Photo by Joel Carillet/Getty Images
Over a decade ago, a young fruit seller called Mohammed Bouazizi set himself alight outside the provincial headquarters of his home town in Tunisia, in protest against local police officials who had seized his cart and produce.
Accounts of the 26-year-old’s shocking act rippled through his homeland, where hundreds of thousands of people who had also been humiliated by an atrophied state and its officials now found the courage to raise their voices.
In the 18 days between Bouazizi’s self-immolation on December 17th 2010 and his death on 4 January, the most dramatic social unrest in Tunisia in decades unfolded, bringing the government of dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to its knees and ultimately forcing him to cede power 10 days after the fruit seller died. And yet, far bigger change was to still come as events in this small coastal country sparked revolts across north Africa and the Middle East, the lonely death of a distressed vendor becoming the symbol of a collective rage that defined an era.
Protests quickly became revolutions, taking root across the police states of the region. In Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya and Syria, dictatorships thought to be impregnable facts of life for their longsuffering citizens were suddenly exposed as vulnerable husks. In every corner of the region, Bouazizi’s story of earning roughly £2 a day to feed a family of eight, and being defeated by disrespectful functionaries, resonated widely. Amid remarkable scenes of mass protests with real momentum, it seemed self-determination was no longer out of reach. Taking part in the process, no matter how difficult, or bloody, appeared to be possible after all.
The movement that soon came to be known as the Arab spring was an extraordinary shock, shaking away decades of torpor and highlighting the power of a combustible street, which had been thought to be no match for feudal dynasties and all-powerful states accustomed to treating citizens as subjects and routinely dousing their aspirations.
Uprisings were aided by the ability of people to rapidly organise, often on smartphones and readily accessible web applications which easily defeated state security structures. The challenges were particularly potent to postcolonial regimes, such as Egypt and Libya, and later Syria, where power had been consolidated over decades on the edifices of European colonial enterprises that had remained unresponsive to changing demographics.
By 2010, a convergence of circumstances had made it more difficult for the status quo to hold. Increasing divides in living standards, an ever more unaccountable elite and a rapidly growing restive youth with little access to opportunity, and even less redress for grievances, led many to believe they had nothing to lose by protesting.
“Those systems are designed to govern over a specific set of demographics. They’re not set up to keep up with demographic changes at all,” said Dr H A Hellyer, a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute thinktank. “Get to 2010, and you’ve already got years of these systems bursting at the seams, trying incredibly to keep up with these demographic changes on the one hand, and ensuring that wealth distribution remains limited to the top on the other. Combine that with the continued autocratic bargain – ‘Don’t push about political freedoms, because we are your protectors against terrorism’ – and you have a recipe for a perfect disaster.”
By mid-January, Tunisia’s Ben Ali had fled to exile in Saudi Arabia, and Egypt’s streets were about to explode into a revolution that toppled its autocrat of four decades, Hosni Mubarak. Libya, where Muammar Gaddafi had ruled ruthlessly for 40 years, was also starting to teeter, as was Syria, where Hafez al-Assad had bequeathed the most tightly managed police state in the region to his son Bashar, who now faced a real sustained threat to his family’s dynastic rule.
In all four regimes, a veneer of institutions and a constitution masked the real holder of power: a family, a party, or an army. As they wobbled, alarms were sounding in Saudi Arabia and Iran, which feared the power of their own people might also be unleashed – in Tehran’s case for the second time in less than two years.
Nancy Okail, an Egyptian humanitarian and scholar, was finishing a PhD at Sussex University when scenes of hundreds of thousands of demonstrators taking to the streets of Cairo’s Tahrir Square started to flash across the world’s screens on 25 January 2011. “My sister was visiting me. I said tomorrow there will be a revolution in Egypt. She was sceptical, but I was right.”
Within weeks, Barack Obama withdrew support for Mubarak, severing a lifeline to the Egyptian president’s main backer and taking a stand on the firm side of those who had campaigned to oust him. Mubarak fell and the Egyptian street was elated. The optics were noticed elsewhere. In Syria and Libya, US backing for anti-regime demonstrators was seen as a sign that their revolts would also be supported. Within weeks, Libya’s revolt turned into a broader war, with Arab states giving diplomatic support for a military intervention to support anti-Gaddafi rebels, led by France, the UK and Denmark and underwritten by Washington.
By later that year, Syria had also descended into war, as Assad’s military attacked demonstrators and opposition forces began to line up against him. In an interview with a Russian TV network in 2012, he warned: “The cost of a foreign invasion of Syria, if it happens, would be bigger than the entire world can bear,” adding that the consequences of bringing down his regime would be felt “from the Atlantic to the Pacific”.
Eight years on at the time of this writing in 2020, Assad remains nominally in power, with Russia, Iran and Turkey all having taken prominent stakes in the conflict that has since destroyed much of the country and forced half of its prewar population across borders, or displaced them internally. Egypt too has endured a tumult that saw the end of Mubarak, replaced by the brief and disastrous rule of the Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, followed by the military coup to oust Morsi led by Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who has reimposed the authority of the Egyptian security structures and strangled much of civic life.
In both Syria and Egypt, the dissent that flourished in the early months of the uprisings has been routinely crushed and there are now vastly more political detainees in the security prisons of both states than in early 2011. Human rights groups have described conditions in both countries as intolerable and condemned the ever increasing numbers of detainees, often rounded up for spurious reasons and disappeared for years.
“From late in 2011, we saw the signs,” said Okail. “The key for me was the military was always managing things. From the outset when the tanks moved into Tahrir Square to notionally support the demonstrations, others were saying ‘no, no, they’re on our side’. But I know these people, I know how they run things.
“And all the while as things were unravelling, the west, particularly the US, was saying stick to the road map of democracy and that both sides should practice self-restraint – as if power was equal. The messaging was ‘don’t worry, when there’s an elected president it will all be over’.”
In Syria, which remains broken and unreconciled after a decade of unrest, the potential unleashed by the early days of revolution now seems unrecognisable. The impact of the war and the revolts have left a region which had not recovered from the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq in turmoil. To many the spectre of self-determination seems further away than ever, and the broader world a very different place.
“The Iraq war and the Arab spring led to Isis and the Syrian civil war, which created the refugee crisis into Europe, contributing to the rise of populism in the west and the UK vote to leave the EU,” said Emma Sky, a former adviser to commanding US generals in Iraq. “Regaining control of our borders to limit immigration was a key driver of Brexit. The Iraq war also contributed to the loss of public faith in experts and the establishment. America’s post-cold war triumphalism crashed and burned in the Middle East. The Iraq war was the catalyst. The failure to stop the bloodshed in Syria the evidence.”
Hellyer said regimes had learned few lessons “except the wrong ones”, and saw themselves as having two options. “One is to open up, slowly or not slowly, and begin the long and arduous task of building states that are sustainable in the 21st century, which includes comprehensive security – and rights are a part of that – for their populations.
“The second is to decide that opening up a little means that the populations will kick out the postcolonial elites. So to stop that from happening, just increase all control as much as possible and stamp out dissent.”
Okail, who has spent much of the eight years after 2012 in exile after being accused of receiving foreign funding in her role as director of the human rights organisation Freedom House, said despite the setbacks all she had fought for had been “totally worth it”.
“We have had some small wins and are still fighting battles,” she said. “Though the longer things stay like this, the more difficult it will be to rescue the country. For the sake of human rights and democracy we should not just rely on governments to change things. We need stamina and we need different approaches. This is where real change happens.”
Martin Chulov won the Orwell prize for journalism in 2015. He has reported from the Middle East since 2005.