Looking back on everything I’ve written here, I need to say a few things first. This is all based on my own experiences and those I’ve spoken to directly. I can’t pretend to speak for either Egyptians or Americans, only myself. Also, this is by no means comprehensive. I have left out a ton in the name of space and time. More importantly, there is a lot that I have little to no knowledge about on this topic. That said, I’m happy to answer any questions I can or help with sources to check that have more information than I do. Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org any time. I hope I’m informative and that you enjoy.
The Arab Spring revolutions that swept through the Middle East were for a while a focus of the American media. Reporters and analysts watched and tried to make sense as bit by bit, people began to wake up. Rulers that were tolerated for decades were thrown down. People that were described in books as unable to revolt took to the streets in unheard of numbers. And then the American news cycle moved on. New things stories came to light and our attention drifted elsewhere. This process, for better or for worse, caused a few gaps in the information that most Americans have about the Arab Spring revolutions.
There were a number of things, even in the beginning, that were inadequately covered. Tunisia’s revolution is where it all started. I personally barely remember learning anything about the Tunisian revolution as it was happening. Alone, the political unrest there gained little attention. It wasn’t until protests began to shake the entire Arab world that references were made back to Tunisia’s role in being the first in the wave of revolution. The people there saw in the self-immolation of one citizen the final straw. They, like him, decided that enough was enough and action was necessary. Protests against the government sprung up and gained momentum. Governance was given up and elections held to reflect the voice of the people. All of this was accomplished without civil war, without strong coordinated leadership with an agenda, and without any prompting. There is little reason to say that some one person or group wanted to cause Tunisia to revolt because nobody was even expecting it. There was nowhere for people to look and say, “Why don’t we have a revolution like (insert Arab country here)?” They joined together under the idea of changing their country for the better and did it.
Maybe Tunisia got less coverage abroad than it would have if not for the uprisings in Egypt, Libya, and Syria, that followed. Only a month after events began in earnest in Tunisia, Egypt became the center of attention. A month after that it was Libya that revolted against its government and month later it was Syria. And those are the big names; those are the countries that got the most attention. Protests were however held in other countries that saw varying degrees of success. People in Morocco took to the streets looking for improvements in their daily lives and received some concessions from the monarchy. Yemen also saw significant unrest during the Arab Spring. There too, there were concessions from the government in order to hold off revolt. I specifically want to highlight Bahrain. Uprisings in Bahrain could be included among the most well-known uprisings. The scope of the demonstrations was large. The response of the government was not to give concessions but to react against the protesters. Conditions were on par with an Egypt or a Tunisia. Why, then, was the mention of Bahrain minimal at best? Even on Al Jazeera there were few mentions of events in Bahrain. I’m not a fan of conspiracy theories and cover-up stories, but the most reasonable explanation I’ve heard so far is that the Shia aspects of the demonstrations were covered up. Fear of Shia-lead Iran is real in both the United States and countries with Sunni governments. Since Bahrain’s Shia population was very active and was pushing for more rights, regional and global politics may have caused the story to get buried.
So we have covered that the initial demonstrations and uprisings could have been better covered. But just as important is the fact that those were just the initial stages. Revolution is not an overnight process. The story is still going on. In Egypt, the military took power after President Mubarak stepped down. This was celebrated in the streets because Mubarak was gone but also because the people here respect the army greatly. Military control was supposed to last six months. They were only in power to facilitate the handing over of governance to an elected president and the beginnings of a new constitution. After six months passed, the military was still in control. It became clear that even without Mubarak at its head, the corrupt government set up by him over his 30 year reign was largely preserved. Some people saw these two pieces – the corrupt officials still around and the military not giving up rule – and decided to renew protests against the government. Since the army is seen in such a good light here, these people lacked popular support. However, a year later – a year and a half after Mubarak – protesters took to the streets en masse and pushed the army out of power.
It was only then that elections brought in a new president. The problem is that even that story is marred by corruption and unrest. In the beginning, the elections had a lot of potential. For the first time, politicians were publicly debating issues and elevating the level of political discourse. There were also a number of promising candidates came out of the protests. One such man was Mohammed AlBaradei. Unfortunately, he dropped out of the race because of political attacks aimed at humiliating him and his family. Despite the number of good people running in the first round of elections, the two that made it to the second round of voting were a disappointment. One was a representative of the past administration and the other was a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood. Many advocated not voting at all rather than choose between these two. Therefore, tensions were high from the beginning of Mohammed Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood’s term.
To this day, protests are held against the government. The list of grievances is long. Demonstrating also has a lot of popular support. If there are Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Egypt, I haven’t met any of them in three weeks of being here. While the west reduces them to an Islamist political group, the view in Egypt is a little more complicated. Islam is a key part of Egyptian society, but it is not the goal of everyone to have an Islamic government. Among those who do aspire to that, there is disagreement to the extent of the role the Qur’an should play in government. In addition to that, the Muslim Brotherhood is not seen as Egyptian. This group formed internationally, and there are markers of that in much of what they say and do. They are seen as outsiders, with an international agenda instead of one for improving Egypt. Specifically, Mursi is seen as not much of an improvement over Mubarak. He personally took over supervision of the creation of a new constitution, a task originally for an independent council. He has enacted a state of emergency to allow the police more freedom in how they deal with protesters, one of the main things that got Mubarak overthrown. Police brutality has not decreased at all during his time in office. Police are allowed a wide range of powers and often misuse them. Beatings are far too common. When videos became public about the beatings in police stations, the police banned cell phones in police stations instead of dealing with the problem. Just recently, a man was stripped and badly beaten in the street during a protest. These things have continued the story of the Arab Spring in Egypt. Almost every Friday and many days in between see a demonstration now. One person I talked to said that while of course the constant protesting does get exhausting, there is no way that they can stop before the Muslim Brotherhood is out of the picture.
This is not specific to Egypt, either. Protests continue across the region. Syria is still caught in conflict. A member of an opposition party in Tunis was recently shot and killed. Protesters have returned to streets in Yemen and the United Nations has warned the ousted government against tampering with elections. If there is a point to all of this, it’s that the story is not over. Despite what you may not hear, the Arab Spring deserves as much attention now as it did in the first six months. Many still fight for the realization of rights they’ve been fighting for for years. Countries previously not in the conversation might still take up the cause of bread, freedom, and social justice.