Ten years have passed since the fall of Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and the protest in Egypt’s Tahrir Square that caught the world’s eye and set in motion demonstrations across the Middle East that came to be known as the Arab Spring.
Since then, the region has witnessed civil wars, regime change, governmental reforms, and refugee crises. What has been the long-term impact of the uprisings, and how have the Middle East and North Africa been redefined by them?
In a panel discussion at the Middle East Center at Penn, five experts spoke about the legacy that the Arab Spring and a decade of protests and rebellions have had on the region.
Moderated by Sean Yom, associate professor of political science at Temple University, the panel included Bahraini human rights defender Maryam al-Khawaja; Egyptian journalist Lina Attalah; Al Jazeera senior political analyst Marwan Bishara; Marwan Kraidy, dean of Northwestern University in Qatar (and formerly of the Annenberg School for Communication), and Tunisian politician and activist Jawhara Tiss.
“I think the Arab uprisings were an incubator for debates that persist, that are very important in the context of the Arab world, but they’re also important for the world at large,” Kraidy said.
They discussed everything from what they wished they knew 10 years ago to advice they would give young activists today to what the geopolitical changes over the last decade—crises in Yemen and Syria, shifting of power to the Gulf, the recent Abraham Accords signed by some Gulf kingdoms with Israel—mean for the revolution going forward.
All agreed revolutions are processes, that change requires time and effort, and a change of regime doesn’t equate a change in the basic, underlying system that caused the problems in the first place.
“We should have known that you don’t trust politicians with governance, you don’t trust generals with security, you don’t trust rich people with money, you don’t trust clergy with religion, and you don’t trust people with democracy,” said Bishara. “It takes an evolution to make any revolution successful, and we failed in understanding what it takes to transition to democracy.”
Tunisia is seen by the West as one of the few success stories of the uprisings, Yom noted, adding that that take can be simplistic and misleading and that, although the country has a democracy, the nation is struggling with poverty and economic hardships.
Tiss, the Tunisian politician, said she has learned a lot since 2011.
“The first thing is that ideology is something to be consumed with moderation, like alcohol,” said Tiss. When ideology comes first, the success of any revolution will falter, she said.
For most other nations involved in the uprisings, things have deteriorated overall in terms of civil society, said al-Khawaja, who has been exiled and whose father is imprisoned for his activism.
“It’s not beneficial to anyone for us to stand in a space of nostalgia looking at what was but rather to look at what has been since then,” she said. “This is a time for us to take that space where we can learn from everything that’s happened and be better at how we do things moving forward. This is how we also do justice to what happened 10 years ago.”
As a journalist who worked before and after the revolution in Egypt, Attalah feels like the nation is currently under the worst authoritarianism it’s ever experienced.
“I don't know if this is scientifically sound. Is it really the worst, or does our appetite for freedom get particularly open when revolutions happen?” she said.
Despite the dark state of things in Egypt, the revolution created a rupture, which opened up a sense of possibility that remains today, she said.
“Because of that rupture, many things became possible. This is how revolutions should be consumed, in the sense that it’s a rupture, and what really matters is everything that happens afterwards,” she said. Even if what came next has seemed like a series of defeats, she sees other possible positive moments emerging, such as the public’s relationship to information and thirst for independent news after decades of state-engineered information.
In the years since the Arab Spring, al-Khawaja has seen her family members tortured in prison and had colleagues imprisoned or in exile like herself, but she said that despite it all she has no regrets.
“I don’t regret our uprisings. I don’t regret that we took to the streets. I don’t regret the moments of breathing freedom, even though it was just moments,” she said. “I think that’s an important lesson in and of itself. Despite everything, despite the losses, despite what we’ve had to pay, I personally don’t regret it.”
The ninety-minute talk can be viewed on the Middle East Center’s site here.