Protests and democracy

Just over five years ago, Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi set himself, and subsequently the Arab world, on fire.

In December 2010, Bouazizi immolated himself in front of a governor’s building in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, after being harassed and humiliated by local police officers. In response, riots and demonstrations spread throughout Tunisia.

The Tunisian Revolution became the catalyst for social and political changes in many other Middle Eastern countries. This culmination of these uprisings became known as the Arab Spring.

Protesters who were a part of the initial Arab Spring demanded very radical and immediate change. Protests primarily centered on introducing democratic regimes to their respective countries. They also argued for economic self-sufficiency, transparency between those in power and the nation’s people, freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

“It only makes sense that an outbreak of protests would occur,” said first-year Desmond Marshall. “You can’t expect this many people to be denied human rights and not stand up eventually.”

Oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait experienced less tumult. These monocracies were able to retain power through political and economic means.

Nations such as Egypt, Tunisia and Syria did not fare as well.

Faced with revolutionaries who were willing to go to extremes, some government officials responded to the protests with violence to silence the opposing masses. Countries like Syria highlight peaceful protest movements that became violent.

“When people in power are desperate, they are more likely to resort to violence to suppress any kind of revolt, violent or nonviolent,” said Professor of History Adrienne Israel.

Nonetheless, protests continued and intensified their efforts to invoke revolution. Country by country, the Arab Spring has affected virtually every nation in the Middle East and Northern Africa.

In Tunisia, where everything began, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali left office in January 2011, and Moncef Marzouki of the Ennahda movement was chosen as the new head of state. The first free presidential election came in 2014, where Beji Caid Essebsi was elected over Marzouki.

Tunisian citizens are still hesitant with Essebsi in office because they fear falling back into an authoritarian state. Even though a democratic regime is in place, many of the forces from the old regime regained power.

“Even if they destroy the old system, they need an approach to establish a new one,” said Professor of Political Science George Guo.

Egypt was a country to follow in the footsteps of Tunisia. In February 2011, mass protests lasting 18 days in the country forced President Hosni Mubarak to resign and transfer power to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is the current president. Although praised for his ability to remove the former President Mohammed Morsi and his strongly Islamist regime, many citizens of the country still fear that al-Sisi represents a return to the authoritarian security state, similar to Mubarak’s. Much like Tunisia, although the uprisings resulted in a change in power, problems still exist and little reform had been made.

Alaa Abd El Fattah, pro-democratic activist who is currently serving a five-year prison sentence for violating an anti-protest law, is still unsatisfied with the current state of Egypt.

“None of the goals of the revolution had been achieved,” said El Fattah’s mother, Laila Soueif, to the BBC. “The current regime is the most abusive Egypt has ever seen.”

Guo highlighted the keys of democracy and how vital they are in fully implementing a new democratic regime within a nation.

“To implement democracy, you have to factor in economy, culture and education,” said Guo.

Israel noted that embracing democracy meant also embracing Western culture.

“As long as democracy is associated with Western imperialism and the imposition of Western culture, I think the likelihood that it will be embraced anywhere is remote unless the local people who have empowered themselves by organizing agree that they want what the West has to offer and are willing to take a chance on its values as well,” said Israel.

Media attention for the Arab Spring’s push for democracy has declined and is overshadowed by the extremist Islamic State group. The attacks and terror brought upon by the group dominate the West’s perception of the Middle East. The Arab Spring is unfortunately overlooked because concerns for their demands are concealed.

“Media can create a sense of outrage when viewers see peaceful protesters killed or maimed, but the issue is context,” said Israel.

The Arab Spring centered on the drastic changes in power in many nations, but as for any actual social change, very little progress has been made. The mission of the Arab Spring today has transitioned from changing power to fulfilling the needs of people.

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