Twenty-six-year-old Tunisian fruit vendor Mohammad Bouazizi could not have thought in his wildest imagination that his fiery act of protest would set off a democratic tsunami that would rock the Arab world and craft a new mode of regime change for the region. As Bouazizi struggled for his life, anti-government riots shook what was supposed to be an invincible West-backed regime headed by President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. On Jan 14, Ben Ali le Ripou (the corrupt) flew off to Saudi Arabia, ending an autocratic family rule of 23 years.
But the Tunisian protesters had done more than overthrow a hated regime. They had shown the way: the Arab Spring had begun.
By the end of the year two more dictators had fallen, two others were fighting with their backs to the wall, and at least one monarchy was having nightmares. The Arab people did, of course, pay a price for freedom — thousands were killed, hundreds of thousands rendered homeless and economic losses ran into billions of dollars — but they had come into their own.
Dictator after dictator was challenged, not by the traditional Arab method of regime change — military coups and assassinations — but by the young protesters’ unrelenting fury on a scale the strongmen and their supporters at home and abroad could not have imagined. The rulers woke up to reality when it was too late, for protesters rejected with contempt the sops offered by their tottering regimes.
On Jan 25, Egyptians emulated the Tunisian example by flocking to Tahrir Square in the hundreds of thousands. On Feb 11, just 18 days after the beginning of the revolt, President Hosni Mubarak had stepped down. Later he would be brought to court for trial in a cage.
Charnel house Libya was a different story. Despite enjoying the benefits of an enviable social welfare system, the Libyan people proved by their sacrifices that man doesn’t live by bread alone. Protests began on Feb 18 and turned into a brutal civil war as the armed forces split.
Forces loyal to Moammar Qadhafi fought back tenaciously, but, with Nato air power at their disposal, the rebels prevailed. Tripoli fell in August and Qadhafi was killed on Oct 21 in circumstances that remain a mystery. The man who had ruled Libya for 42 years was humiliated not in life but in death; his body was displayed in a market freezer and later buried at an undisclosed place in Libya’s sprawling desert, part of which he had turned green. Relief agencies estimated the overall death toll to be a minimum of 30,000.
Two other dictators were holding out at the time this piece went to press. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army carried out massacre after massacre as protests turned into civil war. The death toll had crossed 5,000 civilians and army defectors by mid-December, yet there was no sign Assad had any intention of quitting. And in Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, wounded in a June 3 attack on his palace, returned from Saudi Arabia on Sept 23 to renege on his promise to quit. But in Riyadh on Nov 23, as Saudi King Abdullah watched, Saleh signed another document promising to hand over power to his vice president within 30 days in return for immunity.
Bahrain was the only monarchy where the Arab Spring galvanised the masses into action. The crackdown by the ruling Sunni royalty on Shia protesters evoked international censure. According to the inquiry commission appointed by King Hamad al-Khalifa himself, prisoners were hooded, whipped and given electric shocks. But the foreign powers that had acted so decisively in Libya didn’t stir. What saved the day for the monarchy was the incursion into the oil-rich islet by the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council force.
As the year drew to a close, Tunisia became the first post-revolution nation to hold an election, and Egypt is, as we speak, at the polls. Most of the countries had not settled down completely — even Egypt continues to see violent protests, this time against the military-led transition leadership — but the Arab Spring had ushered in an unprecedented change in the region. There will be no going back.
— Muhammad Ali Siddiqi is a Dawn staffer