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

The Arab Spring

Revolutions often come from unlikeliest places: from a shipyard in Gdansk; from a bus in Montgomery; from a prison cell on Robben Island. But even by these standards, it is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of Mohamed Bouazizi, the fruit vendor whose self-immolation set in motion the events that would culminate in the first successful revolution in the Arab World.

On December 17th 2010, a policewoman confiscated Mr. Bouazizi’s fruits, and then slapped him in the face; Bouazizi first complained at a local office, which was unhelpful, and then out of desperation, set himself on fire. By the time he died on Jan. 4, protests that started over Mr. Bouazizi’s treatment. They unfolded quickly, helped by shaky images taken by phones, posted on YouTube and shared on Facebook and Twitter. On January 14th, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country, ending his 23-year-old rule.

Although they might have been there always, cracks in other Arab autocracies become clearer to see in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution. Gaddafi quickly denounced the Tunisian revolution, although in the past, the erratic Libyan dictator had been always critical of Ben Ali’s pro-American regime. There were further immolations in Algeria, and protests over the ruling Hashemite dynasty in Jordan. And yesterday, it was the turn of Egypt, the Middle East’s largest and most influential Arab state.

At the time of writing, the situation in Egypt remains murky, but Hosni Mubarak looks vulnerable for the first time in his three-decade long authoritarian rule. Yesterday, tens of thousands of people took to the streets, occupied the central Tahrir Square, and surrounded the parliament building. It was there that an amateur photographer took the above photograph, which many are already calling Egypt’s ‘Tank Man’ moment (there is also another video clip that has been thus termed). For this writer, the photo is interesting not just for the historical associations its invokes. Fittingly for an uprising started via Facebook, it comes from an anonymous user who posted it on Reddit and illustrates how social media has changed marketplace of ideas and political discourse.

In the wider Arab world, however, revolution will not be televised, merely because press freedom, as well as democracy, remains elusive. But the region’s geriatric despots are slowly discovering that internet is much more difficult to control.

2011 may or may not be another 1989, but for the time being, it is satisfying to entertain the comparisons with that pivotal year when Communism died in Eastern Europe. Like the Revolution in Hungary which opened that annus mirabilis, Tunisia had unleashed glimmers of hope, if not winds of change, for the Arab world. Comparisons with 1989 are still immature, but it is only January, and a year is a longtime in politics.


The Egyptian Job

Last week, Middle Eastern leaders gathered in Washington, D.C. to begin a new round of peace talks. Pessimists outweigh optimists in the policymaking circles on the prospects of the peace process, which indeed has a long insurmountable road ahead of itself. The meeting was merely a preliminary photo-op and the above photo, of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, President Obama, President Mahmoud Abbas of Palestine, and King Abdullah II of Jordan (l. to r.) walking towards the East Room of the White House was the one widely reprinted.

Except in Egypt, where they published a hilariously altered photo which placed the Egyptian president front and centre (even before President Obama). Egypt’s oldest and the most circulated newspaper, the state-run Al-Ahram altered the image and published it both online and in print. When criticized, the paper’s editor-in chief, Osama Saraya defended it, saying the paper published the original photo on the day talks began and the photoshopped version was to symbolize Egypt’s leading role in the peace process. In the editorial, Saraya wrote: “The expressionist photo is a brief, live and true expression of the prominent stance of President Mubarak in the Palestinian issue, his unique role in leading it before Washington.” The photo is still up on its website as of this moment.

Ironically, the actual photo — with Mr. Mubarak separated from the group at the back — may have more symbolic meanings than any photomontage Al-Ahram came up with. The photo suggests Egypt’s — and her aging president’s — waning role in the Middle East peace process. Mubarak has been a staple of Middle East politics for more than 30 years, but with the presidential election coming up in 2011, and the health of her 82-year old president perilous and the presidential succession unclear, Egypt’s regional influence is dwindling.

Hosni Mubarak is the longest-serving Egyptian head of state in 150 years and he ruled Egypt with a peculiar mix of charisma and brutality. Being one of the United States’ staunchest allies in the region, Egypt has her records seldom scrutinized. Thanks to Mubarak’s Kafkasque bureaucratic machine — Egypt has been under an uninterrupted state of emergency for past 29 years — the voter turnout in 2005 was 3% and in 80% of the elections, Mubarak’s party was unopposed. Mubarak himself got 89% of the vote — and his opponent was later sentenced to five years in prison on dubious fraud charges. At least they had an election in 2005; for his four previous terms, Mubarak has been nominated by Parliament as the sole candidate, then confirmed in a referendum. Mubarak himself has never appointed a vice-president, which could lead to constitutional problems in the future as his health condition worsens.