There was a chill in the air as Mona Seif walked towards Tahrir Square in Cairo after a protest outside the heavily guarded state television office, known as the “Fortress of Lies.” Eighteen days after the start of the Egyptian revolution of “January 25” in 2011, President Hosni Mubarak stubbornly clung to power and the mood, though provocative, was subdued.
As Seif reached the Neoclassical Egyptian Museum on the edge of the square, crowds of people started screaming in delirium. It took a fraction of a second for the 24-year-old activist to figure out what was going on: After three weeks of extraordinary highs and deflating lows, punctuated by state-sponsored violence, Mubarak had finally given in to popular pressure. and ended his 30-year reign.
Hundreds of thousands of people exploded in a frenzy of celebration. The women jumped in the air and the men pumped their fists. Others knelt down and faced Mecca in prayer. “I just remember I cried,” Seif says. “I kept yelling with the people around me and some started hugging me. I wanted to reach my parents, but the phones were completely off, there were so many people calling me. So I started. . . to look for familiar faces – my brother, my father.
At this dizzying moment, it was easy to believe that the Arab world had fundamentally changed. Never in modern times has the region been gripped by such an expectation. In December 2010, a 26-year-old Tunisian street vendor Mohamed bouazizi fatally ignited in an act of desperation that echoed through the nations. The mass protests that followed forced dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali into exile on January 15, 2011 and sparked a wave of popular uprisings as the Arab Spring unfolded.
If Bouazizi’s tragic act sparked the revolutions, it was Mubarak’s fall that truly emboldened protesters across the Middle East, breaking a decades-long veil of fear and reinforcing the belief that the people could make a difference. As the region’s most populous nation, Egypt has traditionally been its pioneer, and Mubarak has been the oldest of the Arab despots. If he could fall, who was safe? For millions of people determined to shake up the old order, this was the moment when the impossible seemed possible.
“We felt so empowered that we thought we would be able to cope with whatever came next,” says Seif, who spent the revolution commuting between Tahrir Square and a “center for citizen journalism”, as activists used social media to mobilize and spread. their message to the world. “We also knew there was something else to work on,” she said. “But I don’t think we understood the magnitude.”
It was a premonitory feeling. A decade later, Seif has never felt so fearful for the future. His older brother, revolutionary icon Alaa, and younger sister, Sanaa, are among tens of thousands imprisoned since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi seized power in a 2013 coup d’état supported by the people which ousted the democratically elected government of the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt is more oppressive than ever. A fierce crackdown that initially targeted the Islamist movement has turned into an attack on all forms of critical debate. “I no longer operate on hope. My main motivation is to survive the household, ”Seif said, his speech filled with emotion. “The current state of affairs is too violent, too nightmarish.”
Her family’s experience epitomizes a decade of shattered dreams. Rather than introduce the freedoms many Arabs longed for, the uprisings revealed the difficulty of fostering change in nations long ruled by despots who had carved out state institutions and built predatory patronage networks.
The Arab Spring has also highlighted the struggles of popular movements to transform the power of the people into institutionalized political influence. Today, it is the strongmen who still dominate, as the grievances that have inflamed millions of Arabs, from systemic unemployment to corruption and gaping inequality, persist. In many cases, they got worse. The young revolutionaries whose courage drove the uprisings have been persecuted, many seeking exile, exhausted by waves of repression.
Syria, Yemen and Libya are torn by conflict, with hundreds of thousands dead and millions forced to leave their homes. Even in Tunisia, which has successfully made a democratic transition to democracy, there is a painful feeling of dissatisfaction. “The revolution raised the slogans of freedom, dignity and employment. . . It was led by the vanquished, the excluded and the marginalized ”, says Olfa Lamloum, opponent of the regime in exile who returned to Tunisia after the dismissal of Ben Ali and now runs an NGO. “Ten years after the revolution. . . they are still marginalized. They are always excluded. They are still without dignity. “
She could talk about any of the countries where uprisings have broken out. In 2011, about eight million people in the Middle East and North Africa lived below a poverty line of $ 1.90 a day. By 2018, that number had risen to 28 million, according to the World Bank, in a region with the highest youth unemployment rate in the world.
Ten years after that hopeful day in Tahrir Square, a recent survey of young Arabs found that nearly half of 18-24 year olds had considered leaving their country. In Libya, Egypt and Tunisia, many planned protests could erupt again, citing corruption and lack of job prospects as the main causes of instability. Lamloum points to the thousands of people who still make the perilous trip to Italy by boat as a sign of this despair. “This confirms that they think there is no more hope for them in Tunisia,” she said.
On February 17, 2011, Libyans inspired by the events in Cairo and Tunis took to social media to call for a “Rabies Day” to protest. Muammer GaddafiThe 42-year-old despotic rule. The dictator responded with predictable cruelty, sending its feared security forces to protests in the eastern city of Benghazi. But the demonstrators remained defiant.
Ahmed (not his real name) was a 22-year-old fresh out of college, determined to join the crowds that filled the streets of Benghazi. On February 18, he ventured out with his father. “I remember thousands and thousands everywhere and shouting and screaming against Gaddafi. . . and looking at my father’s face, ”says Ahmed. “He was in such awe, such disbelief, for he lived at the top of Gaddafi’s rule in the 1970s and 1980s, when his colleagues [in academia] were hanged. As state buildings and burnt down police stations smoldered and the bodies of martyrs were buried, security forces began to withdraw. “It was unimaginable,” recalls Ahmed.
I first met Ahmed a few days later when I entered Libya from Egypt after covering the fall of Mubarak. As Gaddafi’s grip loosened, Benghazi was a city full of hope. The old courthouse, which overlooked the Mediterranean, was a cacophony of activity, a focal point for revolutionaries who set out to create a “national council” and publish the first editions of the newspaper Libya Free.
Ahmed, who spoke perfect English, became my fixer. Over the next few weeks, we sped behind trucks and cars full of rebel fighters towards “front lines” which in the early days were often just barriers erected on the desert road to Tripoli. Most had never picked up a gun in anger. Often they would fire into the air in a display of bravado, then retreat after Gaddafi’s better-equipped forces launched mortars and rockets in their direction. But they were resolved, and the intervention of NATO fighter jets in March neutralized Gaddafi’s military superiority.
Ahmed watched from the sidelines. He was eager to join his peers in battle, but he vowed to work with me. In May, after leaving Libya, he finally enlisted. “I don’t think I could have lived with myself if I hadn’t,” he says now. “It still bothers me today that I was unable to attend the demonstrations on February 17th.”
Three months later, he was part of the revolutionary convoy that arrived in Tripoli as huge crowds cheered their liberators. The images are still alive: “You think these things are imaginary and made up, but it was exactly like that.” Ahmed then participated in the aggression against the Gaddafi complex, which signaled the fall of Tripoli. The culmination of seven months of uproar and bloodshed, it was also a time of intoxicating hope, as the nation felt the shackles lift.
Academics, lawyers and others now have a chance to shape the nation in their vision. Ahmed put down his AK-47 and returned to Benghazi to educate the public about the constitutional process, voting and political parties. Most Libyans had no election experience, but in July 2012 they voted. “It was as if Libya had won the World Cup – national flags everywhere and people stepping out of cars, honking their horns,” Ahmed said. “A lot of people, even in Libya, forget how good it was because of the gravity of things [now]. But if you talk to someone and remind them of the details, they remember, yeah, how powerful that was.
SYRIA: ASSAD CRACKS DOWN
As Egypt, Libya and Tunisia tread the bumpy road to the elections, Mazen Darwish braved bullets from security forces in Damascus. In March 2011, he was briefly detained as a Syrian uprising against the Assad regime gained momentum. The shootings, beatings and arrests “were an early sign that this was not going to follow the same path as Egypt or Tunisia”, he recalls. A human rights lawyer, Darwish knew the risks of opposing a regime with a history of ruthlessly choking dissent. But he urged Assad to accept compromises, so that the protesters could, at least, achieve partial gains.
Early on, Darwish and others encountered groups of young people and warned them against violence and bigotry. “We believed that the regime could not win if the opposition used political or peaceful and moral means because our demands were patriotic,” he recalls. “But we have always said that if the regime succeeds in luring the protest movement towards violence or bigotry, it would win because these are its two favorite arenas.”
He believes the opposition’s use of weapons was inevitable after the regime resorted to brutal methods to crush them. It also became clear that the struggle in Syria would not remain an internal affair. The regime was quickly backed by Iran and the militias it supported, including the Lebanese Hezbollah movement. In 2015, Russian intervention tilts the war irrevocably in Assad’s favor. And as the peaceful protests turned into an armed rebellion, governments like Turkey and the United States supplied arms and money to the opposition, including the Islamist factions that eventually dominated the moderate groups.
Darwish and others tried to convince Islamists to avoid violence, but, he said, “The regime, the regional actors, the domestic factions, they all had an interest in violence.” However, it was the regime, with its chemical weapons and barrel bombs, that “unleashed the violence and created the ground for others” to behave in the same way.
Darwish endured this brutality firsthand. In February 2012, regime forces cordoned off the streets around his office in Damascus, boarded him and 15 other people on a bus, and took them to a military base. During three and a half years of detention, he was beaten with batons, shocked with electric prods, and hung by his arms. On one occasion, his limp body was thrown among the dead, only for the guards to realize that he was alive. “It was a form of revenge with no other purpose,” he said measuredly.
He was released in 2015 to a Damascus he no longer recognized. Most of his friends had left Syria or had been imprisoned or missing – among tens of thousands, the regime had “disappeared”. Darwish fled to Germany, joining the nearly six million Syrians – nearly a third of the population – who have fled their homeland.
Today Assad, with the backing of Russia and Iran, has regained control of most of the country. But he clings to a Pyrrhic victory as the shattered nation’s economy heads to collapse. Millions are destitute. Isis, the jihadist group that has exploited chaos to seize parts of Syria, remains a threat despite losing its grip on the territory. “There are no winners in Syria,” says Darwish. “The Syrian nation has lost.”
Now 47, he knows that “utopian” thoughts of regime change are delusional for the foreseeable future, although he believes Assad will eventually be replaced from within as his foreign backers realize. that they are better off without it. “Regional and international actors will reach a point. . . where it will no longer be possible to invest in the Syrian war, ”Darwish said. But even that seems optimistic at the moment.
A DEVASTATED YEMEN
Yemen was already one of the most fragile Arab nations before uprisings erupted against its former president Ali Abdullah Saleh in the dying days of January 2011. A tribalist, impoverished and ravaged by a corrupt and weak state, he was inundated with weapons and a base for one of al-Qaeda’s most active branches.
After months of protests, Saleh, a despot who once likened ruling Yemen to “dancing on the face of serpents”, agreed to a transition that would end his 33-year rule. Another aging regime veteran, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, took over, but all the old problems persisted. “You had all these encouraging messages from the political side, as people saw a deterioration of every basic service,” Rafat al-Akhali told me. “Corruption and favoritism grew even as new powers entered the transition.”
Akhali saw it up close. He left Yemen’s capital Sana’a at the age of 19 after winning a scholarship in Canada in 2002, but continued to work with young people at home. He returned when the revolution was in its infancy, convinced that “the tide had changed.” After the transition, he accepted a position in a government office overseeing reforms, believing that the time had come to push for change from within.
It was not to be. As the government floundered, the Houthi movement of seasoned Islamists from the north of the country saw an opening to move to Sana’a, promising to remove the corrupt from office. Young militiamen have taken over the ministries, arresting and searching cabinet members. Akhali, who was briefly Minister of Youth and Sports, recalls how teenage fighters, AK-47s and slung rocket-propelled grenades, demanded to see government documents, even though many were illiterate: “They were holding the newspaper upside down and saying, “What is this? You are not allowed to bring it. ”
Akhali realized that the state in Yemen was a ‘mirage’: “You suddenly realize that there are no armies, no security – there is nothing. In January 2015, the The Houthis attacked the presidential palace, forcing the Hadi government into exile. The region’s next proxy war was about to explode.
Days after this assault, King Salman ascended to the throne in neighboring Saudi Arabia and named his favorite son, Prince Mohammed ben salman, as Minister of Defense. MBS, 29, was on his way to becoming crown prince. In March, he led a Saudi offensive – blessed by Washington – against the Houthis, who are seen by Riyadh as an Iranian proxy fueling the conflict in their backyard.
In Sana’a, Akhali, his wife and two young sons fled to their basement as fighter jets bombarded the neighborhood. After two weeks of shelling, they scrambled into the crowd and boarded an evacuation flight to Jordan. “It was the worst thing to be woken up by an explosion so we thought we had to go out for a few weeks until it was done and [the warring parties] come to an agreement, ”he said.
It will be four years before Akhali returns, fleetingly, to a devastated nation plagued by disease, with 14 million people – about half the population – at risk of starvation. The UN describes Yemen as the world’s worst man-made humanitarian crisis. According to a 2019 report, about 60% of the more than 233,000 Yemenis who died, either in the fighting or because of lack of food or access to services, were children under the age of five. Thousands of boys have been recruited as child soldiers; young girls have been forced into marriage by desperate families.
Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is stuck in conflict he cannot win as long as the Houthis retain their hold over Sana’a and the north. Akhali moved to the UK and is a fellow at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford. “It seems if you want to make a difference, you need foreign support and you need weapons,” he said to himself. “Can we make changes right now? This is the question I’m struggling with. “
LESSONS FROM LIBYA
In Libya, Ahmed’s lingering doubts about the country’s course grew as neophyte politicians failed to create a functioning state and armed factions, born of the revolt, fought for the wealth of the nation’s resources. in petroleum. He remembers predicting his mother in 2014 that there would be a war that year. “She said, ‘What are you talking about? “I said to him, ‘The polarization is only increasing. “”
But even he underestimated the gravity of the situation, as Libyan warlords, such as the septuagenarian former military officer General Khalifa Haftar, divided the country into fiefdoms. “Everything we fought for, [Haftar’s forces] were like just, bang, undo it, ”Ahmed said. “Life has just ended. . . that was it, street-to-street fighting, jet bombing, tanks in the street.
The number of people living in the Middle East and North Africa below a poverty line of $ 1.90 per day in 2018, up from around 8 million in 2011
He sees Haftar as a budding dictator in the Gaddafi mold. But the general’s self-proclaimed attack on the Islamists resonated with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. The militias in western Libya, some Islamists, have received support from Qatar and Turkey. On April 4, 2019, Haftar launched an offensive against a weak UN-backed government in Tripoli, unleashing a proxy war on the southern shores of the Mediterranean.
When I visited Tripoli last February, the capital had been under siege for months. As fighters crouched in abandoned, bullet-damaged homes, civilians in surrounding areas lived in fear of the next rocket or drone attack. The Turkish intervention turned the tide against Haftar and today there is an uneasy peace, but many believe that foreign powers will determine the future of their country. “There have certainly been a lot of bad decisions made by the Libyans, the fighting, the attacks against each other. We must therefore absolutely assume our responsibilities, ”says Ahmed. But “70% of this is an international conflict, Libya is just the battlefield.”
Ahmed, who is currently studying for an MA in Peace and Conflict Studies in Turkey, believes that one of the lessons of the past decade is that if the guns fall silent, local actors should not be pressured into rushing times of crisis. transition. Ahmed and Akhali argue that internationally supported initiatives often place too much emphasis on elections, instead of helping fragile states build effective institutions and lay the foundation necessary to secure voter buy-in and respect. results.
Akhali says “electoral democracy” should be an end result, not a starting point. “It’s not for the international powers to say, ‘No, you have to get there in two or three years. “No state has been formed, nor has it evolved in two years.”
REBUILDING FROM ZERO
Even the most successful experience of the Arab Spring shows how difficult it is for countries to emerge from dictatorship. Tunisia has many elements of stability that have escaped others. The army is not powerful enough to meddle in politics. The main Islamist movement, aware of regional dynamics, quickly changed its name to the Muslim Democratic Party and cooperated with secular parties. There is also a vibrant civil society and increased social freedoms.
Yet unemployment has remained at around 15 percent and there are still gaping regional inequalities. Many Tunisians are angry with politicians they feel interested and unable to work for the public good. “We are rebuilding from scratch,” says Tunisian civil society activist Lamloum. “We have lived under dictatorial regimes for decades. . . The absence of alternatives and the difficulty of constructing alternatives goes back to this.
According to the International Monetary Fund, Tunisia needs about five years of 5 percent growth, even to bring unemployment down to 11 percent. Still, the economy grew by 1.7% on average between 2010 and 2017, well short of the decade leading up to spring 2011. Still, Lamloum says there is no sense of “crushing defeat.” “There are still young people who have not been defeated and who are still capable of fighting some battles – and winning them,” she said. “The revolution did not succeed, but in my opinion, the revolution lost a battle, it did not lose the war, the parenthesis was not closed.
All those interviewed agreed that uprisings were inevitable, whether in 2011 or some other time, due to the living conditions of the people. Ahmed said: “There was so much good, but also bad.” Citing historical precedents, such as the Prague Spring of 1968, he says that “these sources take time.” “I just regret that there are still governments and interest groups that do not want these societies to be free,” he adds. “They always try to insist on offering two options, either dictatorship or chaos.”
In Yemen, Akhali believes warring factions will eventually denounce a power-sharing deal, but then comes the arduous task of rebuilding a devastated society. “Is it fixable? We have to hang on to that hope, ”he said.
In Berlin, Mazen Darwish maintains his revolutionary flame as president of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression. He documents the abuses in Syria and has helped German prosecutors charge a notorious former intelligence officer, Anwar Raslan, with war crimes. It is, he says, his way of keeping “justice on the table” and preventing “the politicians, the princes of war.” . . regional governments ”to agree to political settlements that fail to guarantee genuine peace based on accountability.
Reflecting on the events of ten years ago, Darwish says that the Syrians were driven into revolution by “years of despotism, backwardness and poor economic and social conditions. . . mais il n’est pas possible d’avoir de véritables changements structurels sans un prix élevé. Personnellement, j’étais prêt à payer le prix, même si je n’ai jamais souhaité que le prix soit celui-ci. Jamais.”
Au Caire, Mona Seif avait prévu de commencer un doctorat, mais a suspendu ses études pour se concentrer sur le sort de son frère et de sa sœur. La ré-arrestation d’Alaa – une blogueuse détenue en septembre 2019, six mois après avoir purgé une peine de cinq ans de prison – «m’a fait comprendre que je ne pouvais plus essayer de mener une vie normale», dit-elle.
Seif, qui a documenté les abus des services de sécurité, peut à peine cacher sa colère alors qu’elle lutte pour comprendre le soutien populaire au coup d’État de 2013 qui a mis fin au bref chapitre démocratique de l’Égypte. Elle n’a jamais compris ces gens, dont certains s’étaient rassemblés sur la place Tahrir pour appeler à la démission de Moubarak, «vendant l’idée d’un choix pragmatique» de se ranger du côté des militaires parce qu’ils détestaient le gouvernement des Frères musulmans.
«Il y avait cette notion. . .[among]beaucoup de partisans de Sissi. . . «Oui, l’armée allait commettre des violations massives, mais ça ne nous touchera jamais, ça va être contre les islamistes». »C’était une période, dit-elle, qui« a changé nos mondes, nos cercles sociaux et nos amitiés ». Les Égyptiens, comme beaucoup d’autres Arabes, ont débattu de la question de la stabilité par rapport aux libertés démocratiques. «Je ne me suis jamais senti aussi aliéné.»
Lorsque je suis retourné au Caire pour l’élection présidentielle de 2018, pratiquement toutes les formes de débat critique avaient été réduites au silence. Le président a obtenu 97% des voix. Ces hommes d’affaires disposés à parler publiquement ont félicité Sissi pour avoir rétabli la stabilité et relancé une économie en faillite après le régime de division et de turbulence des Frères musulmans. Mais une amélioration de la situation macroéconomique masque souvent la réalité pour la plupart – en Égypte, la pauvreté a continué d’augmenter. Même avant le soulèvement de 2011, le pays attirait des niveaux records d’investissements étrangers et bénéficiait d’une poussée de croissance saine.
HA Hellyer, un analyste arabo-anglais du Moyen-Orient, décrit une «poudrière» dans la région, où les problèmes structurels, des inégalités économiques aux pressions démographiques, sont pires qu’avant 2011. La pandémie de coronavirus les a exacerbés. Il pense que les dirigeants pourraient faire adopter des réformes et fournir de meilleurs services pour atténuer les frustrations des gens, mais «au lieu de cela, je pense qu’ils ont décidé: ‘Nous avons essayé toute cette ouverture il y a une décennie et demie et cela a abouti à l’autonomisation par inadvertance de la société civile. a finalement conduit aux événements de 2011. Ils vont donc réprimer et s’assurer que cela ne se reproduira plus jamais. “
Les choses ne peuvent pas durer indéfiniment, dit-il. «Cela ne veut pas dire que les choses vont exploser demain, mais. . . à un moment donné, il se fissurera. Au cours des deux dernières années, de telles fissures sont apparues avec des manifestations au Soudan, en Algérie, en Irak et au Liban qui ont forcé les démissions politiques. Une fois de plus, cependant, ils ont révélé les défis pour obtenir un changement substantiel de la rue – dans ces trois derniers, les élites dirigeantes restent bien ancrées, tandis qu’au Soudan, l’armée partage le pouvoir avec les civils dans un gouvernement de transition.
Au Caire, Seif décrit une «colère bouillonnante sous la surface». «C’est très similaire, mais d’une manière plus intense, à 2010, où de nombreux membres de la jeune génération avaient le sentiment qu’il n’y avait pas de place pour eux, pour travailler ou avoir une famille ou tout autre avenir», dit-elle. “La situation actuelle ne peut pas durer éternellement, mais je ne sais pas si cela conduira à une autre 2011 – je ne m’attendais pas à une 2011.”
Comme d’autres militants, elle semble épuisée, les moments glorieux de la révolution non oubliés, mais submergés par ce qui a suivi. Elle garde les souvenirs d’il y a 10 ans cachés au plus profond de lui, «à l’abri de toutes les ténèbres», et dit qu’elle ne commencera vraiment à réfléchir que lorsqu’elle sera sûre de la sécurité de sa famille et de ses amis. Mais comme d’autres interviewés ici, elle n’a aucun regret d’avoir pris le pouvoir.
«C’est bizarre parce que je ne le dis pas comme une déclaration. En fait, je me suis beaucoup questionné et je trouve cela tellement étrange que malgré tout cela, dans mes moments les plus bas, je n’ai jamais ressenti une seule fois: “ Putain, je regrette la révolution. ”
Andrew England est le rédacteur en chef de FT pour le Moyen-Orient. Reportage supplémentaire par Heba Saleh, correspondant de FT Afrique du Nord
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