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The Arab Spring at Ten

Jubilant Egyptian protesters

Mohammed Abed/AFP via Getty Images

Jubilant protesters greeting the news that President Hosni Mubarak had stepped down, Cairo, Egypt, February 11, 2011

Ten years ago, crowds took to the streets in countries across North Africa and the Middle East, changing the course of history forever. They wanted to take power away from autocrats and give it back to the people. These nameless women and men were taking part in a mass wave of protest. They were unafraid to stand up to oppression. It was an awakening that was sudden, surprising, and at the same time in sync with a new digital era in which people were able to connect and organize in unprecedented ways.

It all started in late 2010 when Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, immolated himself in public in protest against a life without dignity. His sacrifice, speaking of a desperation shared by many, sparked a revolution—first in Tunisia, and then, over the coming months, in neighboring countries and across the region.

The protesters aspired and succeeded in ways that had been unimaginable only months before the uprisings. Most of these countries had won independence from Western colonizers after World War II, only to find themselves ruled by corrupt tyrants. The hopes and wishes of ordinary women and men were never taken into consideration, and these societies were governed for decades by fear. But all that changed at a rapid pace in the spring of 2011. 

People were elated, as finally they were in control for the first time in their lives. It was easy to predict that the road ahead would be tortuous, but in those early days nothing seemed impossible in the fight against tyranny and oppression. In the span of a few weeks, street protests ousted dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, and in other places, governments scrambled to promise reforms.

Some of that change has endured, with hopes realized. But in many cases, the euphoria turned to disappointment, and protest gave way to violence, retrenchment, and new repressive regimes. Now, with the world reeling from a pandemic that has brought the global economy to its knees, and as counterrevolutions to the Arab Spring are thriving, the transformational milestones of 2011 have come to seem distant, almost unreal.

With the exception of Tunisia, perhaps, the peoples of the region are arguably worse off than they were before the Spring. Syria and Libya, in particular, seem locked in an endless cycle of armed conflict between warring factions, increasingly acting as proxies for foreign powers, that has devastated these countries, creating a humanitarian disaster and making them both a source of and conduit for a refugee crisis of historic proportions.

That, in turn, has fanned a bonfire of human rights violations across the region. The continuing crackdowns in Egypt and elsewhere on those who led the 2011 uprisings, as well as political instability across the region, have eroded the rule of law and empowered secret police and government torturers.

The gruesome assassination of Jamal Khashoggi by agents of the Saudi government in Turkey in 2018 was, in many ways, the symbolic culmination of the impunity tyrants across the region now feel in facing down the enthusiasm and optimism of the 2011 movement. Days after Khashoggi’s death, The Washington Post published his last column, in which he wrote:

The Arab world was ripe with hope during the spring of 2011. Journalists, academics and the general population were brimming with expectations of a bright and free Arab society within their respective countries. They expected to be emancipated from the hegemony of their governments and the consistent interventions and censorship of information. These expectations were quickly shattered; these societies either fell back to the old status quo or faced even harsher conditions than before.

In the two years since those words were published, many have similarly concluded that the Arab Spring largely failed, and that those in the region who craved freedom and democracy have lost, for now at least. As a Moroccan journalist who studied in the United States and lived there for several years before moving back home only months before the first protests in Tunisia, I have a keen interest in the ways in which people’s lives intersect with this larger story.

For this project, I spoke to five people of different nationalities from the Maghreb and Middle East whose experiences and perspectives, I believe, made them representative of their respective time and place. All have felt the disappointments acutely but also see the setbacks as inevitable stages in a much longer process. The change they wanted may have been postponed, but they have not forgotten what seemed possible in 2011.

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A Tunisian demonstrator gesturing

Fred Dufour/AFP via Getty Images

A Tunisian demonstrator gesturing during clashes with police during anti-Ben Ali protests, Tunis, January 17, 2011

TUNISIA

Tunisia is faring relatively well compared with other countries that were swept by the uprisings. To some observers, Tunisia’s decade-long democratic transition and consolidation is still fragile, but to others, it shows that Arab-majority countries can aspire to higher ideals of freedom and that popular demands for democracy do not necessarily end in destruction, war, and a return to authoritarianism.

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World events and the pandemic have dampened any mood of celebration about the recent tenth anniversary of the ouster of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled the country for twenty-three years with extreme brutality; the fallen dictator died in 2019 in Saudi Arabia, unmourned and largely forgotten even in his own country.

Today, Tunisians have far more freedom under President Kais Saied’s government but are still contending with high unemployment amid the worst economic crisis in the country’s history thanks to the pandemic. As a result, popular discontent manifests in frequent sit-ins and demonstrations, often met with harsh repression by the authorities.

I spoke to Amira Yahyaoui, an entrepreneur who shuttles between San Francisco and Tunisia running Mos, a tech platform for students applying for financial aid for college. Formerly a prolific blogger, she had been a leading figure in the pro-democracy resistance to Ben Ali before the revolution. Her father was a judge who stood up to the dictator and lived under house arrest when Yahyaoui was a teenager. Her cousin, Zouhair Yahyaoui, a cyber activist who founded a satirical website TUNeZINE, was tortured to death by the regime back in 2005. Yahyaoui herself was arrested and beaten by the police at the age of sixteen.

“I was born into a family that was ready fully to die for the country,” she told me via Zoom. “I was born into a democratic family inside a cage, and I couldn’t stand it. I was like, ‘This isn’t possible.’”

She still sees her mission as holding power to account. “For me one of the benchmarks of success is how uncomfortable this elite is,” she said.

Under Ben Ali, Yahyaoui was eventually exiled; stripped of her nationality, she found refuge in France. She did not feel particularly welcome there—then President Sarkozy was close to Ben Ali—and she attended college using a fake student ID, since she was undocumented. When the protests in Tunisia started in December 2010, she used her social media platform to raise awareness of what was happening: numerous people, including high-ranking army officers and government officials, sent her videos of the repression, which she then posted online from France.

She built a large following and began to do interviews in the French media on the situation in Tunisia. She was live on television when she got a text from an anonymous source (whom she later realized was inside the army) who told her that Ben Ali had fled for Saudi Arabia on January 14, 2011. That same day, she got her passport back, and the day after that, she flew home.

Once there, Yahyaoui quickly got involved in the transition to democracy. In 2012, she founded the independent watchdog group Al Bawsala (“The Compass” in Arabic) to monitor the work of the Constituent Assembly, helping establish a culture of transparency in the parliament. Despite Tunisia’s share of setbacks, Yahyaoui remains optimistic.

“If, the first time I got beaten by the police in Tunisia, I was asked, ‘What is the one power they could give you to change the country?’, I would say: ‘[The power to] take the fear out of people’s hearts,’” she said. “I care deeply about the fact that people are no longer afraid and ended their voluntary servitude. Tunisians own their country today. We are no longer tenants in someone else’s country.”

She believes that young people today have even more power than she and others did a decade ago. She awaits a second revolution.

“A democracy is not built in ten years,” she concluded. “I was very young during the revolution today, less so today. I want who I was ten years ago to be the one in power [today].”

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A child sitting on a tank

Chris Hondros/Getty Images

A child sitting on a tank while Egyptian soldiers stand by during a demonstration against President Hosni Mubarak in Tahrir Square, Cairo, January 29, 2011

EGYPT

During the three weeks that led to the last day of Hosni Mubarak’s thirty-year grip over Egypt, little mattered but the live images streamed from Tahrir Square in Cairo, notably by the Qatari network Al Jazeera (among others), of thousands of people determined to stay until they’d overthrown the American-backed tyrant. Inspired by the success of street protests in Tunisia, the protesters spent those weeks debating, chanting, even reading poetry—and everything seemed possible.

Ten years later, the dream of greater freedom of expression and civic participation has turned into a nightmare for human rights defenders in Egypt. The fall of an autocrat gave way briefly to a government ruled by Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, before the takeover by an army council and the subsequent installation of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who, though elected, heads a regime that has pursued increasingly draconian and repressive policies.

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According to Human Rights Watch, Sisi was responsible for the massacre of more than nine hundred civilians (mostly Morsi supporters) in July 2013. Since then, the crackdown on opponents and dissidents has broadened, through prison detention, torture, beatings, and even extrajudicial killings.

Amr Darrag served briefly as minister of planning in President Morsi’s cabinet, from May to July 2013. He is now living in exile in Istanbul, where he runs a think tank, the Egyptian Institute for Studies (EIS). Ten years ago, he was frequently abroad on business trips, so, on the day Mubarak stepped down, he was watching events unfold on television in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates.

“It felt that Mubarak had been there forever,” he told me recently. “I got my PhD, became a professor, and he was still the president. Even ten years later, he was still there. It just felt as if he was to be there forever—and his son was going to take over. It felt hopeless.”

Only a few years before, Darrag said, even a few dozen people protesting in the streets would have been considered a brave show of dissent. As the crowds filled Tahrir Square, he texted a friend that “history was being made.” He managed to get a flight back home on February 13, 2011, two weeks after the ouster. “It was a marvelous day,” he said.

Darrag, then a businessman, soon got involved in politics. He became the secretary general of the Constituent Assembly that drafted Egypt’s 2012 constitution, an experience he describes as “six wonderful months.” He was also one of the founding members of the Freedom and Justice Party, the Muslim Brotherhood–affiliated Islamist party led by Morsi. He served in several capacities within the party until the July 2013 coup, after which he left Egypt and has not been back since.

“Everybody was concentrating on the fact that Mubarak was stepping down and nobody paid attention to the military,” he told me. “People were under the impression that the military sided with the people and helped get rid of Mubarak and refused to face the demonstrators. People thought that this is a different type of military that we could trust. Their popularity at the time was very high.”

With hindsight, he feels this was naive and led to a failure to foresee what would happen next—as well as a widespread assumption that the military coup would be short-lived and the people would soon be back in charge. Instead, the military administration backed one of their own, General Sisi, to form the next civilian government. Darrag had to leave everything behind, including the business he’d built.

“I love my country. I am still concerned with Egypt and with our cause,” he said. “These days [of the coup and what followed] were not the best of my life. I don’t feel the urge to go back and live this kind of experience again. It doesn’t mean that I am not longing for a different future for my country.”

Today, Darrag’s take on Egypt’s Arab Spring echoes what I’ve heard from others—that it was a necessary step, even if it was into the unknown, and perhaps toward a worse situation. “Many people say, ‘We were better off without the revolution,’” he said. “But you cannot blame the victims.” He takes heart from a longer view: “You can never keep controlling a country only through oppression. That is bound to explode. People are scared now. But the reasons for them to rise up are one hundred times higher than in 2011.”

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Libyans mourning beside a grave

Abdullah Doma/AFP via Getty Images

Mourners at the graveside of human rights activist Salwa Bugaighis, assassinated the day before, Benghazi, Libya, June 28, 2014

LIBYA

Libya has been engulfed in chaos for much of the last decade. Assassinations, kidnappings, and bombings have become a tragically regular part of people’s lives. Foreign interference, proxy wars, and non-state armed groups have perpetuated the country’s political instability, depriving millions of Libyans of a share in the potential prosperity from the country’s vast natural resources, tanking its economy, and leaving little hope for any near-term solution.

As baleful as that picture is, before 2011 it was hard to imagine Libya’s future without Muammar Qaddafi. The former army officer had ruled the country for more than forty years, first as an Arab nationalist and later in the name of “Islamic socialism,” but increasingly as an eccentric but ruthless despot.

Qaddafi backed Ben Ali as unrest grew in neighboring Tunisia in early 2011, but this decision backfired when Ben Ali fled the country. Libyans saw an opportunity to demand change, first taking to the streets in the eastern city of Benghazi on February 15. Qaddafi responded with disproportionate force. But far from being intimidated, the demonstrators escalated their tactics: within weeks, the protest movement had turned into an armed uprising. In rebel-held areas, a National Transitional Council formed, which soon received international military and political support. A French-led coalition acting with a UN mandate to protect civilians from Qaddafi’s forces launched air raids. After months of fighting, the regime was losing. In August, rebels entered the capital, Tripoli, and took control. On October 20, Qaddafi, by then a fugitive, was captured in Sirte, tortured, and summarily executed.

Libyans’ celebrations were short-lived, as the country became a patchwork of territories controlled by various armed militias and warlords. By 2016, it was clear that the authority of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) did not extend across the whole country, and today, Libya remains divided chiefly between two factions, each supported by competing foreign powers. On one side, the internationally recognized GNA has backing from Turkey, which has sent battle-hardened Syrian mercenaries to fight in Libya. On the other side, forces led by General Khalifa Haftar, who has ruled Eastern Libya for several years after brutally suppressing Islamist insurgents, get support from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Russia, and France.

When Haftar failed to conquer Tripoli last year, after more than twelve months of fighting, both parties agreed on a cease-fire agreement last October. So far, that has held. Earlier this month, delegates picked by the United Nations designated four senior figures to lead an interim government. After nearly a decade of civil war, many Libyans are weary and wish for little more than stability and peace.

But that does not capture how Iman Bugaighis views things. A professor of dentistry, she was also one of the first activists to take up the anti-Qaddafi cause back in February of 2011.

“Qaddafi became the country and the country became Qaddafi,” is how she describes the situation at the time. Along with other women, she took part in a demonstration in front of a courtroom in Benghazi with little thought for her safety. Although she had grown up in a prominent and well-to-do family, she felt Libyans had little option but to seize the chance to finally speak up. “It was a matter of life or death for us,” she told me. “We didn’t feel like we had any other choice but to protest. It was about our dignity, about being respected as human beings.”

Her sister Salwa, a lawyer who defended political prisoners, also took part in the protests. In the weeks that followed, Iman became a spokesperson for the Libyan revolution, while Salwa helped select members of the National Transitional Council.

“We had some good times until 2013,” Iman added. “At the time, people didn’t have the experience. After forty-two years of oppression, everybody wanted to be on the stage and talk.”

Iman went on to be an advocate for Libyan women at the UN and with the European Union. But Salwa, who had become an icon of the postrevolutionary reform movement, started receiving death threats and left the country for a while. She returned in 2014 in order to cast her vote in the elections held that year. On June 25, gunmen forced their way into her home and shot her to death. Her husband was kidnapped and has never been seen again. Precisely who was responsible for Salwa’s assassination remains murky.

“It wasn’t my intention to leave at first. I left everything,” Iman said. “I had just moved to my new place, a villa, only one month before. I was building it for ten years. I left everything, even my photos are not with me.” But Salwa’s death was a signal to that her family was not safe in Libya, and she stayed abroad. Bugaighis now lives with her daughter in Portugal, where she teaches. The rest of her family lives in the Emirates, Jordan, and the United States. But she still stays closely connected to Libya, following events back home on social media and keeping in touch with people on the ground.

Today, Bugaighis is skeptical about whether a long-term settlement in Libya is possible without a deal that resolves the conflict between the competing foreign powers. But as far as the revolution goes, she regrets nothing.

“I never thought it was not worth it,” Bugaighis told me. “I didn’t want anything else. You cannot blame people for standing up for their dignity.”

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A security guard threatening anti-government protesters

Abdelhak Senna/AFP via Getty Images

A security guard threatening anti-government protesters outside Parliament, Rabat, Morocco, January 12, 2011

MOROCCO

In February 2011, I was in Tunisia reporting on the aftermath of the revolution—and paying little attention to events back home in Morocco. In the North African kingdom, voices of dissent were scarce at the time: the last large protests I could remember were almost ten years earlier, when Islamists took to the streets to oppose the reforms of a new family code, even as counterprotesters marched to support more rights for women.

We Moroccans had collectively become inured to the problems the country faced, and most people didn’t feel they could make a difference. The country is also less overtly autocratic than others that experienced uprisings in 2011. Although Morocco has suffered from the same ills as other Arab-majority countries, such as high youth unemployment and corruption, its civil society had long enjoyed some dialogue with the authorities over demands for greater social justice. To outsiders—and to many Moroccans—the kingdom is faring better than others in the region: perceived as politically stable, it has a relatively healthy economy, functioning institutions, and improving infrastructure.

The more detailed picture is also more complicated. By the time he died, in 1999, King Hassan II had put aside the brutality that had characterized much of his reign and allowed greater freedom of the press and more political diversity; that bequeathed a relatively smooth transition for his heir, the current king, Mohammed VI. He, in turn, showed some initial willingness to enact reforms, but the regime gradually reverted to type—censoring journalists, imprisoning dissidents, and leaving little room for public debate.

Still, when a friend sent me a video of Moroccans calling for demonstrations to take place on February 20, 2011, I felt a mixture of emotions—both excitement and fear at the idea that they were brave enough to march without knowing how the protests would be handled by the authorities. Their demands were for more justice and equality, along with new elections, but they stopped short of calling for a regime change. Some of the protests did meet with a harsh police response, but overall, the marches went ahead peacefully. The king’s response was conciliatory, too, pressing ahead with constitutional changes that promised more power to the parliament, and greater equality and freedom. Over the following months, the movement gradually subsided.

Ten years later, it is clear that the gains amounted to far less than had been promised. The king and his advisers still control almost everything, while hundreds of political prisoners, including many journalists, fill the prisons. The regime has made it clear that calls for democracy will result in repression.

The case of the journalist Hajar Raissouni sheds light on the kingdom’s decision to crack down on dissent. She is the niece of two leading critical voices in Morocco: Ahmed Raissouni, a prominent Islamist, and Soulaimane Raissouni, the editor of Akhbar Al Yaoum, one of the only independent news outlets in Morocco. Soulaimane Raissouni is currently in jail awaiting trial on rape allegations, making him one of many journalists accused of serious sex crimes—seen by many human rights activists as concocted smears to discredit dissidents.

In 2011, Hajar Raissouni was a nineteen-year-old student attending college in Rabat, the capital, and she joined the protests with excitement and enthusiasm. The constitutional reforms were seen by many as cosmetic changes, largely opposed by members of the February 20 movement.

“I was not in the front lines, but I was dreaming of change, and that we [could] live in a democratic system that respects human rights, equality, justice, and the law,” Raissouni told me. “February 20 represents to me hope and the flame of resistance in order to fight for a real reform of the political, economic, social, and human rights system.”

After college, she followed her admired uncle Soulaimane into journalism, getting a job with him at Akhbar Al Yaoum. When protests shook northeastern Morocco in 2017, after a fishmonger died as the police seized his merchandise, she spent months reporting that new wave of unrest.

“I cannot forget the fear, terror, and anticipation in the eyes of children in the Al Hoceima region, and also looks of hatred,” Raissouni recalled. “In every house, you find a detainee. Mothers’ tears and the feeling of weakness of the fathers made me feel helpless.”

As she was leaving a doctor’s appointment in the summer of 2019, she herself was arrested. Plainclothes officers arrested her and her fiancé, Rifaat al-Amin, who has since become her husband. They, and the medical team Raissouni had just visited, were charged with performing an illegal abortion, and the couple were additionally charged with having sex outside of marriage (both are criminal offenses in Morocco). All denied the charges and maintained that the doctor was treating Raissouni for a hemorrhage. Raissouni and al-Amin were sentenced to a year in prison, the doctor received a two-year sentence, and the rest of the medical staff received suspended sentences.

Raissouni still painfully recalls the three grueling days in custody before her arraignment, when she was forcibly examined by a doctor, despite her screams. She was not provided with pads for her bleeding or a change of clothes, even as blood dripped from her chair to the floor of the police station.

The case did, however, cause an international outcry, and the couple was eventually pardoned by the king. But Raissouni sees the episode as evidence of the regime’s systematically abusive character. “I was only one episode in a number of episodes of tyranny and authoritarianism that our country is experiencing,” she told me.

After her release, Raissouni moved to Sudan, her husband’s home country. The recent imprisonment of her uncle Soulaimane and continuous harassment of her family made it impossible for her to stay in Morocco. These days, Raissouni still follows events at home and campaigns on social media for her uncle’s exoneration. But a return to Morocco seems unthinkable.

“I believe the homeland is where you feel you are free and that you are safe, and I no longer feel this in Morocco,” she concluded. “It has become for me a big prison.”

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Civilians emerging from destruction caused in a bombing attack

Salih Mahmud Leyla/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Civilians emerging from the destruction of a barrel-bomb attack by Syrian army helicopters, Aleppo, December 23, 2013

SYRIA

Of all countries that underwent uprisings, Syria certainly has had the worst outcome. The uprisings began in March 2011 in the southern city of Daraa, where the arrests and torture of teenagers for spray-painting anti-Assad graffiti on the wall of a school drove courageous protesters out into the streets. As the weeks went by, street protests were met with more torture and violence by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. His secret police and jailers used horrific methods against an opposition that had thus far been peaceful. And in an effort to sabotage the nonviolent pro-democracy movement, he released hundreds of hardline Islamists from jail—though many would eventually become armed adversaries of the regime. The international community did little during the first two years of the Syrian uprising, despite the Assad regime’s extreme violence and shocking human rights abuses.

In the summer of 2012, I was in Jordan, close to the Syrian border. Hundreds of refugees were crossing over from Syria. I interviewed medevaced fighters from the Free Syrian Army, a group that received limited support early in the war from the international community. There was still hope then that Assad would be deposed at some point—a hope that has not been borne out.

Syria’s last decade has been defined by its deadly civil war—the killing of civilians, the destruction of entire cities, the use of chemical weapons, the meddling of foreign powers, the rise and fall of the Islamic State, and the displacement of millions of people. Today, the country is in shambles, yet Assad still presides.

Over the intervening years, I met countless Syrian refugees, scattered all over the region in countries like Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan, and as far away as France and the United Kingdom. One of those, Najah al-Bukai, whom I profiled almost three years ago for The New York Times, is a Syrian artist who now lives near Paris, France. His wife had succeeded in rescuing him by securing his exit from Syria in 2015—after he had been arrested three times for his participation in pro-democracy protests. Al-Bukai was incarcerated in 2012 for a month, and for a further eleven months in 2014.

From memory, he has produced hundreds of detailed drawings that depict what he witnessed inside Assad’s jails: the gruesome torture and the slow death of other prisoners detained along with him in unspeakable conditions. Art has been his therapy since.

When I first saw his drawings, they reminded me of the haunting work of the Slovenian artist and Holocaust survivor Zoran Mušič. Whenever I speak to al-Bukai, I cannot but be humbled by his strength. I recently reconnected with him to discuss how he views the last decade.

Previously, he’d told me how much he missed the bustling streets of Damascus compared with the small town where he lived when he first moved to France. In exile, he cannot stop producing work that records his terrible experiences, but he has found a sympathetic public for it—he has upcoming shows in Paris and Nice. He does badly miss his art studio in Damascus, but going home to Syria is not an option for the foreseeable future. “I do not imagine returning to live under the bloodthirsty regime of Assad, where inequality and torture and corruption eternally reign,” he said. “Assad knows that his regime is crumbling and he wants to take everybody down with him.”

In that sense, al-Bukai is still hopeful that peace is possible in Syria—but only when the current regime falls. “The only solution is to judge Assad at the court of the Hague,” he told me. “The crimes against humanity committed by the Assad regime have been documented.”

In his view, the continuing conflict and the jihadist groups that remain the core of the armed opposition to Assad’s reconquest of the country are the only things propping up the dictator. For al-Bukai, the spirit of the original 2011 protest movement is still alive. “They [the so-called realists in the international community] need to stop saying that these populations can only be governed by dictators,” he added. “The Arab Spring is a revolution for liberty and outrage.”

After all the suffering his country has endured—and all the suffering he himself has endured—he has no regrets. “Despite all the high price they paid, the bloodshed and the refugees,” he said, “these last ten years allowed people to feel and touch dignity.”

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