When Mohamed Bouazizi, a young Tunisian street vendor, was treated harshly by police for doing business without a license, he felt humiliated as a man and a citizenship and, as a result, poured kerosene over his body and lit himself on fire. This same match that put an end to his life begot a dream for the Arab world, a dream of democracy and freedom from the yoke of dictatorship, humiliation and feudal traditions.
This heroic and unselfish act heralded the beginning of new era in the Arab region, that was called the Arab Spring. Indeed, Bouazizi’s act set off a popular uprising in Tunisia, and its strong tide in no time swept away the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Unabated, the Tunisian flame of change was passed on to the youth of Egypt who, through protests, direct confrontation with the police and sit-ins at Tahrir Square brought down the repressive regime of Hosni Mubarak.
In a perfect domino-effect, revolutions reached Yemen and Bahrain, creating new political realities.
Later, the wave swamped the harshest military regimes of the area: Libya and Syria, where it triggered cruel civil wars, one of them still going on today, claiming thousands of civilian lives and an incredible exodus of the population.
What led to the uprisings? Since the majority of Arab countries achieved independence in the middle of the past century, the people of the region have been ruled by two kinds of regimes, different in format but similar in outcome: 1) Traditional monarchies, autocratic and tribal, claiming religious legitimacy and buying the population with generous direct or indirect payments.
Indeed, most of the rulers of the Gulf States, in the aftermath of the uprisings, handed out money generously to their people. As for the monarchies that do not possess oil wealth, such as Morocco and Jordan, to avoid popular ire they initiated power-devolution processes, through either constitutional revamping or more liberal governance.
2) Young republics that adopted pompous pan-Arabist theory and exhibited revolutionary socialist leanings, but cultivated repressive regimes that ruled by the means of corruption, nepotism and co-option, as well as through intimidation and terror.
These two forms of government ruled populations through the following schemes: • Maintaining the endemic illiteracy of the majority of the population • Encouraging obedience through religious edicts • Triggering automatically harsh repression of discordant voices • Keeping strict control of the media • Using the media to brainwash people with a love of stability, even if it is achieved through repression These recipes worked more or less for over half a century until the advent of the digital revolution that brought Internet and satellite television into all homes, and it was this, ultimately, that broke the spell of absolutism. Through television, people learned about other cultures where the individual was respected and celebrated, and they started questioning their own political culture.
After that came the digital revolution that gave the ordinary citizen ultimate power to criticize, question, but, most importantly, communicate with others. Until then, of course, information was controlled by the state, it was the ultimate strength of the regimes, more powerful than crude force.
Through checking various sources on the Internet and hearing and reading many accounts and articles, ordinary people came to the conclusion that their leaders were corrupt and oppressive, and by the means of the Internet they organized their resistance, quietly, until Bouazizi struck his match and kick-started the Arab uprisings still going on today, unabated.
The ironic thing about the Arab Spring is that the same autocratic regimes that were, somewhat, protected by the US, like Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh and Egypt’s Mubarak were, on the other hand, brought down by non-lethal American inventions: the Internet and its affiliated social medias such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as YouTube.
In the past, the change of a leader in the Arab World only happened through two means: • Putsch: the military, unhappy with the reigning despot for one reason or another, decide to replace him so it mounted a military coup and him and his followers and family were either imprisoned in some gulag or killed to make place for a new team, while the people watched disinterestedly; they knew repression would continue to be their lot.
• Natural death: the leader would die, of old age or illness, and the ruling party would designate his successor in consultation with the army.
Nobody, in their wildest dreams, ever thought that docile and “immature” Arab youth could successfully lead a popular uprising, simply because such events were always crushed in blood and in total silence. This time, however, things were different: Arab youth had sophisticated weapons, namely PCs, tablets, smartphones and the Internet, and also powerful allies in the form of world opinion.
The digital revolution has allowed every Arab young person to be, at the same time, an organizer of political meetings and demonstrations and also an efficient and fully operational news agency capable of sending to the world at large accounts, communiqués and, most importantly, videos and images, showing life as it truly is and not as the dictatorships would have the world believe.
Why did the Arab youth rebel? The youth, from the word go, were imprisoned in traditional, absurd systems that are archaic and unfair and belong to the Middle Ages. The existing societal systems are basically tribal in essence, and patriarchal in organization. In such an organization, the individual has no existence whatsoever, he is part of an extended family ruled by a patriarch who does not accept criticism or any expression of dissent. As such, the political system is a mirror image of the social system: undemocratic and repressive. Thus, to preserve this way of life, the youth are educated into obedience and allegiance, and imprisoned for life by taboos of two kinds: Social taboos: Arab societies accessed modernization and modernism, but disallowed the youth their fruits. They were not allowed to date and flirt publicly, no sex before marriage, no expression of sexuality outside of heterosexuality, no independence of thought, no profession of opinion outside of the consensus, no criticism of religious or political establishments, no freedom whatsoever for women, etc.
Political taboos: The youth are required to express allegiance to repressive regimes and extol their goodness and show total respect to seniority.
They are taught to tone down their discontent, if any, and are barred from expressing discordant opinions for fear of being imprisoned, killed or maimed in retribution. Existing regimes instilled fear in the youth of any transgression of the red lines, and on the other hand those who toed the line and showed obedience were rewarded for their subservience with money, power and seniority over those who did not.
Did the Arab Spring falter? The Arab Spring did not fail, as many people would argue, it just ran out of steam for two reasons: First, the youth lack experience in the management of the post-Arab Spring political situations and as such were supplanted quickly by the regimented and religiously-motivated Islamist groups, which, in turn, are losing the sympathy of the masses.
Second, the establishment in many cases introduced reforms, that may or may not be genuine, either to defuse the situation or make the minimal changes needed to try to ride out the storm.
However, the Arab youth has given the existing regimes a second chance, but, alas, most of them have squandered it. They have also given the Islamists a golden opportunity to govern and prove they are different, but their religious absolutism cost them credibility in the eyes of the public, and thus they are out, for the time being.
For the time being, the Arab Spring is taking a rest in the Arab world, but its universal message is alive worldwide. Some time ago it was the uprising of Ukraine against undemocratic institutions, and the Arab Spring has also romanced communist China through the “Revolution of Umbrellas” conducted by the youth of Hong Kong, dreaming of true democracy, maybe, in all of China for once.
So the Arab Spring is alive and kicking and its next manifestation in the Arab world will not only finish off the political systems affected by the first wave but might, also, wreak havoc on the rich conservative countries of the Gulf and may reach theocratic Iran, where the ground is fertile for change.
So, everyone is duly warned of what is to come: either initiate true change or end up in the trash can of history. The choice is yours.