In the first of a two-part series, Eamon Lahrach looks at the Arab barrier of fear, and the protest movements that overcame it in Tunisia and Egypt.
A humble vegetable seller’s act of self-sacrifice was all it took to inspire millions of people, not just across the Middle East, but the entire world. The world watched in bewilderment as an unprecedented display of people power dethroned a decades-long despot in a region that has never known anything apart from authoritarian rule. A small nation of 10 million citizens in a 63 square mile patch of land; Tunisia left the international community puzzled in their seats. However the irony of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s departure is its very nature. It didn’t take a violent campaign from armed militants nor a full scale civil war to oust the autocrat. It was simple – a peaceful movement of civil resistance by ordinary people shouting the now famously echoed Arabic word, ‘irhal’ (Go), brought a 24 year regime to its knees. Western governments that have long been cosy with despotic rulers in the Middle East were left dismayed by the protests in Sidi Bouzid, Tunis and other towns. However, the only person more dismayed than them was Ben Ali himself.
The ex-President’s only strategy against dissent and disobedience was the entrenchment of a police state. This consisted of a security apparatus operating with impunity, a closed circle of powerful political figures sharing similar interests, a widening economic division between a minority elite class and a growing poverty-stricken class, and the continued prolongation of a state of emergency law. Sporadic political opponents were either promptly imprisoned or sent into exile, while the general populace were made to live under a barrier of fear. To justify its ongoing existence, the regime would build its legitimacy through a campaign of fear mongering, the threat of ‘Islamic rule’ a particular favourite. Ironically, the suppression of organised movements only strengthened them, regardless of how deep underground their activities would take place. Organisations such as Ennahda, the banned Islamic movement, gained support despite government repression. Most Muslim Arabs in the Middle East and North Africa region consider Islam as part of what defines them. It is logical for a grassroots movement in an authoritarian state to appear attractive to an oppressed and poor citizen. With its added Islamic identity, it is no surprise that Ennahda grew to become the most significant political party in post-revolution Tunisia. However, it was not Ennahda that brought about the Tunisian revolution.
The barrier of fear that the regime would impose on its people was not powered by how brutal or widespread the secret police, or mukhabarat, were. That barrier of fear directly correlates with the minds of people themselves. People are to be born only to grow, work, beget and die. This is a system defined by the regime and imposed on its population, similar to a feudal lord imposing his authority on his common folk. They are not allowed to interfere with the system or revolt against it. Their obedience is not defined by loyalty but by fear. Fear of the secret police. Fear of indefinite detention behind bars and torture without mercy. However, human beings are born with natural limits. Twenty four years of oppression and poverty builds up to an uncontrollable point and needs only a spark for a sizable explosion to occur. Mohamed Bouazizi was that spark. Like a wildfire, people in their thousands overcame fear, no longer accepting the corruption and state oppression that plagued their country since its independence. No longer would they remain silent in the face of humiliation and poverty. The barrier of fear was shattered not simply due to their overwhelming numbers but due to their overwhelming will. Ben Ali faced a threat he could not even comprehend. He had never confronted a popular movement before and was therefore unequipped with the skills to crush it.
The people didn’t join together under a solely religious banner so he could not blame ‘Islamic infiltrators.’ They did not unite under any ideological banner. Their only slogan was “the people want to bring down the regime.” Ben Ali decided to speak on television and gave a rambling speech in which he had claimed to ‘understand’ his people and, as if history had taken a humorous twist of fate, fled the country shortly after. The announcement of his decampment sent shockwaves across the Arab world in particular. It led Egyptians, Libyans, Syrians and others to think to themselves something they had never thought before; that change was actually possible.
The Arabian Peninsula and Northern Africa shared a club of eternal rulers, each of whom operated similar versions of the police state that Ben Ali had implemented. So it comes as no surprise that the populations of all these despotic countries would share corresponding grievances. Egypt was no less despotic than Tunisia. Ruled by Presidents from military backgrounds and having tense borders with Israel, the Arab world’s most populous country had arguably experienced a worse dictatorship than Tunisia. It also gave birth to a grassroots movement of Islamic nature that would become the region’s oldest and most powerful banned organisation. The Muslim Brotherhood’s founding principles were set on political activism and philanthropy. This Egyptian model would inspire offshoots in other Arab countries; founded on a similar ideology and principles to Ennahda in Tunisia. Of course, a movement that corresponded with the people’s identity and grievances would grow into something significant. However, like in Tunisia, it would not be the Muslim Brotherhood that sparked Egypt’s revolution.
In a reciprocal manner to the manner in which Arab grassroots movements would inspire one another, the dictators would also look to each other’s examples in dealing with their populations. Censorship was a common tool used by the regime. Control of state media allows for only a single narrative to be delivered. Before the internet there were only newspapers and television sets. Through the police state, despots like Hosni Mubarak made sure only his approved version of the story would reach the masses. This technique appeared almost fool-proof and so what seemed functioning did not need improvement. It was this underestimation that would spell the demise of Mubarak. An page on Facebook set up by Egyptians outraged by the latest victim of Egypt’s police state broke their own barrier of fear and began protests that erupted into the most unexpected development, sending Western governments and policy makers into a spiral of confusion. The internet remained largely independent of state censorship and thus allowed ordinary citizens who were disgruntled with the status quo to speak and connect with each other. Cyber networking was overlooked by an outdated police state which mainly focused its sights on outdoor assemblies. Once again, it was a people united under shared grievances with the goal of removing the regime. Ideology would only come to play afterwards. Mubarak had seen his fellow colleague Ben Ali ousted by his people, and with his arrogant demeanor, he launched the full power of his police state against his people. Many analysts believe that the street battles that took place in Cairo were decisive in overthrowing the 30 year long dictator. Mubarak was left scrambling with outdated measures. He presumed that removing the leash of every riot policeman would send people scrambling back to their homes.
Subsequently, this proved a failure in front of a nation whose will had already shattered the barrier of fear. Once the Egyptian Armed Forces declared they will not take part in fighting the protestors, and the White House reluctantly increased its pressure, Mubarak was left in a corner and had no choice but to resign. A victory for the people of Egypt, and a stamp into history for a series of events that would soon be labelled as the Arab Spring.
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