Ten years ago, the fabric of a world order began to split apart. The ripping sounds first heard in Sidi Bouzid and Tahrir Square were the beginnings of a tear which would reverberate across the world, from New York to Hong Kong, precipitating a generational collapse in trust in the political system.
By the end of the decade, populists – many of them openly opposed to human rights, liberal democracy and freedom of the press – would be ruling on several continents, disseminating lies and actively attempting to take the world back to an era before international agreements, multilateral institutions or even the expectation of limitations on power.
Nothing the residents of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) were not already used to.
This region, comprising more than half a billion people, is the only one in the world which saw no increase in the number of democracies in the last 20 years of the 20th century, during which the number doubled worldwide. It arguably suffered the most under the norms of the so-called liberal world order, which proclaimed certain values while entrenching their diametric opposite. Little wonder it showed the first fractures under the pressure of being held so far out-of-step with the rest of the world.
Watching a regional breakdown
In the aftermath of a disaster, it is natural to look for explanations. If a storage facility full of fuel is engulfed in flames, we look for the negligent person who lit a cigarette inside. Sometimes this makes us miss the bigger picture – if safety standards were so lax that lighting something inside was possible, then the fateful event was just one of daily possible causes, making the result an inevitability.
The beginning of the MENA’s decade of uprisings unfolded in a similar way. Looking back, we can pinpoint Mohammed Bouazizi, the impoverished and humiliated fruit-seller who self-immolated in Tunisia, Khaled Said, the computer programmer dragged out of an internet café and beaten to death by plain-clothes police thugs in Egypt, Fathi Terbil, the lawyer for widows of the victims of the Abu Slim prison massacre who was suddenly arrested in Libya, or Hamza al-Khateeb, the 13-year-old Syrian boy who was arrested and then tortured and mutilated after a protest in Syria. Indeed, every local can point to the moment which radicalised them, finally persuading them of the necessity of the fall of the regime. The spark that lit the flame stands out, but it was the last in a shower of sparks.
“For the first time I was proud to be an Egyptian,” my friend Mohammed Soltan told me, recalling the January 25 uprising in 2011. I felt the same witnessing my parents’ homeland Libya go through the same the next month. Millions felt agency over their homelands for the first time ever – they and their dignity mattered enough to merit an end to unjust rule. But after the elation and optimism of the early months, Libya and Egypt, alongside Syria and Yemen sank into chaos and despair.
The painful truth was that not a single one of our countries was well-placed for a transition to better governance – the autocrats made sure of that. Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi had spent decades stamping out every vestige of independent leadership in the country, ruling by personal network and the cult of authority. Our mockery of his idiosyncratic reign was proven short-sighted, as it emerged that those actions were highly strategic – in his absence everything disintegrated, exactly as planned.
Syria’s Bashar al-Assad implemented this strategy with great urgency when the revolution began, realising that this was his only hope. By actively targeting any form of emerging community hubs – including local councils, courtrooms, schools and bakeries – he created a scorched earth in which only the most extreme could survive. In Egypt, polarisation and political fragmentation were crippling, although what ultimately pushed Egyptians over the edge was a military coup promoted by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Other countries teetered under widespread unrest. Bahrain required an intervention by Saudi Arabian and Emirati security forces for the monarchy to survive. Morocco and Jordan hang on until today, despite longstanding protest movements. All the while Saudi Arabia and the UAE fight furiously, bankrolling and supporting by any means necessary any bulwark against the aspirations of the people for better. Yemen bore the brunt, years of civil war followed by a merciless Saudi-Emirati military campaign untroubled by famine, epidemic, displacement or any other humanitarian considerations.
The lessons we learned
Those fighting to make the region better watched every one of these disintegrations live and day-by-day, each moment’s specific crisis diverting from the destination our overwhelmed efforts could not stop. It is impossible to know the effect of any efforts – whether lives were saved, atrocities deterred or worse scenarios forestalled by the years of ceaseless work to investigate crimes, lobby for accountability, build inclusive systems, raise support for victims and build capacity for such initiatives. All the while our numbers dwindled as friends and colleagues succumbed to assassination, imprisonment, forcible displacement, trauma or exile.
My own heartbreaks are many. I got to know Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi pro-government journalist-turned fierce dissident, in the summer of 2018, as many activists did in his final months alive after he began to frequent our spaces such as the Oslo Freedom Forum. We hoped to spend many years working with him before his horrific murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. Among the hundreds of thousands dead in Syria, the visionary Raed Fares – founder of a civil society ecosystem in the defiant town of Kafranbel – was an inspiration to me, before unknown fighters put bullets in his chest in 2018. I had hoped to meet many of the brightest hopes for Libya’s future whose work I followed and who are no longer with us, such as 18-year-old activist Tawfiq Ben Saud and crusading human rights lawyer Salwa Bughaighis, both shot dead by armed fighters.
When the uprisings began, I was a sheltered 20-year-old university student in the United Kingdom. A decade later, the long-term success of these movements forms the defining feature of my identity. My best friend, a Palestinian-Emirati, lives in fear of his life from the dictators who want him dead, and two of the previously-mentioned activists I worked with and admired greatly have been killed. And yet, this story is remarkable only in its mundanity – almost everyone I know has been touched at least as deeply, and often closer to home, by the turmoil of the last 10 years.
As many activists look back on the decade, our hindsight rarely includes fatalism. We regret missed opportunities, and often blame ourselves for what happened, but the sense of opportunity was real. Those awe-inspiring days in 2011 – when Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak stepped down and it became clear Gaddafi would never reclaim the country – were impossible, so everyone had always said. It logically followed that the impossible was now possible; we had permission to dream.
It is fair to say that in 2011, the vast majority of us had no idea what we were getting into. To be an activist is to become intimately familiar with the nature of suffering, and to reconcile yourself – one way or another – to that. It is to understand the futility of the human condition and yet still retain faith in our better nature, and in the possibility of a better future. It is to open your heart to the suffering of others – to carry it with you constantly, instead of closing yourself to shelter from the pain. It is to dare to retain hope when others do not.
Healing and waiting
Among the most painful lessons we have learned is that there are many in the world who do not value our humanity. Honeyed words and half-hearted gestures do not offset the violent abuse that self-professed liberal governments perpetuate, from their campaigns of aggression against migrants on their borders to the flow of arms into conflict zones. Tame expressions of concern at democratic backsliding or the imprisonment of activists, and mild condemnation of blatant human rights violation are now only a reminder to us that the value of our lives is functionally lesser to them, and nobody who has seen these years of abuse remains naïve enough to believe such statements.
This lesson required many painful repetitions to internalise. It was taught in US President Barack Obama’s calculated disregard of the violation of the “red line” of the flagrant use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria. It was taught again in his refusal to recognise the bloody coup in Egypt as such – doing so would have meant the suspension of military aid. It has been a lesson retaught in every UN summit at which our dictators whitewash their crimes without challenge, in every Human Rights Council on which the worst jailers of dissidents and journalists sit, and at every meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women at which the torturers of women’s rights activists are elected.
The lesson is retaught billions of times annually, once for each dollar of arms sold by the US, the UK, France and Germany to the perpetrators of the brutal, grinding war in Yemen or the tragedies in Libya – arms bought with funds plundered from the very targets they will be turned upon. Few things in life are so consistent – such steadfast insistence can only be considered a matter of principle.
Much of the international left, long-considered by activists among our staunchest allies, also revealed their true colours. The British Labour Party spent most of the decade studiously ignoring the suffering of Syrians, resisting calls to act and voting against initiatives to end the bloodshed or ensure consequences for the Assad regime. Other movements revealed themselves to be either deeply authoritarian at heart – the “tankies” who glorify dictators with lies and propaganda – or dogmatic fossils driven by anti-Western sentiment rather than principles, instinctively siding with dictators the moment Western countries aligned against them. When confronted by Syrian critics, for example, the British anti-war movement refused to engage them in any way, instead giving credence to wild-eyed conspiracy theories about the White Helmets emergency rescue organisation being linked to armed fighters and committing “false flag” chemical attacks against themselves.
By now, most activists are acutely familiar with the condescending attitude endemic among left-wing movements towards those who fight “anti-imperialist” authoritarians, and the way they refuse to acknowledge our agency in rising up against governments whose international rhetoric (on Palestine, for example) they naively admire. They have smeared native activists as warmongers, imperialists and “CIA assets” because their desire to resist war is stronger than any desire to support justice to the extent that it distorts their view of reality.
When the whole world tells you, again and again, that you do not matter, the only choices are to believe it and internalise a deep sense of shame at your existence, or to become uncompromisingly furious at the world itself. In the last decade, an entire region of hundreds of millions of people has been subjected to this concerted psychological abuse – what else can it be called, when you are told that the crisis is not your loss of life and home, but your washing up desperate on European shores? Cynicism and even nihilism are natural approaches to the resulting moral injury, and defence mechanisms against further pain. Many people hate the uprisings today, and have given up on democracy and muted their aspirations – as recent articles informed even those of us who do not encounter these sentiments daily among our struggling families, who have yet to see any improvement to their economic conditions in Tunisia, Egypt and Sudan.
An entire generation was psychologically burned by this decade. They suffered for challenging authority, for daring to hope, even for speaking out – now many are afraid to do even that, aware that social media is tightly monitored again. Vast numbers suffer from lasting PTSD; many friends struggle to get out of bed in the morning and face the world, 10 years later. The layers of trauma for residents, dissidents and diaspora are largely unaddressed.
And yet, many of the heartbroken march on, swimming against the tide of repression. These include ALQST, a visionary Saudi human rights organisation investigating human rights violations in the kingdom in such meticulous detail that authorities are enraged by its very existence, TIMEP, a think-tank staffed by diligent and committed natives producing scholarly research which is both more relevant and more compassionate than is common in the industry, and the Freedom Initiative, who carry out large-scale PR work to ostracise dictators from their international partners. Our world has also welcomed an unprecedented wealth of Syrian legal scholars pressing for generational reform of the international legal system (including the UN and its mechanisms, as well as concepts such as universal jurisdiction) so that their tragedy may never be replicated, as well as more journalists, technologists and expert-amateurs than can be counted using unconventional techniques to conduct open source investigations of power as well as defend activists from surveillance. For each activist the dictators have attempted to silence, several new ones appeared to participate in the a generational struggle for freedom.
Trajectories of the future
One of the human brain’s inbuilt biases is that we always consider the world to be more static than it really is, and that the future will look much more like the past than it really will. Considering this, I have often imagined the formative years of my parents, and the radically different world they grew up in. During their childhood, Afghanistan was a stable country. China was desperately poor, and Japan was known largely for producing cheap knock-off electronic goods. Much of Africa was shaking off colonial rule. Much of the MENA region was too, and after decades of foreign domination they were filled with hope at the prospect of strong leaders to defend them. They did not have the hindsight with which we can today judge the direction it went in.
The generation living through their teens today have never seen a world in which China was anything less than a global technology power. The US as a hegemon intervening militarily at will is gone – in its place remains a broken shell of a country, with a drained economy, a furious population and a fractured and dysfunctional political system.
Most importantly, this generation has never seen a world in which their leaders and governments were anything other than a repressive force, leeching their wealth while contributing little, stifling their creativity and throttling their prospects for a prosperous future. Even the legacy of hope or romanticism is absent, and those who ever experienced those feelings about their governments can barely comprehend the fury with which the youth perceive it. The arrival of the future will continue to accelerate, and remain mostly-illegible to remote and disinterested “experts” with no stake in the region.
Out of nowhere, just as everyone had stopped expecting it, the uprisings began again. A “second wave” to those who had thought it was over, first in Sudan in late 2018, then in Iraq, Algeria, Lebanon and Palestine. In Iran, a big longstanding national protest movement erupted again at the same time.
Iraq had already seen a significant protest movement against governmental corruption early in the decade. The violent sectarian crackdown implemented in response broke the country, energising ISIL (ISIS)’s blitzkrieg armed uprising. In the absence of national institutions, militias were created to fight ISIL. Many of them were backed by Iran, and after the conflict this led to the entrenchment of a de-facto occupation of the country. After the ISIL threat subsided came a renewal of the mass uprising in 2019, but this was followed by weekly assassinations for much of the past two years, as journalists, lawyers, young campaigners and members of civil society have been picked off by those threatened by the vision they stand for.
Palestine went from being the region’s only political outlet, to being a distraction from their own uprisings, and when those uprisings that ended or were crushed came back again – the priority of those bankrolling the entire regional counter-revolution. The Great Return March, a weekly event running for more than 20 months from March 2018, saw thousands maimed by Israeli snipers, often suffering life-changing injuries, for approaching Gaza’s border fence and demanding the right to return to their homes.
The last two years have shown how much has changed, and how much has truly remained the same. As the governments of Sudan and Algeria fell, expectations of regime stability were again shown to be as misguided as before, while beliefs that the region’s residents were too disheartened and deterred to rise up were categorically dismissed.
In recent months Jordan has responded to a teachers’ union strike with jail terms. Egypt has been imprisoning teenage TikTok influencers, and Morocco has persecuted independent journalists. Saudi Arabia continues to double down on a campaign against detained women’s rights activists which clearly nobody believes in, even those carrying it out. After 10 years of revolts, the region’s leaders, monarchs and presidents-for-life have learned nothing. Despite chance after chance to alter their course and attempt to re-establish legitimacy, they continue to respond in the same way to every perceived slight: with repression.
The worst, too, could be yet to come. The movement against climate change is yet to come to the MENA – already one of the most water-stressed regions on earth, and parts of which are forecast to become uninhabitable within half a century. Here, too, solutions can only be revolutionary, because the possibility of a democratic exercise of influence over policy has been eliminated. Revolution is a matter of survival.
The spring also continues for women, whose uprising against discrimination and sexual harassment broke the surface this decade, in tandem with the rest of the world. For every woman who has seen a harasser challenged, sexual abuse reported, unfair laws criticised and secondary legal status rejected, the status quo will never be silently accepted again.
Our attitudes towards each other have also seen some important changes over recent years – activists have slowly realised we do not have the luxury of being divided, or ignorant of each other’s existence and struggles. Most have by now abandoned the term “Arab Spring” for the erasure of minority communities of the region such as Kurds and Amazigh. Those living in the capitals of hyper-centralised states are now aware of those from the peripheries – Libyans now have heard of every tiny town across the country, and Syrians have been thrown together regardless of the urban-rural separation that previously existed.
The uprisings continue, an ongoing process in different forms. We are entering a new world, and it is still early days.