The Top 10 Missed Signs of the Arab Spring

What did the events surrounding the “Freedom Flotilla,” which took place almost a year ago, have to do with the Arab Spring? This was a question that was posed to me at a panel discussion this week. At first, I thought the question was a bit odd. Given the nature of events over the past few months and the rapidly developing news coming from one Arab country to the next, the flotilla seemed like eons ago. But the question got me thinking: “What signs of this Arab Spring did we miss?” Hindsight is of course 20/20, and predicting based on any of the events below that transformational change would sweep the region would have been unlikely. Yet, thinking about some of the events and trends of recent years, there were definitely signs that we missed. So, in no particular order, here are my top 10:

1.The Flotilla – a few days before the Mavi Marmara was attacked by raiding Israeli commandos who ultimately killed 9 civilians on board and injured others, I had written a piece in ForeignPolicy.com about the importance of this Flotilla and what it meant:

To their credit, the few hundred non-violent activists-turned-sailors have found a way to maximize their power as individuals to force one of the world’s most powerful regimes into a corner. Whether the boats make it to Gaza or not, this is a tremendous victory for civil society in international affairs.

And a victory it was. People, activists from all walks of life, decided they simply wouldn’t wait around anymore for governments or states to change policies that were inhumane. They weren’t going to wait any longer for Israel or Mubarak’s Egypt to end their collective punishment of 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza. So, they took to the sea and challenged a regime by sailing into an unjust blockade instead of a water cannon or rows of riot police, and they sailed straight into history. There is little doubt that the same spirit that filled the “Freedom Flotilla” was embodied in Mohamad Bouazizi and flooded Tahrir square.

2. Khaled Said – It was not so much the killing of Khaled Said that made his murder a turning point – after all, many Egyptians were tortured and killed in the custody of the Mubarak regime’s repressive security apparatus – rather, it was the reaction to Said’s death that made it different. The horrific images of his corpse after torture went viral as the Mubarak regime failed to swiftly hold those responsible accountable. I remember thinking to myself the day #khaledsaid was trending globally on Twitter (July 22nd, 2010) that there was a nucleolus of young Egyptian activists that were fed up with the regime and that we would be hearing from this generation soon – and did we ever.
3. The 2006 PLC Elections – For the first time in Palestinian history, the Islamic Resistance
Movement or HAMAS, would participate in legislative council elections. When HAMAS’ “Change and Reform” ticket won handily at the end of January in 2006, a clear message was sent that the Palestinian people sought “Isqat al Nizam” or regime change much in the same way that Egyptians and Tunisians did, except Palestinian did it through the ballot box. Now, this didn’t necessarily mean that throngs of Palestinians supported HAMAS ideology. Similarly in Tahrir, liberal reformists were protesting alongside Islamists not because they agreed on everything, but because they agreed on one very important thing: this regime had to go.So when the U.S., Israel and Egypt worked together to put an end to such change, they were doing so with the common fear of what democratic movements would mean for each of their governments. I guess we are finding that out now.
4. Wikileaks – At the end of 2010, countless classified U.S. State Department cables were leaked to the public. Among the revelations included in the cables were discussions of the absurd corruption of Zien Al-Abidine Ben Ali and his wife Leila Trabilsi. Ben Ali was the first to go. We also learned that the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen was conspiring with the U.S. over how to lie to the Yemeni people over drone strikes against suspected Al-Qaeda targets. Saleh is currently hanging on to power by a thread. We also learned about Bahrain’s contacts with the Israeli Mossad and how they view the majority of their population as proxies for Iran. Not surprisingly, the U.S. has been silent over joint Saudi and Bahraini repression of Shia dissidents in Bahrain and the ongoing destruction of Shia houses of worship.
5. The Youth Bulge – Well, this isn’t really one we missed, but no one really took the problem seriously enough (especially not Arab regimes). With disproportionate numbers of Arab youth in Arab societies, coupled with rampant unemployment and poor economic conditions, there was no shortage of angry young people to fill the streets. This certainly didn’t just start yesterday, but pressure was building over time as more and more Arab students entered the workforce as vegetable peddlers instead of participants in growing and developed economies. At the same time as many Arab youth were reluctantly accepting a dearth of jobs and low wages, they noticed the disappearance of a middle class, a widening income gap in society and corrupt government officials reaping the benefits of a system set against its people. Something had to give.
6. The rise of Erdoganism – Remember the World Economic Forum in 2009 when Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan berated the Israeli President Shimon Peres over Israel’s conduct in Gaza? If you don’t, much of the Arab world does. But what was as significant as Erdogan’s outbursts on behalf of oppressed Palestinians that day was the juxtaposition it presented. Seated on the stage along with Erdogan and Peres was Arab League General Secretary Amr Mousa. As Erdogan walked off the stage in disgust, Mousa remained seated. The contrast could not have been more apparent or important. For decades, what was left of the revolutionary republics were lead by repressive dynastic regimes that justified “emergency laws” as part the effort against Israel while really doing little to oppose Israeli behavior. But here was a democratically elected leader, not to mention from an Islamist background, who relayed the feelings of Arab publics better than the representative of the Arab league who, sitting idly by, represented the impotence and incompetence of Arab regimes that were better at using force against their own people than the Israelis.
7. The Palestine Papers – Released only days before the uprisings began in Egypt, the Palestine Papers confirmed what many people already knew: the American-led peace process was a waste of time. In instance after instance, the pro-Israel bias in American mediation was on display. This was important because it underscored broader American strategy in the region which emphasized stability and the security of Israel with little if any concern for the Palestinians or the repressed peoples living under repressive regimes. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the pillars of American strategy in the region, both vis-à-vis Israel and the “War on Terror” were among the first to fall. The Palestine Papers gave Arabs yet another reason to revolt against the regimes which willingly participated in supporting this structure.
8. Satellite Dishes EVERYWHERE – Jerusalem is a complicated place. Jewish colonies fill up every remaining bit of space between Palestinian population centers. When you drive through it is not always easy to tell when you are in an Arab or Jewish neighborhood. Rooftops, however, betray the camouflage. Arab houses have different water boilers and, of course, the stereotypical receiving dishes pointed toward that part of outerspace where Aljazeera comes from.

But it is hard to really grasp the revolutionary significance of satellite news for the Arab world from an outsider’s perspective. An anecdote will help: As I was watching events develop in the Arab world, I was paying close attention to both state TV channels in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, etc., while also watching the satellite networks. I happened to also be working on a historical research project which involved reading about media in the different

parts of the Ottoman Empire at the turn of the last century. I came across a fascinating edict which was delivered from the Sultan of the empire to all newspapers at the time about what was allowed to be printed and what wasn’t. It is reproduced here from Mustafa Kabha’s bookon the Palestinian Press:

1. First and foremost, newspapers must inform the people of the precious health of the Honorable Sultan. Then they must discuss matters pertaining to the agricultural crops and the progress of trade and industry in the empire.

2. The use of exclamation marks and successive dots may arouse inquiries and speculations; hence they are forbidden.

3. Newspapers are forbidden from publishing any minority of majority opinion of the population concerning the corruption of government officials. They are also forbidden from noting complaints on this matter referred to the Honorable Magnificent Sultan.

4. The people have no need to be informed of assassination attempts on the kings of foreign countries or of demonstrations held by trouble-makers in those countries. The newspapers are totally forbidden from conveying such news to the people.

What is so shocking about this edict is not that it existed as such 120 years ago in the Ottoman Empire – such things are to be expected of that time and place. But rather, the fascinating thing to see was how little has changed from that point up through the recent period. It is only when you consider how long the restrictions of state dominated media have lasted, and how many governments they have transcended, that you can truly appreciate the revolutionary nature of the Arab satellite channels. One has to wonder how many Bouazizis there were throughout the Arab world for decades that “never made a sound” because there was no media permitted to report it to Arab ears.

9. The War on Gaza – For many throughout the region, the heinous Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip, which it was already strangling with a siege that Egypt was cooperating in, was a travesty beyond words. This war was the exclamation point at the end of an 8-year long sentence about Arab humiliation written by the Bush administration. It was simply shameful that the Arabs could allow this to happen. After the 2006 war on Lebanon, the war on Gaza got many people thinking about the dire situation the region was in and what horrors may come without drastic change. One thing that kept the pressure cooker’s lid intact after the war was the inauguration of President Obama. The coming of Obama defused tensions in the Arab world in part because his message resonated with some, and in part because he simply wasn’t George W. Bush. But when Obama’s policies toward the region became impossible to differentiate from Bush’s, especially on Palestine, whatever band-aid his arrival placed on the injured pride of the Arabs was torn off and the wound was still very raw.

10. The Throwing of the Shoe – Long before Egyptians in Tahrir raised their shoes as Mubarak delivered defiant speeches, long before Libyans lobbed shoes at projected images of Gaddafi speeches in Benghazi, there was Muntather Al-Zaidi, the journalist who threw his shoes at President George W. Bush in Iraq, expressing the emotions of millions of Arabs like him. It was no surprise that after the December 14, 2008 incident, people were calling for the shoes to be placed in a museum and thousands of orders were placed by shoe sellers for the type of shoes Zaidi was wearing. Zaidi became a hero and a symbol of a generation which had enough and simply couldn’t take it anymore. For what it’s worth, Munather Al-Zaidi’s name roughly translates to “waiting for the rest,” a fitting title for the man who threw his shoe two years before an entire region followed in his footsteps.

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