Variations in the Arab spring

Civic Action,Development Policy27 Jun 2011Jojanneke Spoor

The dust has settled. Shaheer George is finally able to look back at the recent events in Egypt and does so at the TNI Fellows Meeting in Amsterdam (3-4 June 2011). George is an Egyptian youth activist, active in pro-democracy groups including the National Association of Change and Kifaya.

Although the revolution of 25 January took many people by surprise, the momentum had been building since 2004. George tells us about May of that year when the ‘enough’ movement – Kifaya in Arabic – started to criticize the president. It was the first time that such a wide diversity of people took a unified stance. Although the protests didn’t yield many results, they signalled a change in culture.

Facebook started to play a significant role in 2008, with the invitation to stay at home as a form of protest. It provided a platform for hundreds of thousands to express their solidarity. Critics of the regime slowly but surely realized that they were not alone. But still, not much changed. It took a couple more years of repression, state violence and finally a revolution in Tunisia to unleash this hidden potential. Shaheer George passionately relates the emergence of the feeling ‘that things can change’.

‘We have to thank the Tunisian people, because they gave us in Egypt the courage to believe that if you go to the street, the regime will fall.’

And it did. Mubarak resigned after weeks of protest and the eyes of the world quickly turned. What else is going to happen? Who else will fall?

But it isn’t as simple as a game of dominoes. Salwa Ismail, professor of politics at SOAS in London, illustrates that different contexts require different mechanisms for protest. She points out that the security apparatus in Syria is much stronger than in Egypt; the risk of injury or death is therefore greater. But people find ways of expressing their concerns, which are as much about basic rights such as food, water and employment, as they are about social rights and freedom.

The Arab spring has many faces. In Egypt, protesters went to the informal settlements to ask people to join them, whereas earlier demonstrations were dominated by the working, middle class. In Syria, women found a way of protesting without running the risk of becoming victims of police brutality on the streets. They organized sit-ins at home with 25 to 100 people and uploaded the images on the internet.

And the impact has been felt all over the world. Activists present at the TNI Fellows Meeting just need to cash in on this momentum, as Phyllis Bennis tries to do in the United States.

Meanwhile, Shaheer George takes a deep breath and gets ready for the next part of the struggle. Democratic elections.