After the Spring

Protest in Tunisia 5 August 2011

On 17 December 2010 the Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself in protest after the police confiscated his fruit and vegetables. His act of defiance triggered demonstrations and mass protests, not only in Tunisia, but also in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria, Iraq, Kuwait, Morocco, Jordan, Oman, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Over the course of a few weeks the regimes of Tunisia and Egypt had toppled, rebels were fighting in Libya, demonstrators were under fire in Syria, and sweeping reforms were being promised.

The sheer scale and speed of the uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East – fuelled by social media and reports from neighbouring countries – has been unprecedented. "We are in a period of historic change in the region of a type and scale not witnessed since the emergence of the Middle East’s nation states," says Professor Anoush Ehteshami, Joint Director of the ESRC-funded Centre for the Advanced Study of the Arab World.

Discontent and anger with food prices, corruption, nepotism and heavy-handed dictators had been simmering for a long time. When a large-scale reaction did come, it was rooted in people's own frustration, and not pushed by particular groups with their own agendas. "These movements are home-grown," emphasises Professor Ehteshami. "They have tended to be largely peaceful and progressive, and largely secular."

Professor Caroline Rooney, Fellow in the RCUK Global Uncertainties Programme, was based in Cairo during 2009-2010 to study how security policies affected young people’s sense of trust. The project included the hip hop play 'The Rebel Cell', about a clampdown on civil liberties after a terror attack.

"During the performance, the audience were invited to suggest topics for a free style rap. The Cairo audience shouted out: 'Votes!' 'Democracy!' 'Change of government!'," says Professor Rooney. "Afterwards we had a question and answer session with members of the audience, who said that the play resonated greatly with them over the question of being deprived of civil liberties; they also said that the people were beginning to lose their fear."

The secular nature of the uprisings, with a focus on democratic change, rule of law, accountability, and an end to corruption and nepotism, kept radical Islamists from taking over the protests and moving into the ensuing power vacuum. The uprisings took them by surprise, Professor Ehteshami points out. "The Islamists' inability or unwillingness to act as revolutionary vanguards for the protest movements has been very striking. The speed and scale of protests left no time for the Islamists to play a leadership role, and when it came down to it they refused to appear as protest leaders," he says.

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