The Arab Spring: 10 Years Later

Safae Daoudi, Staff Reporter

(Photo/ Getty Images)

Revolutions can be perceived as momentary movements, but in reality, they are evolving processes that require patience, according to a panel discussion titled “The Arab Spring: 10 Years Later” held on Jan. 14.  

The event was organized by the University of Pennsylvania’s Middle East Center and featured distinguished scholars and experts who discussed the Arab Spring uprisings and their legacy. 

The panel was moderated by Sean Yom, an associate professor of political science at Temple University, and included panelists: Lina Attalah, an Egyptian journalist and co-founder and editor-in-chief of  Mada Masr;  Marwan Bishara, Al Jazeera English’s senior political analyst; Jawhara Tiss, a political activist from Tunisia; and Maryam al-Khawaja, a Bahraini human rights activist. 

Marwan Kraidy, dean of Northwestern University in Qatar also joined the conversation to explain how the Arab Spring reshaped politics in the MENA region. 

The panelists began by discussing lessons learned from the Arab uprisings and the changes that the Arab world has been undergoing ever since. 

Atallah spoke about her experience working as a journalist before and after the revolutions. She explained that because of what happened, people are thirstier for truth and accuracy of information. “Even though revolutions can be hegemonic and hectic, what really matters is everything that happens afterward,” she added, stressing the importance of keeping an attitude of hope in the process of revolutionary change. 

Bishara said that the onset of the Arab Spring was based on the idea of the pursuit of “freedom, justice, and democracy.” 

“The entire enterprise of the Arab revolution was meant to unchain the Arab from the chain of the system of the government, the regime, the security, and the economy that were shackling him,” he explained. 

However, Bishara said, despite the revolution, things have not really changed, and the Arab world is back, for the most part, to the very same oppressive regimes and abuses of power. 

“Building dreams on sand is not going to be good for the generations that are coming. There is a necessity to remain anchored in some sort of reality,” he added. 

Bishara stressed the importance of individual action to promote real change and democracy after all the destruction that has occurred in the Arab world. “We should be universal in our approach, lead by example… and be more inclusive and tolerant,” he said. 

Kraidy discussed revolutions from a historical point of view. He said revolutions always follow a cycle: Typically, the first instigator of a revolution are passionate young people that are looking for change and more freedom and rights. After that, more organized groups start coming in and take the lead. 

Lasting change “could take years or decades,” he explained, but in order for that to happen “having young people on the streets to reclaim their rights is not enough,” Kraidy added that it is important to note the distinction between regime and systemic change, and to truly achieve democracy, the system needs to be dismantled and reimagined to serve the needs of the people. 

Jahwara, a politician and activist from Tunisia discussed the example of her country and explained that the key to a successful and peaceful transition to democracy is to stay away from identity politics as it can jeopardize and “halt any hope for change and progress by dividing people instead of bringing them together.”

She explained that this issue is not only observable in Arab societies but also in societies that are deemed democratic such as the U.S. 

Jahwara said Tunisia is far from being a “success story,” and that the country is still facing a myriad of challenges despite its “success” in comparison to other Arab nations. 

“People can speak their minds now but where is the economic and social progress?” she said. 

Al Khawaja, a Bahraini activist who advocates for greater freedom, took over the conversation to discuss the most important lessons she learned about the uprisings. Al Khawaja explained that in order to tackle the problem at its roots and really address it, there is a need for “solidarity among the nations.”

“Our governments do this,” she said. “They work with each other, they learn from each other, they make each other stronger—we need to do the same,” she said, 

She emphasized the need for collective community care and support: “The hardest thing for me is to see that many of the activists of 2011 are struggling to survive, struggling to continue. We talk about human rights, we talk about the person while they are being imprisoned and subjected to violence, but once they are released, they are forgotten.”

In the second half of the panel, an attendee asked if the shift of power to the Gulf states and the signing of the Abraham Accords will make it harder for revolutions to carry out. 

Kraidy explained that in order to understand the significance of the Abraham Accords for political stability in the region, they need to be put into context. He asserted that the main reason these accords took place is because they were done “under tremendous pressures from the Trump administration.”

He added that the situation is much more complex than it appears to be and that now that Trump has left, the countries might reconsider their positions if they don’t get their part of the deal. 

Al Khawaja, on the other hand, spoke about concerns of surveillance that could hinder activism in the region. She gave an example of the UAE buying surveillance technology from NSO, an Israeli company, and using it to target Ahmed Mansoor, an Emirati activist. 

Another attendee asked the panelists to share advice to young activists striving to mount their own personal struggles for democracy. 

Attallah stressed that it is crucial to remember that the struggle for democracy and human rights is a process and that young activists must constantly “learn how to do things differently.”

Jawhara emphasized the importance of moving forward and prioritizing economic problems. She explained that building democratic institutions is certainly important but solving people’s problems and addressing their struggles should be addressed with equal attention, even in the initial phases of restoration. 

She added that the political elite has grown alienated from people’s everyday problems and that this requires that “we equate the priorities of the elite to the priorities of the ordinary people.”

Bishara concluded by reminding the audience of the importance of taking the right path to meaningful and palpable change. 

“Democracy takes more than some passion in the streets as we all know…what we need is a social contract. It’s a transition where everyone has a stake,” he said. 


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