“The only glue between ruler and ruled was suspicion and fear.” So wrote political scholar Ghada Hashem Talhami in her summary of the Arab Spring, a string of revolutions that spread across the Arab world in 2011. The nations of the Arab world comprise 22 countries; all of the Middle East and North Africa. For decades the Arab world had been plagued by autocratic rulers, and remained in the grip of autocracy, monarchy and despotic governments, even as many other third-world nations transitioned to democracy. It seemed the oppressive situation would continue indefinitely until the sudden, one-man protest of Mohammed Bouazizi.
Bouazizi of Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia was a young street vendor whose vegetable cart was repeatedly confiscated by local law enforcement for not being properly licensed. On December 17, 2010 when his cart was confiscated, he paid the fine to reclaim it, but was denied restitution and harassed by the police. When Bouazizi tried to complain at provincial headquarters, he was refused an audience. At 11:30 AM, Bouazizi, having been denied his civil rights on many counts, positioned himself on the lawn of the provincial headquarters, doused himself in gasoline and set himself on fire. Bouazizi survived in hospital until January 4, 2011. He is widely credited with being the catalyst to the Arab Spring.
The term “Arab Spring” refers to the series of uprisings across the Middle East, protesting the flaws of various Arab governments, specifically following Bouazizi’s radical act. These uprisings were generally characterized as being initiated primarily by young and working-class citizens working towards an overhaul of the political system, in order to enable dignified quality of life. The movement generally pushed against autocratic governments and presidential dictators in favor of government elected by the general population. It is important to note that the democracy sought by most protesters is not democracy as we Americans know it, but nevertheless more liberal than autocracy and, secular for the most part. Despite the sweep of democracy in surrounding nations imposed by the United States, Egypt and other Arab nations remained politically draconian.
While Egypt and Tunisia initially garnered the most media attention for their uprisings, Bouazizi’s outcry was heard around the Arab nations, and no country in the Arab world was completely immune to the effects of his protest. Protests ranged from violent uprisings, to peaceful protests, to muted and often stifled rebellion. In the monarchial state of Jordan, activists called for constitutional amendments that would restrict the power of their king, Abdullah II. While Abdullah made a televised promise to support and establish laws that would give more power to elected officials, “no timeline has been set” to accomplish these goals. Similarly, in Saudi Arabia protest on a large scale has been scant by virtue of the vice grip of the Monarchy on the country. To protest in Saudi Arabia is illegal—activists who defy this law have been jailed without trial and even murdered. Such violence, however, is not uncommon. The uprising against the government of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya was particularly violent. Gaddafi vowed to wipe out anti-government activists, but was subsequently murdered by revolutionary fighters—killed by a civilian with his own gilded gun. Protesters of a similar ilk have been referred to by the Syrian government as “terrorists,” according to the BBC. In February 2011, shortly after the Arab Spring began, Syrian President Assad modified the constitution, granting ultimate power to his leading political party. Assad is believed responsible for a chemical weapons attack that killed hundreds; clashes between Assad’s government and rebels since 2011 have left more than 100,000 Syrians dead. These are just a few examples of the Arab Spring in action across the Arab world.
Like all of the Arab uprisings, the revolution in Tunisia in response to Bouazizi’s death was a movement of “the common people.” Essentially Bouazizi called attention to the economic and civic disparity between the small Tunisian upper-class and the young, working-class population that form the country’s backbone. Additionally, Paul McCaffrey notes “Demography has an undeniable influence [on the spread of unrest in Arab countries].” What McCaffrey means when he says “demography” is a phenomenon currently underway in Tunisia, Egypt and many other Arab countries known as “youth bulge,” in which young citizens make up a significantly large percentage of the population. In Egypt, more than a quarter of the population is comprised of citizens ages 18-29. McCaffrey goes on to explain: “compounding the problem is a largely stagnant economic climate. Vast numbers of unemployed young people constitute a destabilizing element in any society.” Indeed, young Bouazizi was a university graduate. Despite his education and youth, his only option to make even a scant living was to sell vegetables in the street. Tunisia’s response provided the model for an uprising, with Egypt quickly following suit.
On January 25, 2011 Egyptian protesters took to the streets of Cairo, inspired by the uprising in Tunisia. Their aim was to overthrow President of 30 years, Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak, a socialist, had opposed the growing Islamist influence in Egypt. Despite taking violent military action against the civilian protesters, Mubarak was finally forced to relinquish the presidency. In February of 2011, after Mubarak’s descent, the military took temporary control of the country. The citizens of Egypt voted on constitutional reforms and subsequently on a new leader. In June of 2011 the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi narrowly won the election and was sworn into office. The Egyptian government, however, continued to grapple over changes in the constitution as members of the Muslim Brotherhood pushed for conservative law.
Founded in 1928 by Sheikh Hassan al-Banna, the Muslim Brotherhood is an Islamist organization based to the principles of Islam, the goal of which is to create a religious state governed by the rules of Islam known as “Sharia Law.” The Muslim Brotherhood has generally been at odds with the Egyptian government since 1954, when President Gamal Abdel Nasser suppressed the organization via imprisonment and exile. Nasser’s successor, the aforementioned Mubarak, inherited this socio-political feud.
Political regimes in the Arab world today generally fall into three categories: monarchy, pan-Arab socialism, and Islamism. Monarchy is the form of government in Saudi Arabia. As we have seen, in countries with such absolute monarchial power, uprisings have been suppressed or even non-existent, as the small elite class rules supreme. Additionally, these countries tend to be more conservative via the wishes of their monarchs, enabling a tighter grasp on their population. Pan-Arab Socialism refers to a type of socialism specific to the Arab world, blending the values of socialism with fierce nationalistic values. Egypt could be considered a pan-Arab Socialist government until the death of President Nasser in 1970. Finally, Islamism refers to a government that operates under Sharia law. While Sharia law is controversial for several reasons, it is important to understand that its implication hits right at the heart of the biggest conflict in the Arab world: the Sunni-Shia religious divide.
The Sunni-Shia religious divide in Arab countries plays a large part in the current politics and indeed the anatomy of the Arab Spring, being the longest running conflict in the Arab world. The basic disagreement between Sunni and Shia, a divergence in beliefs, is over the successor to the original prophet Mohammed. Over the years these beliefs have caused the sects to diverge further. What is problematic about this is both sects’ general desire for their religion to be reflected in their government.
Following Mubarak’s descent, The Muslim Brotherhood, strong proponents of Sharia law, have taken power in Egypt, which could mean a back-fire in the revolution as the young demographic intended it.The Brotherhood’s election has resulted in fewer rights for minorities, and a closer knitting of religion and government. After the election of Morsi, the associated press reported “members of liberal parties and representatives of Egypt’s churches withdrew from the 100-member assembly… protesting attempts by Islamists to impose their will.” At this protest, Morsi took drastic political action, granting himself unprecedented governmental power, such as “immunity from judicial review.” The citizens of Egypt took to the streets again to demand the resignation of Morsi. After months of large-scale demonstrations as well as violent clashes between military forces and protesters, the Military ousted Morsi and took over temporary command of Egypt again.
Currently, the majority political parties in the two nations that overthrew their leaders – Egypt and Tunisia—are Islamist parties. The conservative nature of these parties may be of great concern for those hoping for a more democratic government, and may even foreshadow further sanctions on personal freedom, rather than civic gains.
Like the fictional characters in Coash’s play, women played (and are playing) an integral role in the revolutions across the Arab world. Due to the prevalence of Islamism and Sharia law in the Arab world, the fight for women’s civil rights has been intense. This is because strict interpretations of the Quran and Sharia law restrict the rights of women in Islamic societies considerably. According to Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy, “We removed the Mubarak from our presidential palace but we still have to remove the Mubarak who lives in our minds and in our bedrooms.” That is to say, despite the overthrow of autocratic leaders in Arab nations, sometimes oppressive cultural practices concerning the rights of women have not ceased to exist. This makes the act of protesting even more dangerous for women across the Arab world. Egyptian women especially face harrowing and dangerous discrimination not only when they choose to protest, but in their daily lives. A recent UNICEF study found that 99.3 percent of Egyptian women and girls are sexually harassed in their lifetime. The study additionally revealed that Egypt is the country with the highest instance of genital mutilation in the world, with over 27 million victims. While women played a vital role in the overthrow of the Mubarak government, the subsequent election of Morsi and prevalence of Islamic groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood in government may stifle or even reverse their fight for civil rights.
Despite a history of suppression of liberal uprisings in the Arab world, since the end of the colonial era, the death of Bouazizi triggered a chain reaction in Arab nations, as his plight was distributed through the tools of social media. Writes Talhami “this tragic [event] unleashed an uprising of the common people against Tunisia’s economic, political, and social elites…” Indeed, given the youthful and middle class demographic of these movements, a key component of the Arab Spring and subsequent uprisings has been the use of social media. Web-based sites such as twitter, Facebook and even YouTube have been instrumental in both the organization of protesters and the dissemination of information. The death of Bouazizi was captured on film and uploaded to Facebook. Reporter Yasmine Ryan writes: “Throughout the uprising, Tunisian protesters relied on Facebook to communicate with each other. Facebook, unlike most video sharing sites, was not included in Tunisia’s online censorship.” Unfortunately, British journalist Peter Feuilherade observes that as the authority in Arab countries grows more social-media savvy, they gain the tools to more effectively suppress the dissemination of information from protesters of any given regime. In Egypt, even before the uprisings, the government heavily censored media. Since the revolution journalists and civilian pioneers of social media have been jailed, leading to ongoing censorship.
It is important to remember that the “Arab Spring” as we know it is ongoing—not a singular event—and its true effects will not be known for many years. Author Rami G. Khouri postulates that perhaps we should consider this a birth, rather than a reform for the Arab world, especially Egypt. There is a long way to go yet to achieve government stability and civic harmony in Egypt. With its various religious groups, enthusiastic youth population and a rich cultural history of over 6,000 years, we can be sure that this is not the last cultural reshaping of the Arab political landscape.