By Sreeram Chaulia
Jan 1, 2012,
What is common among Neila Chaabane of Tunisia, Wael Ghonim of Egypt, Mohammed Nabbous of Libya, Razan Ghazzawi of Syria, and Bushra al Mugtari of Yemen? These women and men are ordinary citizens who seized an extraordinary revolutionary moment and changed the history of their countries through courage, self-belief and optimism. They form a representative sample from the millions of unsung activists and nonviolent foot soldiers of the Arab Spring which reverberated as a cry for freedom across the Middle East in 2011.
Chaabane is a law professor with no past involvement in mass politics, but who stepped out of the shadows to assist in burying the legacy of Tunisia's tyrannical ruler Zine El Abedine Ben Ali. She braves death threats for being a proactive figure in Tunisia's post-revolutionary National Commission on Investigating Corruption and Embezzlement. Her contribution to institution building in the smoothest and most decisive Arab Spring case of Tunisia mirrors the stories of many other Tunisians who came out of their closets and are reifying the concept of 'popular sovereignty'.
Like Chaabane, there are other educated professionals in the region who suddenly discovered that they had the mental strength and the foresight to be useful when history called. Wael Ghonim is a computer engineer who found his calling in advocating freedom for victims of Egyptian state brutality through social networking. His incarceration and spontaneous views about how horizontal revolutionary struggles could galvanise Egypt were crucial triggers for the overthrow of the long entrenched Hosni Mubarak regime. Ghonim inspired other average Egyptians to participate in a revolution whose future remains dicey and still open to hijacking by a conservative military or radical Islamists. Unarmed 20-somethings like Ghonim, with no professional NGO pedigrees or badges, became collective lion slayers in the Middle East in 2011.
Although the war to unseat Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in Libya eventually took on a bloody and tribal form, with military intervention from outside, there were peaceful protests at the outset in February 2011 when civilians were at the forefront, demanding democracy. A 28-yearold citizen journalist and information technologist, Mohammed Nabbous, set up an independent television station despite web blackouts and spread knowledge about Gaddafi's security forces mowing down civilians in Benghazi. He paid the ultimate price for disseminating the truth in March, yet another supreme sacrifice in a year when dying for justice overrode fear for life.
Razan Ghazzawi is a Syrian blogger for media freedom and democracy whose Twitter and Facebook posts as well as efforts to mobilise mass dissent against the Assad dynasty's rule earned her a jail spell and turned her into an international cause celebre. Since the Arab Spring has unfolded, prisoners of conscience and subjects of state violence have grown younger in age but no less mature in thinking. Contrary to misguided cynicism that the 'web 2.0 revolutionaries' lack vision to steer societies to equitable and stable futures, activists like Ghazzawi have articulated blueprints that do not have to borrow from Karl Marx or Che Guevara. In 2011, the Middle East witnessed a surge of wise young people who have the capacity to lead from below. As Syria remains a hotbed for suppression of revolution and is witnessing a turn towards war fomented by regional powers against the Assad regime, the sagacity of defenceless youth on the ground who continue to seek a nonviolent transfer of power stands out as a silver lining
The Nobel peace prize for 2011 was awarded to a 32-year-old Yemeni human rights activist, Tawakkul Karman, who became the youngest ever laureate. While her profile has now become global, many lesser known Yemeni women have valiantly resisted the diehard regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh, determinedly chipping away at whatever remnants of legitimacy this dictator commands through manipulation of tribal identities. One such dynamic individual is Bushra al Mugtari from Taiz, where the regime has resorted to maximum force, trying to defend public spaces from violent actors. She speaks of "love, camaraderie and enthusiasm" as the motivating factors of co-protesters who persist despite the muddling of Yemen's political transition due to military defections and heavily armed anti-Saleh tribal factions.
2011 was a watershed year in the Middle East because it lent a sense of political efficacy to formerly apolitical Arab individuals and groups. There have indeed been numerous setbacks to the democratisation juggernaut in the region after the initial scalps of Ben Ali and Mubarak, and the future remains tensely uncertain. Structural impediments in the form of tenacious authoritarians, meddlesome regional and global powers, sectarian and divisive fault lines, Islamist fundamentalist forces, etc, have slowed down the pace of change that was supersonic at the beginning of 2011.
Barring Bahrain, the monarchical regimes of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, UAE, Qatar and Morocco have thus far nervously clung on and have avoided massive popular unrest. Some of these counter-revolutionary states are using their armies and foreign alliance systems to squelch not only their own people's desires for democracy but also those of aspirants fighting for dignity in their neighbourhood.
Can the Arab Spring be partial and still be successful or will it require total revolution across all countries in the region? During the anti-colonial liberation struggles in Asia and Africa, the enslavement of even one country was considered by revolutionaries to be a threat to the freedom of all former colonies. The current Middle Eastern wave of democratisation may never be ideally complete unless the lynchpin authoritarian governments of Saudi Arabia and Iran bite the dust. But the lesson of 2011 is not to fatalistically wait for circumstances to get better but to determine one's own destiny. The past year belonged to the Arab subaltern driven by the motto: carpe diem!
Sreeram Chaulia is vice dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs
Source: The Times of India, New Delhi