At the top of 2010, I used to be en path to Sudan for Christmas, scouring Arabic social media looking for scraps of details about a narrative unfolding in Tunisia; a narrative the Arab media was censoring and the western media was nonetheless ignoring. A road dealer, Mohammed Bouazizi, had set himself on hearth in protest on the authorities within the metropolis of Sidi Bouzid, sparking demonstrations that unfold throughout the nation.
Weeks earlier than the protests toppled Tunisia’s president-for-life, you possibly can see that one thing about this rebellion was totally different. There was one thing about the best way the protests resonated in households across the Arab world, the depth of the ethical outrage and the drive of the momentum that felt new and thrilling.
However at the same time as I wrote then about their promise and potential, I by no means imagined that they might turn out to be what we now name the Arab spring. On the time, it was merely unfathomable that peaceable protests would overthrow an Arab dictator. It had by no means occurred earlier than. Nobody even knew what that will appear like.
A decade later, when the phrase “Arab spring” has turn out to be synonymous with shattered desires of liberation, it’s painful to assume again on the early days and weeks of protests. It’s painful now to recollect the heady months of pleasure and optimism – the sense of energy that we had as Arabs for the primary time in our lifetimes.
Most of all, it smarts to recollect the sense of camaraderie and pleasure: once you cried in streets and cafes with strangers, crowded round a radio or a TV because the information of one other dictator’s demise got here by way of; once you congratulated them on their nation’s revolution they usually promised that this time your nation could be subsequent.
And it stings to recollect all of the acts of bravery: the second when a pal known as simply earlier than taking place to affix a protest, and left their mother and father’ telephone quantity in case they by no means got here again. Once you consoled the households of those that had died, and located their mother and father weren’t grieving, not cowed; they had been decided that their childrens’ deaths wouldn’t be for nothing.
And but, once we look throughout the Arab world at the moment, it’s laborious to imagine this occurred. Solely the “Tunisian revolution” stays intact. Each different nation affected has both collapsed into chaos and civil warfare, as in Libya and Syria – or, like Egypt, has entered a brand new period of dictatorship, darker and extra oppressive than ever earlier than. What has come to cross appears to be like like a fulfilment of the warnings that had been issued towards the protests from the beginning: this can solely result in much more political instability.
Many who lived by way of the times of promise don’t like to speak about them now. After they do, it’s nearly with embarrassment; a contempt for his or her youthful selves, at their naivety and recklessness. “You can’t have freedom and stability,” an Egyptian man instructed me earlier this yr, reflecting on the failed revolution. “That is what we have now discovered.”
And so the legacy of the Arab spring is not only the atrocities and authoritarians that adopted – however the truth that it’s now held up as a repudiation of the very notion of protest. “We blame ourselves,” Hafsa Halawa, an Iraqi Egyptian lady lively within the post-Tahrir political motion, instructed me final week. “However we’re additionally blamed.” The revolutionaries have their very own regrets to deal with, however now they’re additionally condemned for underestimating the size of the problem they had been going through.
“You didn’t know what you had been up towards, you didn’t know what you had been getting your self into,” Halawa says they’re instructed. “However we failed as a result of there was an excessive amount of stress on the protest motion to turn out to be this political animal. As soon as protesters overthrew the regimes, they had been anticipated to take their place.”
Even in Tunisia, Bouazizi’s identify has misplaced its sanctity. His household was smeared and harassed, accused of profiting financially from the dying of their cherished one, and joined the opposite hundreds of thousands of Arab spring exiles to go away the nation. In his house city, a Guardian reporter met a girl strolling previous the large image of Bouazizi erected in his reminiscence. “I curse at it,” she mentioned. “I wish to convey it down. He’s the one who ruined us.”
However all this finger-pointing and self-flagellation obscures the actual reality in regards to the Arab spring, which is that it failed as a result of it couldn’t have succeeded. Peaceable transition was merely unimaginable, at the moment and in that method. What we underestimated – from Syria to Sudan – was not the facility of the navy or the brutality of the safety companies, or the tenacity of the entrenched pursuits and elites that will do something to keep up their energy. What we missed was truly the dearth of any actual counterweight to all this stuff.
The issue was the absence of sufficient of the forces essential to the success of a revolution somewhat than the presence of too many counter-currents towards it. As a result of dictatorship isn’t simply in regards to the rule of 1 man, it’s in regards to the sterilisation of democracy. After the despots fell, it turned clear that a long time of despotism had salted the earth. There have been no opposition events to harness and information political power, no charismatic figures who had returned from exile or escaped imprisonment to galvanise political actions, and no room for political discourse as a result of there was no media ecosystem or mental house that was wholesome sufficient to withstand seize by conspiracies and sectarianism.
The very factor that made the Arab spring a stunning historic drive – that it was an natural, people-powered motion that had no chief or ideology – ultimately cannibalised it. The vacuum swallowed the revolution. In that faltering, there are echoes, and classes, within the resistance confronted by anti-establishment actions within the west, from Black Lives Matter to the challenges to the centre floor from the left. What the Arab spring got here up towards was a common conundrum – methods to convert the forces that demand equality into people who ship it.
At present, it’s laborious to see past the established narrative of failure: the hundreds of thousands displaced in Syria, Libya and Yemen; the lifeless and the lacking; the our bodies filling Egypt’s political prisons. However a better look reveals a lingering affirmation of what was as soon as so thrilling, not least within the insecurity it has sown among the many leaders who adopted. Egypt’s relentless police state is an indication that the navy and safety companies have discovered that the specter of one other revolt is so potent they can not allow the slightest transgression. Like a jailer whose cost as soon as escaped however has since been recaptured, the nation’s paranoid leaders will go to preposterous lengths to verify it by no means occurs once more.
And so everybody, from younger girls on TikTok posting dance movies to medical doctors fighting Covid, is seen as a risk to the airless monoculture that must be maintained to suffocate any problem. It’s a futile effort. Discontent continues to swell, as corruption and financial struggles push individuals to desert rational calculations, to spill out into the streets and into sure detention, torture and even dying.
This has been the ticking metronome, marking out time for the reason that protests started a decade in the past – one second a worry for all times and livelihood, and the following a determined, passionate, undaunted rage. You’ll be able to see this twin consciousness in polls that present a majority in eight nations throughout the Arab world agree their societies are much more unequal now. However in 5 of these nations, a majority say they don’t remorse the Arab spring protests. It’s a tense and fragile profitable margin for the forces of the ancien régime. Issues could also be worse than they had been a decade in the past, however there’s one reality that’s now clear to the despots and the individuals alike – a reality that provides the individuals a bonus they lacked the primary time round. It might probably occur. It has occurred earlier than. Now we all know what it appears to be like like. And subsequent time, we’ll know what’s required of us.
• Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist