January 2011 Explained: The Arab Street Gets Its Moment

Monday, January 31, 2011

Market street (Fes, Morocco)
This month's events have turned the Arab world upside down—and have done so with a speed few ever could have imagined. January 2011 will be remembered in the region much like Europe's Summer of '68, if not like the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Because of my interest in the region, I have spent a good part of the month glued to Al Jazeera English, but most Americans have not. Many might now be wondering: After years of stagnation, how did a region so "stuck in the mud" ignite so suddenly? And what does it mean for the future?

Act I: Tunisia

It all began in Tunisia, where a well-educated, globally aware population endured decades of repression under a police state. Thanks in part to satellite television and in part to strong European ties, Tunisians knew what they were missing. Their country's listless economy, chronic high
unemployment, and large youth population made a combustible mix. The many young, jobless college graduates felt a particular humiliation each time President Ben Ali, his wife, and their families publicly flaunted their wealth.

This month it all exploded. Wikileaks published US diplomatic cables confirming Tunisians' suspicions about the corruption and excesses at the heart of the regime. Then on December 17, Mohamed Bouazizi, at the time an unemployed young nobody, set himself on fire after local police forced him to stop selling vegetables on the streets of his home town, Sidi Bouzid. This act of desperation lit the fuse. With Bouazizi's death, demonstrations rapidly gained momentum, spreading across Tunisia. The army emboldened them further by announcing that it would not fire on the protestors. The president offered every form of concession, but the protests only mounted. On January 14, with the mob at his heels, Ben Ali fled for Saudi Arabia.

Act II: Egypt

Egyptians had long endured many of the same injustices as Tunisians—though with even greater levels of poverty. But in an authoritarian state, the risks of speaking out are great. For years, many Egyptians viewed President Mubarak as a despot, but few criticized him openly, for fear that their fellow citizens would not risk joining them—a classic game theory problem. But Tunisia changed the equation, nudging Egyptians' confidence over a critical threshold. (Al Jazeera and other satellite channels actually made this possible, by broadcasting live the Tunisians' easy victory.) Suddenly, the entire nation could enter the streets without fear.

As January draws to a close, the protests continue and the standoff in Egypt remains unresolved. Mubarak has made some minor concessions, but the people have their mind on one thing only: new leadership. Crowds chant "مبارك, مبارك, السعودية في انتظارك" ("Mubarak, Mubarak, Saudi Arabia awaits you"... it rhymes in Arabic) and other unambiguous slogans. A simple "يسقط مبارك" ("Down with Mubarak") is spraypainted on the walls in the background of every Al Jazeera shot from Cairo. Still, the Egyptian army's position remains unclear, as does the opposition's chances of unifying around a single leader. (Mohamed ElBaradei is one possibility.)

Act III?

Ironically, "revolution" has for decades been the buzzword that the Arab world's despots used to guarantee their rule, by reviving the spirit of colonial-era liberation struggles. For example, Libyans live in a "permanent state of revolution", Syrians drive through Damascus along شارع الثورة ("Revolution Street"), and now the Cairo protesters amass each day in Tahrir ("Liberation") Square. The strategy of placing themselves at the head of a never-ending nationalist, post-revolution victory parade has long served Arab dictators well. But now that the real revolution has arrived, they seem surprisingly unwelcoming.

It remains unclear how many of the Arab world's other despots are in imminent danger. (All of them, let's hope.) Egypt is the keystone state in the Arab world, and its fate could determine the direction of political developments across the region for years to come. Just as the Tunisian crowds' triumph inspired their Egyptian cousins to speak out, a popular coup in Egypt could give courage to others in the Arab world. Significant protests have been reported already in Yemen and Jordan. And the Kuwaiti government's sudden announcement of cash transfers to every citizen looks like a desperate effort to stave off a popular revolution.

Labelling the protests an Islamist uprising might be another way dictators will try to cling to power. After all, many have received millions of dollars in American aid for years for their "support in the War on Terror." It's worked before—why not now? For this reason, it is important to note the secular, popular, mainstream, not-at-all-religious nature of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. The moderate masses in the Arab world have been silent for years, allowing extremists to bring a bad reputation upon the entire region. But this month they have finally spoken. Their voice is louder and their grievances more understandable than any terrorist's. This makes it much harder for American policymakers to react—as illustrated by the Obama administration's awkward squirming in response to Mubarak's sudden change of fate.

But if the events of this January tell us anything it is this: the universal desire for democratic freedoms can be subdued for many years, but never for good. All tyrants eventually fall.

* * *

The present revolutionary wave could subside, or it could be one of the most pivotal movements in the Arab world's history. Stay tuned:

If you have other thoughts, links, or info, feel free to share below.

1 comment:

Si Chris said...

It all makes sense now! Great post Si Andrew. I was actually wondering what your thoughts were on the American coverage of the protests. I spent some time jumping between CNN and Fox News on Sunday. I noticed a fair amount of discussion on the possibility of increased oil prices, security in the region, and the influence of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. And more reporting on the "chaos" rather than the "protest," which has been Egypt's state news strategy, attemping to give credence to the Mubarak regime.

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