AAt the end of 2010, he was on his way to Sudan for Christmas, scouring Arab social media for snippets of information about a story set in Tunisia; a story that the Arab media was censoring and that the western media still ignored. A street trader, Mohammed Bouazizi, set himself on fire in protest against the government in the town of Sidi Bouzid, sparking demonstrations that spread across the country.
Weeks before the protests toppled Tunisia’s president for life, you could see that something about this uprising was different. There was something about the way the protests resonated in homes across the Arab world, the intensity of the moral outrage and the force of the momentum that felt new and exciting.
But even as I wrote back then about their promise and potential, I never imagined that they would become what we now call the Arab Spring. At the time, it was simply unfathomable that peaceful protests would topple an Arab dictator. It had never happened before. No one even knew what that would be like.
A decade later, when the phrase “Arab spring” has become synonymous with shattered dreams of liberation, it is painful to remember the first days and weeks of protests. Now it is painful to remember the heady months of joy and optimism, the sense of power that we had as Arabs for the first time in our lives.
Above all, it is smart to remember the feeling of camaraderie and enthusiasm: when you cried in the streets and cafes with strangers, you huddled around a radio or television when the news of the disappearance of another dictator arrived; when you congratulated them on the revolution in their country and they promised you that this time your country would be next.
And it hurts to remember all the acts of bravery: the moment a friend called just before going downstairs to join a protest and left them their parents’ phone number in case they never came back. When he comforted the families of those who had died and found that his parents were not grieving, not cowering; they were determined that the death of their children would not be in vain.
And yet, when we look across the Arab world today, it is hard to believe that this happened. Only the “Tunisian revolution” remains intact. All other affected countries have collapsed into chaos and civil war, as in Libya and Syria, or, like Egypt, have entered a new era of dictatorship, darker and more oppressive than ever. What has happened looks like a fulfillment of the warnings that were issued against the protests from the start – this will only lead to even greater political instability.
Many of those who lived through the days of promise don’t like to talk about them now. When they do, it’s almost ashamed; a disdain for his younger self, for his naivety and recklessness. “You cannot have freedom and stability, ”an Egyptian told me earlier this year, reflecting on the failed revolution. “This is what we have learned.”
So the legacy of the Arab Spring is not just the atrocities and authoritarians that followed, but the fact that it is now portrayed as a repudiation of the very notion of protest. “We blame ourselves,” Hafsa Halawa, an Iraqi Egyptian woman active in the post-Tahrir political movement, told me last week. “But we are also blamed.” Revolutionaries have their own regrets to grapple with, but are now also doomed for underestimating the scale of the challenge they faced.
“You didn’t know what you were up against, you didn’t know what you were getting into,” Halawa says they are told. “But we failed because there was too much pressure on the protest movement to become this political animal. Once the protesters toppled the regimes, they were expected to take their place. “
Even in Tunisia, the Bouazizi name has lost its sanctity. His family was defamed and harassed, accused of profiting financially from the death of their loved one, and he joined millions of other Arab Spring exiles to leave the country. In her hometown, a Guardian reporter met a woman walking past the giant image of Bouazizi erected in her memory. “I curse him,” he said. “I want to shoot it down. He’s the one who ruined us. “
But all these accusations and self-flagellations obscure the real truth about the Arab Spring, which is that it failed because it could not have succeeded. Peaceful transition was simply impossible, at that time and in that way. What we underestimated, from Syria to Sudan, was not the power of the military or the brutality of the security services, or the tenacity of entrenched interests and elites who would do anything to maintain their power. What we missed was actually the lack of a real counterweight to all of these things.
The problem was the absence of sufficient forces necessary for the success of a revolution rather than the presence of too many countercurrents against it. Because dictatorship is not just about the government of one man, it is about the sterilization of democracy. After the fall of the despots, it became clear that decades of despotism had salty the earth. There were no opposition parties to harness and guide political energy, there were no charismatic figures who had returned from exile or escaped from jail to galvanize political movements, and there was no room for political discourse because there was no media ecosystem or intellectual space. healthy enough to withstand capture. for conspiracies and sectarianism.
The same thing that made the Arab Spring a shocking historical force, which was an organic, people-driven movement that had no leader or ideology, ultimately cannibalized it. The vacuum swallowed up the revolution. In that hesitation, there are echoes and lessons in the resistance facing anti-establishment movements in the West, from Black Lives Matter to challenges to the center of the earth from the left. What the Arab Spring faced was a universal enigma: how to convert the forces that demand equality into those that offer it.
Today, it is difficult to see beyond the established narrative of failure: the millions displaced in Syria, Libya and Yemen; the dead and the missing; bodies filling Egypt’s political jails. But a closer look reveals a persistent affirmation of what was once so exciting, especially in the insecurity it has sown among the leaders who followed it. Egypt’s relentless police state is a sign that the military and security services have learned that the threat of another revolt is so powerful that they cannot allow the slightest transgression. Like a jailer whose prosecution once escaped but has since been recaptured, the country’s paranoid leaders will go to any lengths to ensure that it never happens again.
And so everyone, from young woman On TikTok, posting dance videos for doctors battling Covid is seen as a threat to airless monoculture that must be maintained to quell any challenges. It is a futile effort. Discontent continues to grow, as corruption and economic struggles push people to abandon rational calculations, to spread to the streets and true arrest, torture and even death.
This has been the metronome that marks the time since the protests began a decade ago: fear for life and sustenance one moment, desperate, passionate and undaunted rage the next. You can see this double consciousness in polls that show that a majority in eight countries in the Arab world agree that their societies are much more unequal now. But in five of those countries, most say they have no regrets about the Arab Spring protests. It is a tense and fragile margin of victory for the forces of the old regime. Things may be worse than they were a decade ago, but there is one fact that is now clear to despots and people alike: a fact that gives people an advantage that they lacked the first time around. You can pass. It has happened before. Now we know what it looks like. And next time, we will know what is required of us.
• Nesrine Malik is a columnist for The Guardian
Digsmak is a news publisher with over 12 years of reporting experiance; and have published in many industry leading publications and news sites.