Arab Spring (One Year Later In Ten Iconic Photos)

This blog hoped that 2011 be another annus mirabilis for democracy back in January 2011. A year on, let’s look back (literally) as Arab Spring passes into history books. 

By the time the Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali visited Mohamed Bouazizi — the humble fruit vendor whose self-immolation set in motion the events that would culminate in the first successful revolution in the modern Arab World — both men’s fates were already sealed. Ben Ali fled the country less than 3 weeks later.


The next stop of the Arab Spring was in Egypt, the region’s most populous and most influential state. Its  ‘Tank Man’ moment arrived via an amateur photographer who fittingly posted the above photograph on Reddit, a testament to how much social media has changed marketplace of ideas and political discourse.


After a few weeks of political impasse in Tahir Square and of handwringing in many Western capitals, President Mubarak sent in the thugs on camels into the square. The White House finally decided that the Egyptian strongmen needs to step down. He didn’t flee the country but awaits a sentence that might be death.


Meanwhile, the Revolution was brutally  suppressed in Bahrain; Getty Images taken by John Moore near the Pearl Square graced the homepages of major news outlets from the New York Times (Global)/IHT to the Telegraph and the Times of London, from the BBC and Time magazine to Le Nouvel Observateur and El Pais. Much more handwringing ensued over the fate of a critical ally….


But international audience have short memories. After the bloody revolution was quickly suppressed (unlike in Syria and Libya, of which more anon), Bahrain demolished the Pearl Square, the epicenter of the revolutionary movement, in a symbolic move reminiscent of the Roman annihilation of Carthage. Many doctors who helped the wounded protestors were quickly indicted and sometimes killed in the violent crackdown that ensued.


In February 2011, a tone-deaf move that it would come to regret in the coming days and weeks, Vogue profiled the wife of the Syrian dictator Bahir al-Assad as the Rose of the Desert (photographed by James Nachtway no less). In a move that is both pusillanimous and disingenuous, the magazine have removed the article from its website, but the magazine was not alone. As the regimes toppled, more and more embarrassing details (LSE’s Libyan ties, French involvement in Tunisia, CIA and MI6 in Libya and Egypt) came out, revealing the “necessary-evil” nature of these Middle Eastern dictatorships.

I don’t have a protest-related picture from Syria — a metaphor for that country’s hostility towards photographers and journalists, and as an honor to those who are fighting on there.


Perhaps it is not surprising that Libya — which devolved into a full-fledged civil war and the third Arab battlefield for the West in less than a decade — produced the most iconic images of the Arab Spring. By his staunch refusal to step down, Muammar Gaddafi — that umbrella-yielding, youTube meme of a dictator –was determined to fight on and to produce iconic moments till the bitter end. At first, he seemed unassailable, even as the West acted (more or less) quickly to uproot his ramshackle regime. For me, Gaddafi’s beheaded statue and his daughter’s mermaid sofa fittingly bookended a dictator’s life.


In Yemen, the picture is more complex. Its eternal despot, President Saleh is gone, but he left behind a bitterly divided country that (like so many others in the region) seems artificially cobbled together from the carcasses of the long bygone empires. Yemen, with its low productivity caused by energetic qat-chewing, and its dubious honor as the only country in the Middle East without oil-reserves, is on quick route to a civil war or a failed-statehood.


But elsewhere too, in Egypt, in Syria and in Libya, future looks uncertain. In Egypt, the uneasy power struggle between the military, the Muslim Brotherhood and the protestors continues. In Syria, difficult times lie ahead for minority Christians and Muslims alike as a full uprising beckons. In Libya, if Gaddafi’s fall was somewhat cathartic, last week’s clashes proved that his malignant legacy is still unfortunately enduring.


A friend told me in January 2011 that Middle East will come to resemble post-1989 Eastern Europe rather than post-1979 Iran. I bet against her for $10, saying that at least Egypt will not be en route to democracy in a year’s time. Should I pay up now? Weight in here and to my Twitter

3 thoughts on “Arab Spring (One Year Later In Ten Iconic Photos)

  1. One must wonder about the assembly of assertions made by the author when the most basic information is decidedly wrong. Even the most cursory of searches would have shown the writer to have made serious errors of fact.

    Yemen does indeed have oil reserves, somewhat more than Syria and less than Egypt according to the U.S. Dept of Energy, Oil and Gas Journal, 2007. The oil-reserve less countries of the Middle East include Bahrain, Jordan and Israel.

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