ISHMAEL N. DARO
On Dec. 17 of last year, a 26-year-old street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of the governor’s office in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. He was protesting the dire economic conditions and the lack of political freedoms in that country, but he unknowingly set off a series of events that changed history.
Before long, Tunisian anger at dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali swelled into a nonviolent protest movement that ultimately deposed the tyrant after 23 years in power. In neighbouring Egypt, regular people similarly oppressed by a corrupt system took to the streets and ousted Hosni Mubarak after three decades. In countries throughout the Middle east and North Africa, people hit the streets to fight for their rights. The Arab Spring was in full bloom.
Yet, eight months later, the euphoria has subsided and countless crooks are still firmly in place across the region.
Muammar el-Qaddafi clings bitterly to power against an ill-equipped rebel force that cannot seem to topple him despite heavy NATO bombing in Libya. Yemen seems on the verge of collapse, with the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh violently suppressing the protestors who demand an end to the regime in the cities while various tribes and Islamist groups quietly confiscate swaths of the countryside.
In Syria, president Bashar al-Assad has unleashed a relentless campaign of violence against unarmed demonstrators who dare defy him; and while the country is diplomatically isolated, Assad’s brutal security forces are still loyal to the “butcher of Damascus.”
Saudi Arabia, possibly the most repressive regime of all despite its enormous oil wealth, still hasn’t felt the waves of change that shook its neighbours and the monarchy seems unassailable. In fact, the Saudi royals are so intent to kill reform that they even sent troops into neighbouring Bahrain to crush the burgeoning protests there.
Even in Egypt, whose Tahrir Square demonstrations became a symbol of hope for the entire region, reforms have been slow and inadequate under the interim military government, and the country looks unprepared for the first free elections scheduled for November. In fact, the military junta banned international observers from monitoring the coming elections — a troubling development, to say the least.
But all is not lost. After the first two dominoes fell, it was inevitable that other autocrats would consolidate their power and make certain their armies wouldn’t desert them in favour of the people, as happened in both Tunisia and Egypt. Strength of arms is not everything though. Even if the current calls for reform are silenced, the myths that the Middle East needed strongmen to impose order and that Arabs were somehow unprepared for democracy have been hopelessly shattered. Once ideas like freedom and equality take root, they can be hard to eradicate.
There are still reasons to be optimistic. Most of the reformers, from Tunisia to Yemen, are following nonviolent means and are led by educated people who could conceivably run things fairly and democratically if given the chance.
Although the regimes are ruthlessly cracking down on demonstrators in most countries, in an age of ubiquitous communication, breaking up networks of like-minded people has never been harder.
It would be foolish to call the uprisings “Facebook revolutions” or anything silly like that. They are, if anything, largely youth movements and the Arab world’s demographics tilt heavily toward young people under 30. Time is on their side.
As the Arab Spring drags on into darker seasons, we must not lose faith in the brave people facing intimidation and violence for their basic rights and dignity. And given that many of the regimes they are fighting were at times useful Western villains, we have a duty to support this once-in-a-generation movement toward freedom.
Sooner or later, time will run out on the despots still in power in the region. The only question is whether much of the countries being fought over will still be standing when that time comes.
image: Maggie Osama/Flickr