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One Year Later: A Look Back at the Arab Uprisings

A reflection on the events which triggered the ongoing Arab Uprisings and an outline of what to look for in 2012.

This weekend marked the one year anniversary since Mohammed Bouazizi, a young street vendor, set himself alight on the streets of Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia. The events which ensued after this were surely unpredictable, as the streets of the Arab world erupted in anti-government protests. The chants of Ash-sha'ab yureed isqat an-nidham (“the people want the downfall of the regime”) have become a symbolic call for protestors in the hunt for reform, freedom, and democracy from the Maghreb to the depths of the Arabian Gulf.

The Lighter Fluid for Revolution

The story of Bouazizi's life epitomises a significant amount of working class people in the Arab world and their daily struggles. His father had passed away when he was an infant, which led him to become the family breadwinner and begin selling fruits and vegetables at the age of ten.

The late 26-year old, who died of his injuries in January 2011, sacrificed his own education to pay for his sister's university tuition. Bouazizi’s mother, Mannoubia, stated that "He didn't expect to study, because we didn't have the money." Instead he worked until 3am each day, with a few hours sleep to provide for his mother and sisters.

However, due to the corruption of state institutions, Bouazizi was frequently harassed by officials, as were many other Tunisians on a daily basis. Yasmine Ryan stated, "Police would confiscate his scales and his produce, or fine him for running a stall without a permit." On December 17, 2010, he had his livelihood confiscated, was publically humiliated and slapped by a female municipal officer, and was refused entry to the government building in order to retrieve his borrowed scales and produce. This was surely the tipping point for Bouazizi, as he covered himself in lighter fluid and set himself ablaze.

The Arab Intifada

Following this, the residents of Sidi Bouzid began to rise in protest against the treatment of Bouazizi. The protests, and consequently riots and labour union strikes which arose, soon spread across the nation. The Tunisian people (along with most protestors in the Arab world) initially began calling for reforms including better living conditions, an end to corruption, police brutality and high unemployment, and a call for greater freedom of expression.  However, due to the violent crackdown on protestors, calls began to emerge for the fall of Zine El-Abideen Ben Ali's longstanding autocratic rule.  On January 14, 2011, the former president fled Tunisia to seek exile in Saudi Arabia with members of his family.

The overthrow of Ben Ali was seen as a surprising shock in the Arab world, Europe, and the United States. However, the events which followed January 14 were perhaps even more shocking. The protests which had engulfed the small nation in the Maghreb soon spread to Egypt, which saw 18 days of nationwide demonstrations and union strikes which crippled the country. Tahrir Square in Cairo became a symbolic focal point of peaceful demonstrations during February, as an estimated few million people of different religions, political affiliations and genders galvanised together to call for the end of former President Hosni Mubarak's 30 year rule.

As a result of the successful overthrow of two longstanding Arab dictators, the people of Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria all rose in opposition to their own autocratic leaders. In addition, various other countries in the region - such as Morocco, Jordan, Algeria and Saudi Arabia - saw protests emerge calling for democratic reform. Whilst some of the latter countries have attempted to appease protestor demands through rather modest changes, the former group of nations have seen a civil war, brutal and violent crackdowns, and potentially another civil war.

Fighters of the Libyan National Transitional Council ended Muammar Qaddafi's 42-year rule over the North African country, after he was killed in October following a NATO-backed civil war. Meanwhile, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has recently agreed to step down following the signing of the Gulf Cooperation Council initiative, which means he will cede power in exchange for immunity from prosecution. However, protestors in Yemen remain unhappy with the initiative as they still demand that Saleh stands trial for crimes committed during his rule, including the violent crackdown on protestors which has left hundreds dead since the uprising began. Demonstrators in Bahrain, who called for reforms in the small Gulf State, saw their uprising brutally crushed under a government crackdown on protestors situated in the Pearl roundabout.

Currently, Syria has seen over 5,000 people killed in the ongoing uprising, which calls for the end of Bashar Al Assad's and the Baathist regime's autocratic rule, which began with his father Hafez who enacted his own brutal crackdown on an uprising in 1982, killing tens of thousands. The situation has recently seen signs of a civil war with mass army defectors forming the Free Syrian Army.

What Will 2012 Bring?

Meanwhile, with a successful Constituent Assembly election in Tunisia conducted in October, along with the ongoing parliamentary elections in Egypt (both of which have seen significant victories for Islamist parties), 2012 should promise to be another 'eventful' year in the Arab world.

The multiple focuses will surely fall upon the proposed Tunisian parliamentary elections towards the end of the year, the outcome of Egypt's parliamentary and expected presidential votes, the Libyan elections for a constituent assembly, the Yemeni presidential race, and the outcome of the Syrian uprising. Indeed, the Palestinian territories are also set to hold elections, something which promises to have Israeli and American eyes fixed upon.   

Whilst some Arab nations - such as Morocco and Jordan - have made few concessions to try appease protestor demands, questions remain over whether 2012 will see further uprisings across the region or the greater Muslim world. It is clear to argue that the vast majority, if not all, analysts failed to predict the ongoing revolutions from Tunisia to Yemen. Marwan Bishara, the senior political analyst of Al Jazeera English, rightly pointed out in a panel debate and discussion at the London School of Economics that revolutions are unpredictable, that is why they are called revolutions.

Therefore, who is to argue that the following year will not see further political upheaval, especially considering that the current situation would have been deemed 'unthinkable' on December 16, 2010? As Robert Fisk argues, the Arab people are now fearless of standing up against their autocratic rulers and therefore, the so called 'Arab Spring' will not be a phenomenon restricted to one year.

Iyad el-Baghdadi, the compiler of the 'Arab Tyrant's Manual', notably stated in The Guardian: "The Arab world was considered a stagnant pond of retardation and tyranny, inhabited by what appeared to be a complacent populace toiling fatalistically under the yoke of their dictators. Most observers thought this status quo to be stable, if not permanent. What's worst, many Arabs thought so too. Boy, look at us now."    

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.