The Arab Spring
“Where were you when Mubarak resigned? #Jan25 #Egypt”
This was a tweet I sent out the day after the despotic and now disgraced Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was finally forced to resign due to massive public protests, which focused on legal, political and economic issues. Mubarak, who managed to stay in power for almost 30 years, resigned after weeks of determined protests and pressure. He faced allegations of corruption and abuse of power as well as charges of premeditated murder of protesters. The uprising in Egypt is still continuing today with much uncertainty and instability rocking the country.
The tweet speaks to the fact that even in the midst of the uproar and chaos of the events of the day—we were conscious that we were living in a historical moment worth encapsulating.
The night before, a world was glued to their computer, television and mobile phone screens—for me it was CNN, Al Jazeera and Twitter—I was desperate for fresh news and the opportunity to share this experience with others who recognized its implications. It was surreal to see what was being played on American, Canadian and British television stations—jubilant images of smiling, dancing, singing Arab youth in Egypt’s Tahrir square.
This was unprecedented. For me, this was the first time that masses of Arab and Middle Eastern looking people were shown on Western TV channels as the good guys rather than the terrorists, fundamentalists, and threats to security. Jaded, seasoned television journalists reporting live from the square were gushing about the peaceful protestors, clearly moved by their discipline as well as their commitment to their cause for change.
For a generation of young people, particularly those of us who are Middle Eastern, North African, Muslim, or Arab, this moment in Tahrir Square spoke to a seismic shift in the political terrain.
This moment was the antidote we so needed for the nightmare of September 11.
This was the moment when the West finally differentiated between the people of North Africa and Middle East and the oppressive and despotic regimes of our homelands.
This was the proof we needed to show that you don’t need to bomb our region for liberation—that change can happen internally through the mobilization of the grassroots and the empowerment of media savvy youth.
What is now being termed as the Arab Spring all begun in the dead of winter with the desperate act of a fruit vendor in Tunisia who set himself on fire. No one would believe that the actions of a single man in a small Arab country nestled in North Africa could give birth to one of the most profound movements of our time.
The Tunisian protests were sparked by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi on December 17. Mohamed Bouazizi’s action in response to the confiscation of his equipment as well as the harassment and humiliation he endured at the hands of municipal officials incited a wave of national demonstrations throughout Tunisia. His brutal death became a symbol of the oppression, high unemployment, food inflation, corruption, and poor living conditions in the country.
These protests largely aided by the role of labour unions in Tunisia were seen as the most dramatic wave of social and political mobilizations in three decades in the country. The demonstrations were met by a severe backlash from police and security forces resulting in numerous injuries and deaths.
Regardless of the attempts of the state to quash these waves of resistance, within the expanse of 28 days, the protestors succeeded in ousting President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Finally on January 14, 2011 Ben Ali officially resigned after fleeing to Saudi Arabia, ending 23 years of despotic rule.
The Tunisian protests incited similar actions across the Arab world resulting in numerous popular uprisings in Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen and Libya to name a few.
Social Media and the Arab Spring
The world of social media had made it possible to simultaneously share videos, photos and commentary documenting the Tunisian revolution. Youth all over world, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa were transfixed by the expediency of the Tunisian uprising. The people of this small sometimes-overlooked country had managed to oust their despotic ruler after only 28 days of unrest.
Images of street rallies and resolute protestors facing up against violent police and security forces were being shared all across the Arab world.
The lessons of how to use social media as a tool for change were learned by the example of the Iranian uprising in 2009—following the fraudulent election that had announced President Ahmadinejad’s re-election too quickly for even the votes to be counted.
In 2009, Iranian youth had used Twitter, YouTube and Facebook to organize their actions and broadcast their mobilizations to the rest of the world—playing the role of traditional media in the context of a country that had shut its doors to journalists and reporters.
The success of the 2009 Iranian campaign to garner global support as well as attract media attention showed organizers across the world that in the absence of traditional media—social media could be a powerful organizing tool.
Armed with the lessons of the 2009 Iranian uprising—young organizers in the Middle East and North Africa were equipped with the tools and knowledge needed to turn their national liberation struggles into the Arab Spring.
Within days of the fall of Mubarak, demonstrations began in Libya in opposition to the county’s eccentric leader Muammar Gaddafi who presided as the ruler of the country for 42 years.
The country fell into a civil war as Gaddafi’s army clashed with revolutionary forces on February 15, following a series of peaceful protests. Gaddafi’s armed forces faced off against the demonstrators with a clear show of force—within days the protests escalated to a national uprising.
After months of fighting, the forces opposing Gaddafi—the National Transitional Council—caught up with the former leader in his former hometown Sirte, where they captured and killed him on October 20, 2011.
While global governments remained largely passive through the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, the attitude towards oil-rich Libya had been one of decisive action.
Taking an active stance against Gaddafi, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution freezing the assets of Gaddafi and ten members of his inner circle, and restricted their travel. The U.N. authorized member states to establish and enforce a no-fly zone over Libya as well as referred the actions of the Gaddafi government to the International Criminal Court for investigation. On June 27 an arrest warrant for Gaddafi was issued on the grounds of committing crimes against humanity. This led to an intense cat-and-mouse chase, with NTC fighters hunting for Gaddafi and eventually laying siege to Sirte as fighters pushed on.
For weeks, thousands of activists on Twitter would unite to offer minute commentary about Gaddafi’s numerous long-winded and rambling speeches—mocking his far-fetched theories about the reasons behind the revolutionary momentum in Libya, reasons as ludicrous as hallucinatory drugs.
While everything from Gaddafi’s fashion choices to his turn of speech were widely mocked the bulk of the online chatter focused primarily on his despotic rule. In fact, a popular hash tag was created to highlight his legacy of crimes against his own people: #Gaddaficrimes. Following his bloody death, photos were captured on mobile phones and news of death spread quickly through the Twitterverse.
The situation in Libya continues to be precarious despite the ongoing presence of U.N. forces and the death of their former leader. As it stands, the future of Libya is unclear.
By March the wave of protests had spread to Syria. The country is on the brink of a civil war as security forces continue to kill civilians despite an Arab League deadline for Damascus to stop its lethal crackdown on protesters.
The Syrian demonstrations started on January 26, 2011, in the midst of the Egyptian revolution. By March 15, the mobilization had escalated to an uprising.
Much like Tunisia and Egypt the people in Syria have organized various actions including marches, hunger strikes and a sustained campaign of civil disobedience. Unlike Egypt, the show of force from the Syrian government against civilians has been both unrelenting and brutal.
Thousands of people have been reported killed and detained and many more injured.
The Syrian government also used tanks and snipers to quash demonstrations. In addition the government has resulted in denying its own citizens of the basic essentials of life; shutting off water and electricity in the city of Daraa and confiscating flour and food in various areas. Reports from June speak of famine like conditions in Daraa, which has been blocked off by the army.
In various cities and towns the army has been deployed to control the population.
In addition various reports speak of the army cracking down on its own soldiers who refuse to fire on civilians.
The situation in Syria continues to be volatile with reports of mass killings and detentions trickling in from the region on a weekly basis as rest of the world watches apprehensively.
Click here for an interactive Arab spring timeline to learn more.
Additional notes by Michelle Kay.
Check out photos of rallies in North America in support of the Arab Spring