For decades we have seen dictatorial regimes maintain a death grip in the Arab world. Having started out with charismatic leadership and the promise of Pan-Arabism, they soon became a means through which unelected leaders could exercise absolute authority over their people. Over the years, with Western powers recognising the potential threat of extremist takeovers, Arab dictators launched programs to torture and repress their people with savage brutality, leading to a wave of criticism and resentment. Opposition to the regimes always existed, but few could have predicted the scale and nature of the changes that would come.
The Tunisian protests were triggered by the public suicide of a 26 year old Tunisian graduate, Mohamed Bouazizi, who burned himself alive in protest against the highhandedness and corruption of the authorities. Soon after, it became evident that a revolution was brewing. State repression only fuelled the uprising, and within a matter of days the power and prestige of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s twenty-three year old regime was destroyed.
Tunisia was one of the most prosperous Arab countries and traditionally Tunisians are perceived as docile and less antagonistic. However, their initiative inspired other Arabs, as well as instilling a sense of competitiveness among them. Soon people all over the Arab world, including in Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, Jordan, Algeria, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan, took to the streets demanding that their rights be upheld. Through their determined struggle, the people of these countries not only won the support of the international powers that had been allies of their rulers, but also forced the stubborn autocrats to listen and act according to the people’s wishes. Although Egypt was the only other country to overthrow a regime that had held power for three decades, there have been reforms in most of the other countries and the process is ongoing. Currently there is a civil war in Libya, while Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen are experiencing severe crises, and it is yet to be seen what the future holds for their people. This phenomenon is what is widely known as the Arab Spring.
Revolutions are seldom peaceful, but the Arab revolutions have been notoriously bloody. More than twenty-four thousand people have lost their lives so far in some of the most brutal scenes of state repression that have been seen in modern times. Aside from police brutality, there is also the risk of revolutions being high-jacked by extremist groups. Despite all of this, those fighting for freedom have continued to set a heroic example in their struggle for democracy.
These Arab revolutions are unique for several reasons. First is the fact that members of all parts of society have participated; a well-known video from the Egyptian protests records a bearded protester saying, “We will not be silenced, whether you’re a Christian, whether you’re a Muslim, whether you’re an atheist, you will demand your goddamn rights, and we will have our rights, one way or the other! WE WILL NEVER BE SILENCED!”
Secondly, young people have played a leading role in the protests. Youth activism all over the developing world is a matter of concern. However, the Arab Spring has set a precedent that such youths are an advantage rather than a detriment. It has shown that even in times of utmost despair, youths will not necessarily opt for extremist solutions.
Social media has also played a vital role. The development of an online world has been seen as creating apathetic individuality, but the Arab Spring has proved that it can also do great things. Now it can be said that social media is not only an essential part of our daily lives, but it is also a revolutionary tool for political mobilisation. These key features of the Arab Spring also mark a general trend of current socio-political movements and those of the near future.
However, if the Arab dictators cited extremism as a reason for prolonging their own rule, we should not fall prey to the fallacy of embracing everything that they had opposed when in power. The threat of armed extremist groups still haunts the Arab World. Let’s not forget the people and factors behind the assassination of Anwar Saadat, the ruthless massacre of foreign tourists in 1997 and al-Qaeda’s active cells in Yemen, to name but a few. However, the comforting truth is that people have rejected extremism; trusting people’s will and the democratic process is the only way out.
Despite all their limitations, these Arab revolutions are undoubtedly the greatest events to happen in the Arab world since its decolonisation. They not only show an Arab revival towards a new and better future, they also join the broken link of the world-wide process of democratisation. A comparable precedent of this sequence of events is the breakup of the USSR and the resulting democratisation of the Communist Bloc. Old presumptions about the unsuitability of democracy have been proven wrong. Now democracy is no longer an alien process to the Arab people. In this age of globalisation people are waking up to new realities. It is now up to governments and the dictators themselves to understand these new realities and act accordingly. The absence of democracy will make the authoritarian leaders unable to manage future challenges. The only option left for them is to accept the democratic system.