25 January 2011 – Cairo
From 2010 to 2012 a series of revolutions spread across the Arab world. Anger at the ruling classes was fuelled by social media and the hope given by similar popular protests in neighbouring countries. By the time Mohammad Morsi was elected President of Egypt in June 2012, the movement appeared to have lost most of its momentum.
Unfortunately, it did not seem like democracy has replaced dictatorships. Instead, the region became destabilised by a combination of counter-revolutionary forces, endemic corruption and outside interference. While Tunisia, by and large, appears to have completed a revolution of sorts, Libya and Syria remain in a state of civil war. Egypt has had real difficulties establishing a stable, democratic state. Iraq continues to be a complete mess.1
There were two elements to the Arab Spring that interested me as a historian – both of them interrelated. First, the use of social media certainly appeared to have a great impact in the speed and volume of information that could be passed between protesters and disseminated to the wider world. Western media had access to countless video clips and photographs thanks to the growing availability of relatively cheap mobile phone technology. The protests in Tahrir Square, Cairo in early 2011 became the key symbol of this “social movement” sweeping across North Africa and the Middle East.
Put simply, it made good television. Dramatic footage often does. In the previous century, journalists were able to draw attention to the struggles of oppressed people through iconic imagery of suffering in “real time”. Such as:
But the sheer volume of material coming from the Arab world was unprecedented. Much of it came from the protesters themselves – and so while it was unfiltered from the usual state censorship seen in the region (and elsewhere) it did, of course, paint a sympathetic picture of the protesters and their cause. The West at least paid lip service to their struggles, and rejoiced in a supposed “democratisation” of the Muslim world. Could secular capitalist states help bring an end to terrorism? Would new markets be created for Western goods? Could diplomatic relations be improved between East and West? Oh, and a minor point – would life be better for hundreds of millions of people?
Well. This brings us to the second historically significant point. The Arab Spring burnt out pretty quickly.
By mid-2012, the revolutions had either been defeated or had broadly succeeded. This then led to phases of quiet consolidation or other protests and civil unrest that gained nowhere near the same level of coverage as the original movement had generated. Partly, the story had got old. Tahrir Square was now a symbol of continued uncertainty – the normal state of being for Cairo rather than an exciting news event. Politics about whether Mohammad Morsi was corrupt, whether the Muslim Brotherhood were problematic heirs to the revolution or the trials of Mubarak were covered by broadsheets and serious news organisations, but with nowhere near the same vigour.
There were also consequences of the Arab Spring that were uncomfortable for the West. The damaging civil war in Libya was not caused, but was certainly exacerbated, by military action from European and American bombers. The aim had been to protect protesters in Benghazi from mass murder from Muammar Gaddafi – and while this was a temporary success, it led to a power vacuum that was filled by various tribal leaders equally willing to use violence to consolidate their positions. The resulting backlash from citizens in those Western nations meant that NATO was far less eager to intervene to help protesters in Syria, where massacres continue to occur. Both countries are still in a state of civil war.
For us, the Arab Spring was as much a television programme as it was a true social movement across North Africa and the Middle East. For sure, solidarity was found in neighbouring countries, and social media helped to create a community of protesters and activists with common struggles and interests. But the West was all too willing to conflate myriad nations – and even tribal and ethic interests within those nations – into simplistic “the people versus the dictator” narratives that did not fit the complex reality on the ground. The novelty of mass social media coverage, combined with the quick pace of new protests, new governments being toppled and new armed conflicts created an excellent, multi-episode narrative that 24 hour television and internet news was able to exploit. In the end, however, the messy and fractured stories of the Arab states post-2012 do not excite us quite as much as the revolutions did.