’s resignation finally came, Tahrir Square erupted into a delirious sea of dancing, singing, flag-waving Egyptians. It was a remarkable development. For the second time in less than a month, two Arab dictators were forced from power by popular, spontaneous, unarmed rebellions. These successful uprisings had punctured the aura of the all-powerful, authoritarian Arab state, and released millions from their once-paralyzing fear of the state’s handmaiden – the ubiquitous and brutal security forces.

The causes of the Arab Spring, or as some call it, Arab Awakening, were many and long-gathering. For decades, Arab populations had faced repression of free speech, human rights abuses, economic mismanagement, corruption and stifling of political dissent. Justice and human dignity were not priorities in most states.

At the same time, this region of 300 million people was producing an unprecedented youth bulge, with around two-thirds of the population below 29 years of age. This youthful army is plagued by 25 percent unemployment, frustrated by diminished dreams, driven by aspirations for greater personal freedoms, and equipped with the revolutionary tools of social media: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube.

In Tunisia and Egypt, youthful activists partnered with labor unions and workers to make peaceful uprisings. These same players were key in several other revolts that followed as the Arab Spring touched every country in the region. Though outcomes were different in each location, deep, significant change occurred in all. And in countries where the faces at the top have not changed, rulers know they can no longer govern by fear alone and that a new era, both perilous and unpredictable, has emerged in the Middle East.

In Libya, a ruthless, loony dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, was overthrown by armed militias backed by NATO airpower. Yemen’s despot, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was finally toppled by months of student and worker protests and a heavy push from his erstwhile allies in Riyadh and Washington. The monarchies of Jordan and Morocco survived, in part because they responded to street protests with concessions that promised reforms.

Saudi Arabia, the global oil kingin, adopted a two-prong response to the Arab Awakening. It announced a $130 billion package of financial benefits, including unemployment compensation, new housing developments and salary increases. It also adopted a tougher line against public dissent, arresting writers and political activists deemed overly critical of the state. Four other Gulf states – monarchies all – also used financial largesse and security forces to dampen inclinations to revolt. Only the tiny island state of Bahrain, home to the headquarters of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, experienced serious unrest. Those mostly peaceful protests lasted just a little more than a month, however. They were brought to an abrupt end with a ferocious crackdown by Bahraini security forces, backed up by a Saudi contingent of 1,200 troops and 800 policemen from nearby United Arab Emirates.

Though the Saudis did not participate in the crackdown, they freed up Bahraini forces by providing security for key government installations and royal palaces. The Saudi participation was also meant as a bull-horned political message to both the United States, seen as partial to democratic reforms, and Iran, seen as instigator of the mainly Shiite Muslim protesters: Don’t even think that we Saudis will allow our political cousins, Bahrain’s royal family, to be ousted by a popular revolt.

As for Iraq, it was already in the throes of revolutionary transition before the Arab Spring arrived. The U.S. occupation of 2003-2011 ended Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and decades of Sunni Muslim-minority rule. In its place came an elected, Shiite Muslim-majority government, and an epidemic of sectarian conflict.

Syria is proving to be the most redoubtable bulwark of the old Arab order of unaccountable despotism. Though under tremendous economic and political pressures, the regime of Bashir Al Asaad in Damascus is holding fast to power. And it seems likely that before it is toppled, much more violence, even civil war, may blight this benighted country.

The Arab Spring underscored two major forces that are bringing change to the region. The first is online social media. For several years, before the climactic events of 2011, Egyptian youths had been demonstrating the usefulness of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube as platforms for dissent and for organizing mass street actions. Bloggers too had emerged as powerful voices, spreading news that the state-controlled press avoided and exposing the harsh tactics of Mubarak’s security police. A striking example of how this cyberspace activity created a pre-revolutionary mood of anger revolved around the case of 28-year-old Khaled Mohamed Said, who was beaten to death by Egyptian security thugs in 2010. Photos of his disfigured corpse were distributed online and a Facebook page entitled, “We are all Khaled Said,” created by Google employee Wael Ghonim, garnered hundreds of thousands of followers.

When protests did break out in both Tunisia and Egypt, Twitter and mobile phone text messages were indispensable in alerting people to gathering spots and to police-heavy neighborhoods they should avoid. In Libya and Syria, YouTube was used to broadcast atrocities to the world.

The second major force that is bringing change to the Middle East is women. As countless televised scenes from the Arab Spring testified, women were on the barricades wherever uprisings occurred. One woman, from Yemen, Tawakul Karman, even garnered a Nobel Peace Prize for her activism. Their participation was not surprising to those who know Arab women, whose toughness and tenacity are legendary. But now that the first phase of the Arab Awakening is over, these women still have an epic struggle ahead of them to secure the rights and equality that they are due.

For indeed, the Arab Spring is in a new stage, whose final outcome is undetermined and may remain so for years. On the one hand, there has been a remarkable transformation in the region’s political dynamics, with states losing much of their invincibility and people gaining new leverage and power. In Egypt, for example, almost 30 years of martial law ended, and the first truly free elections in decades were held.

But on the other hand, democratic reforms in Egypt and elsewhere have not yet been consolidated in new, popularly supported political institutions. Creating those institutions, as well as the democratic habits and mindset that should underpin them, will take years.

There are other challenges in this phase of the Arab Awakening. In many states, including Egypt, Tunisia and Iraq, Islamist parties have gained new prominence and powers through elections. Secular-oriented Muslims, women and Christians are all alarmed, concerned that the energized Islamist trend will mean hard times ahead for them. In the bellwether country of Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood and even more conservative Islamist parties took nearly 70 percent of the vote in recent parliamentary elections. This legislative perch means that Islamists will have a major say in rewriting Egypt’s constitution, a process set to begin in July after presidential elections.

The Islamist surge in the past year has raised fears about the possible onset of a new type of dictatorial regime. At the same time, the Islamists also face their greatest test. After decades in opposition, they now must prove their capability as rulers, delivering services and demonstrating that they can create a more just political and economic order.

Meanwhile, the openness created by the Arab Spring offers an opportunity for something that has been badly needed for decades in Arab societies: a serious, honest debate between secular-minded Muslims and Islamists over the key question in today’s Middle East: What is the proper role of Islam in the public life of a modern Muslim state? The absence of a consensus on this matter is a major reason for political instability in Arab countries.

Another challenge in this second, more difficult phase of the Arab Spring is economics, with Egypt the most worrisome case. Its tourist industry has been decimated and foreign confidence in its economic prospects is near zero, dampening investment. A crash of Egypt’s economy could bring an end to the political advances wrought by the Arab Spring.

Events of last year have also unleashed waves of sectarian, religious and ethnic strife across the region. Christians have been murdered in Egypt and Iraq. Sunni-Shiite tensions have spiked across the region. And separatist tendencies based on tribal or ethnic affiliations, have appeared in Iraq, Yemen and Libya.

The Arab Spring has also created new uncertainty for Israel. With governments now forced to pay more attention to public opinion than before, most will be less willing to bow to U.S. prodding to make nice to Israel. Egypt especially, which had been almost a puppet of Washington in its dealings with Israel, has already shown that it will not be as pliant as before.

Events of the past year have also changed the equation for the United States, whose popularity in the region is at a despairingly low ebb because of the Iraqi occupation and pro-Israel bias of its foreign policy. The long-running quarrel between Washington and Cairo over U.S.-funded nonprofits operating in Egypt underscored the sensitivities of Cairo’s new rulers and the potential for a dangerous rupture in relations.

So the Arab journey begun more than a year ago is far from over, with an obstacle-strewn road lying ahead. If economic prospects do not brighten, if Arab youth continue to face high unemployment, or if ethnic, sectarian or religious violence soars, dictatorship may return as people tire of being hungry, jobless or insecure in their own home. Overcoming these challenges and creating new, democratic cultures and institutions are the tasks that now demand attention and endurance.

A journalist, Murphy is currently a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. Murphy was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting (1991) and the George Polk Award for Foreign Reporting (1990) for her coverage of Iraqi-occupied Kuwait and subsequent 1990-91 Gulf War. She was the Cairo bureau chief for the Washington Post. She also authored the book Passion for Islam: Shaping the Modern Middle East: The Egyptian Experience, Scribner (2002).