A crack at freedom

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by Jesmond Saliba

The angry crowds that filled the streets of Tunisia in 2011 shouted “Employment, freedom, dignity”, a slogan that would echo in other revolts across the Middle East. Soon, that demand transformed into an outright call for state leaders to resign.

The dramatic events carried a tinge of optimism and confidence, but ten years later, many observers express pessimism if not utter disappointment at the “Arab Winter” that followed the uprisings. None of the Arab Spring nations has managed to improve its general standard of living and bloody wars in Syria, Libya, and Yemen have created humanitarian crises of historical proportions. Apart from Tunisia, the Spring countries enjoy no more democratic freedoms and no less corruption today than before the revolts.

Indeed, the failure to achieve economic stability or a transition to democratic systems has led commentators to question whether the uprisings can be considered revolutionary at all. Popular protests that surged simultaneously in Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Sudan in 2019 gave hope that the flame had not yet died, but it was summarily extinguished by the outbreak of Covid-19.

Indicators of success or failure are closely tied to expectations. The rage at leaders displayed by protestors must not be confused with a cry for an alternative Western-style political setup. The millions of people who flooded national squares in the region and occupied official buildings wanted something more basic: decency, fairness, opportunity.

The trouble with trying to trace the direct outcomes of the Arab Spring revolts is that it ignores the complexities of societies and the generational shifts that need to take place before the effects of the phenomena can be discerned. It is, perhaps, more useful to think of the spring metaphor in terms of a primed coil that is released multiple times, rather than as one transient season.

The story of social development anywhere in the world is dotted with extraordinary events. But while it is tempting to narrate a
history by simply joining these dots, true transformation does not travel in straight lines; it meanders aimlessly until it morphs into a new milestone. The period in between one great event and the next is often an uncertain dance moving two steps forward and another one back.

The Arab Spring shook the very foundations that had propped up the powerful regimes for decades, but the original demands of protestors suggest that the over-arching issue that mobilised protestors was socio-economic stagnation, not the system of governance.

Even as it remains an unfinished project, the Arab Awakening teaches that freedom is not the removal of autocracy but the
establishment of equity.

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