Lessons from the Arab Awakening
Leader of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan
Nigeria has a reputation as the most densely populated country in Africa, numbering about 180 million people. But despite the fact that the Northern parts of the country are mainly populated by Muslims, the wave of protests that gripped the Nation of Islam by 2010 did not significantly affect the oil rich country. While the revolutions that brought about regime changes in most Arab countries lasted, Nigerian Muslims were busy with their daily businesses and had no problem with any of their leaders. It was a welcome development to many Africans.
On the global level, the wave of revolutionary protests in many of the Arab countries ushered in what became known as the Arab Awakening. It was a period that defined modern Arab history in many ways. News about the Arab Awakening dominated global media for the better part of 2011. It was on television. It was on radio. It was in the social media. It was in national and international tabloids.
If we still remember, it all started on Saturday, 18 December 2010. The day before, on 17 December, 26-year old Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, had protested against the seizure of his wares and his humiliation by a municipal council official and her aides. The governor refused to listen to his plea to return his cart and wares. The young man sat down in front of the State Office, poured fuel over his head and set himself ablaze. He died in the hospital 18 days later on 5 January 2011.
Bouazizi's self-immolation ignited public anger and violence and subsequently became the wake-up call, not only for the Tunisian population but also for the wider Nation of Islam. Eleven days later, on 14 January 2011, Tunisian President Ben Ali was forced to abdicate his office after 23 years in power.
From then on, the stage was set. Protest after protest followed in quick succession across the entire Arab world, from North Africa to the Middle East and beyond. It was obvious that the success of the Tunisian protests had stoked the fire of rebellion among discontented citizens of several Arab countries. Spontaneously, the wave of unrest sparked by the Tunisian
street vendor hit Algeria, Jordan, Egypt and Yemen, and quickly spread to other countries, including non-Arab nations.
Libya became enveloped in a civil war that resulted in the overthrow of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and his government. Civil uprisings in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen culminated in the resignation of the Yemeni prime minister. There were major protests in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco and Oman while minor protests attended Lebanon, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Western Sahara. The borders of Israel also witnessed some clashes.
It was widely believed that these protests and violent demonstrations happened as a result of popular resentment against the autocratic governments of these countries which the masses of their people had had to endure for a long while. It was also widely believed that if the protests succeeded, they would possibly herald a Western-style democratization of the Arab world.
Not only had Bouazizi awakened the deep-rooted anger of Tunisian society over the reality of the repressive attitude generally exhibited by state agencies in Arab countries, he had also hit at the severe economic inequality chronically underlining relationships between Arab citizens and their government officials.
In Tunisia, for instance, Ben Ali headed a one-party government. International observers knew the deep corruption and unbridled extravagance that attended to the lifestyles of the dictator and his associates. They knew that his family had extensive control of the nation's economy – from banking, telecommunications, import and export, agriculture and food distribution to petroleum, tourism and real estate. Ben Ali exploited his country’s one-party system of government in an unprecedented manner for his personal and family benefit. All Tunisia knew it. Tunisians also knew that dismantling the structures which concentrated political and economic power in the hands of Ben Ali and his cronies would be a herculean task.
In Egypt, the protests which began on 25 January 2011 ran for 18 days. As early as first light in the morning, hundreds of thousands, and on some days, millions of Egyptians took to the streets against Mubarak. Mubarak ordered the army to take up positions in the streets. The army did, but refused to take sides, or to open fire on its own citizens. Eighteen days later, on 11 February 2011, Mubarak resigned. The military took over power when Hosni Mubarak was ousted. Yet, in all the following years, violent protests have continued to stalk Egypt. Mubarak has been released from prison on the order of a Court. Still, the end of protests in Egypt has not been in sight. Egypt still boils like a kettle of hot water. The future is
hard to visualise. The world keeps watching, praying for an end to hostilities.
In Yemen, citizens had protested in many towns in both the north and south of the country from the middle of January against government's proposals to modify the constitution. They also protested against unemployment and the consequent deteriorating economic conditions as well as against official corruption. Their demands soon included a call for the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh who had been facing internal opposition since 2009. By 2011, more than 5 million Yemenis were living in poverty, and nearly half were illiterate. Oil was scarce. Water reserves were declining. Considering the rate of water consumption at the time, it was often touted that Yemen would be the first country in the world to run out of water, sometime in 2025. Yet the government seemed unable, or unwilling to address the fundamental problems of the people.
Karman, by far the most vociferous leader of the revolutionaries against the regime of President Ali Saleh said that watching the dictators in Tunisia and Egypt fall gave her and the protest movement renewed energy. “The goal is to change the regime by the slogan we learned from the Tunisian revolution, 'The people want the regime to fall.' We are using the same methods and the same words from the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. They taught us how to become organized.”
Tunisia and Egypt also taught the Yemenis the power of social media. Face Book and Twitter posts called thousands to the streets. Flyers were rolled out from Sana'a University and distributed to garner and consolidate public conscience. Positive coverage from satellite channels like al-Jazeera and al Hurra also helped to encourage Yemenis to protest by exposing them to the support of the outside world. About the protests, Karman said: “Yemen is not different from any other country. The future is unknown. What is known is that Yemen is part of a community of nations that is finally starting to shake off a plague of dictators. The spark started in Tunisia. What stabilized this revolution was Egypt. It gave light and hope and strength to people everywhere. And if we succeed here, and I believe we will, revolutionary movements in every Arab country will grow stronger.”
In Libya, the revolution had started with a protest on 14 January over living conditions. Protesters clashed with police and attacked government offices. By 18 February, the opposition had taken over control of most of Benghazi, the country’s second largest city. The government dispatched elite troops and mercenaries in an attempt to recapture Benghazi. But they were repelled. By 20 February, protesters spread to the capital, Tripoli. In a
televised address, Col. Gadaffi’s younger son, Seif-Islam who, it was widely believed, would succeed his father, warned the protesters that their country could drift into civil war if the opposition continued. The rising death toll in Libya, numbering thousands, drew international condemnation and resulted in the resignation of several Libyan diplomats who called on the Gadaffi regime to be dismantled.
On 26 February, the opposition set up an interim government in Benghazi against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. On 17 March, the United Nations adopted Security Council Resolution 1973, authorising a no-fly zone over Libya. “All necessary measures” were taken to protect civilians. Two days later, France, the United States of America and the United Kingdom intervened in Libya with a bombing campaign against pro-Gaddafi forces. A coalition of 27 states from Europe and the Middle East joined the “intervention”. In late August, anti-Gaddafi fighters captured Tripoli, scattered Gaddafi's government and marked an end to his 42 years of autocracy. On 20 October, fighters under the National Transitional Council captured and killed Gaddafi.
In Syria, the protests had started on 26 January, when a case of self-immolation was reported. Protesters called for political reforms, the reinstatement of civil rights and an end to the state of emergency which had been in place since 1963.
On 6 March, the Syrian security forces arrested about 15 children in Daraa, in Southern Syria, for writing slogans against the regime. The children were brutally tortured. Daraa became the first city to protest against the Baathist regime of President Assad which had been in control of Syria under emergency rule since 1963. The war in Syria has continued despite international opinion and many Arab nations, with the tacit support of Russia and China, have continued to oppose intervention by the United Nations in the so-called 'internal affairs' of a sovereign nation.
In Iraq, an effort was made by then Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, to prevent unrest when he announced that he would not run for a third term in 2014. Despite those assurances, hundreds of protesters gathered in several major urban cities, notably Baghdad and Karbala, on 12 February. They demanded for a more effective approach to national security and the investigation of federal corruption cases. They also demanded increased government involvement in making public services fairer and more accessible. In response, the government promised to subsidize electricity costs. Today, Iraq has a new Prime Minister and it remains to be seen whether or not he will improve on the records his predecessor set.
Protests had begun in Amman, capital of Jordan, on 14 January, 2011. The unrest soon extended to Ma'an, Al Karak, Salt and Irbid among other cities. The protests were led by trade unionists and leftist parties. Protesters called on the government of Prime Minister Samir to step down. The Muslim Brotherhood and 14 trade unions threatened to stage a sit-down protest outside parliament the next day to "denounce government economic policies". As a result, the government reversed a rise in fuel prices. Despite efforts to alleviate Jordan's economic misery, about 5,000 people protested on 21 January in Amman. On 1 February, King Abdullah dismissed the government because of the street protests. He asked Marouf al-Bakhit, a former army general, to form a new Cabinet. King Abdullah charged Bakhit to "take quick, concrete and practical steps to launch a genuine political reform process". The reforms, he ordered, should put Jordan on the path to strengthen democracy and provide Jordanians with the "dignified life they deserve". This move did not end the protests, however. On 25 February, demonstrations escalated with a rally of between 6,000 and 10,000 Jordanians.
In Kuwait, protests had begun in January 2011. They coincided with other protests in the region. By June, protests had grown in size from a handful of persons to hundreds. Thousands protested in September. Oil workers went on strike. Protests continued into October. It was the largest demonstration since the start of the unrest early in the year. Prime Minister Nasser Al-Sabah said the protests were "going too far" and threatened a security crackdown. The Emir later appointed Defence Minister Sheik Jaber Al-Sabah as the new Prime Minister.
In the Gulf country of Oman, 200 protesters who marched on 17 January demanded salary increases and a lower cost of living. The protest shocked observers who generally viewed Oman as a politically stable country. Renewed protests occurred on 18 February, with 350 protesters demanding an end to corruption and a more equitable distribution of oil revenue.
In Saudi Arabia, hundreds of people protested against poor infrastructure in Jeddah following flooding. About this time, an online campaign began calling for major political and economic changes.
In Lebanon, hundreds of protesters had rallied in Beirut on 27 February in a march referred to as "The Laiquepride". The protesters called for reforms in the country's political system. On 13 March, tens of thousands of supporters of the Alliance called for the disarmament of Hezbollah in
Beirut. They rejected the supremacy of Hezbollah's weapons over political life. They also showed support for the United Nations-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) after the fall of the Hariri government and the creation of the Mikati government.
In Mauritania, Yacoub Ould Dahoud, a protester burnt himself near the Presidential Palace on 17 January, in opposition to the policies of Mauritanian President, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz.
In the United Arab Emirates, a group of intellectuals petitioned their ruler for comprehensive reforms in the Federal National Council (FNC). They also demanded for universal suffrage. About 160 people signed the petition, many of whom were academics and former members of the FNC. In May, the government started expanding its network of surveillance cameras as a preventive measure against revolts. In June, a popular blogger, Ahmed Mansoor and four other reform activists, including an economics professor, Nasser bin Gaith, were arrested and detained. They were later charged for insulting the ruling family, endangering national security and inciting people to protest. They pleaded ‘not guilty’. On 13 November they began a hunger strike, but on 27 November they were sentenced. Ahmed Mansoor received three years in prison, while the others were sentenced to two-year jail terms, only to be pardoned the following day.
In Sudan, protests had taken place on 30 January and 1 February. Hundreds called for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to step down. On 21 February, President Bashir announced that he would not seek to run in the next presidential election in 2015.
In the Palestinian Territories, the Palestinian Authority prevented demonstrations in support of protesters in Tunisia and Egypt. On 3 February, Palestinian police dispersed an anti-Mubarak demonstration in downtown Ramallah, detaining people, confiscating a cameraman's footage, and reportedly beating protesters.
It is seven years since all these happened. Indeed, the years have quickly flitted by. Now, observers are beginning to ask questions. To what extent has the toppling of all those dictators transformed the Arab world into representative democracies whose citizens have begun to enjoy the dividends of long overdue social and economic reforms?
For instance, since Ben Ali was hounded out of Tunisia, possibly to Dubai where he lives in exile, what have been the achievements of those young people who were anxiously agitating against his autocratic government and had finally driven him out of Tunisia? In comparison with Ben Ali’s
government, what have these youths achieved for Tunisians since the exit of the dictator?
What is the position of things in Iraq, in Sudan, in Egypt, in Libya and other Arab countries since those regime changes were effected with the tacit support of the Western world? Are these younger leaders faring any better than those they ousted since they took control?
Essentially, many analysts saw the protests at the start of this decade as a unique Arab wake-up call. The mood of the masses had generally depicted their objections to human rights abuses, suppression of freedom, lack of transparency in the practice of democracy, insensitivity to needs and aspirations of citizens plus the need to suppress religious extremism.
The case of Mohamed Bouazizi may have been the last straw that broke the camel's neck. But on reflection, we find that many other factors had actually led to the protests. An improved human development index in the affected countries resulting from the rise in computer literacy and increased availability of higher education was one reason. Other factors such as perceived dictatorship, glaring anarchy, crass human rights violations, deep-rooted corruption in government, culpable economic decline, avoidable youth unemployment and extreme poverty also played vital roles. Famine and its attendant increase in food prices equally played a significant role in the process. There were also a number of demographic structural factors, such as a large percentage of educated but dissatisfied youth lurking within the population.
All these factors may have added up, but the truth remained that the revolts which blanketed these Arab countries during those years were basically provoked by the fact that wealth was known to have been concentrated in the hands of few autocratic families which insisted on remaining in power for decades. There was practically no transparency on how money devolved. The result was unbridled corruption.
Over the years, many of the internet-savvy youths of these countries began to increasingly view autocrats and absolute monarchies as anachronisms. The tension between rising aspirations of youths and a lack of government patronage became a contributing factor in all of the protests. The youths, particularly, refused to accept the status quo.
Nor was the regional unrest limited the Arab world. The early success of uprisings in North Africa inspired similar protests among disenchanted people in the Middle East states of Iran and Turkey. These people took to the streets to agitate for reforms. The protests, especially those in Iran, were considered by many observers as part of the same wave that began in
Tunisia and later gripped the broader Middle East and North African regions.
In Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and in some European countries like Albania, Croatia and Spain; countries in sub-Saharan Africa like Burkina Faso, Djibouti and Uganda; and countries in other parts of Asia, including the Maldives and the People's Republic of China, demonstrators and opposition figures who claimed inspiration from the experience of Tunisia also staged their own popular protests.
The Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations on 23 September 2011 was widely seen as drawing inspiration from the Arab Awakening after years of failed peace negotiations with Israel. In the West Bank, schools and government offices were shut in Ramallah, Bethlehem, Nablus and Hebron to allow demonstrations backing the UN membership bid.
The 15 October 2011 global protests and the Occupy Wall Street movement which started in the United States and spread to Asia and Europe also drew direct inspiration from the Arab Awakening.
All of these protests shared the common technique of civil resistance and sustained campaigns which involved industrial actions, demonstrations, marches and rallies. The protesters masterfully used the media to organize, communicate and raise awareness in the face of state attempts to repress and censor the internet. Anger and frustration basically united the Arabs in their struggle to better the lot of their citizens. But given the fact that they were unrelentingly divided by their borders and by the nature of their history and geography, many observers felt justified to think that all that furore and struggle could as well have been in vain.
Although each revolutionary uprising had its distinctive national character, there appeared to be a shared understanding across the Nation of Islam. Rightly or wrongly, the young men and women who actively participated in the Arab Awakening seemed to have felt to their disappointment that they were not going to be the beneficiaries, if the reforms they so assiduously agitated for succeeded.
They may have won the hearts of the Western public in their bid to enthrone democracy but did they, in fact, have the grass-roots following of all their fellow Arabs? Were all Arabs united in this quest to overthrow their authoritarian governments and enthrone Western-style democracy? It is obvious that this was the hard fact that counted.
From the look of things today, there doesn’t seem to be much hope that those who took over the mantle of leadership from the ousted governments are likely to do any better than the autocrats they removed from office. Despite its global appeal, every indication seems to point to the fact that
those who most resolutely ousted the so-called corrupt governments of the ruling families are in no position to do better than those they ousted.
The taste of power is not usually relinquished without a struggle. It is a fact of life, a fact of our human struggles. It is one fact that prevails in both the developing and the developed nations of the world.
“New blood” have taken over power in most of these Arab countries. But what have they achieved for their people in comparison? Would it then be true that the Arab Awakening would have been an exercise in futility? With practically no visible improvements in the democratisation process of these Arab countries yet, was it a question of who gets what in the scheme of things after-all?
Only time will tell. But there is a lesson for many of the Nigerian youths from the North and South who are agitating today for a handover of power to new blood: lessons from the Arab Awakening.
Mr Asinugo is a London-based journalist and Publisher of Imo State Business Link Magazine (imostateblm.com)