Exactly a year ago, on Jan. 25, 2011, Egyptians flooded into the streets of Cairo to speak out against police brutality and other social ills under the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. Within a matter of days, the protests snowballed from tens of thousands in Tahrir Square to millions around the country—a groundswell of popular rage that led to Mubarak’s quick downfall and solidified the momentum of the Arab Spring that had first been sparked in neighboring Tunisia. As goes Egypt, so goes the rest of the Middle East: in the weeks and months that followed, Libya descended into a civil war that resulted in the death of longtime strongman Muammar Gaddafi, Yemeni protesters effectively forced president Ali Abdullah Saleh to promise to step down, and a fierce Syrian opposition continues to rage against Bashar al-Assad. To look back on the past year, Newsweek/The Daily Beast’s Mike Giglio spoke to eight leading cyberactivists about their recollections on a year of Arab Spring.
“Àli” was the administrator of SBZ News, the Facebook page that Tunisians turned to for information about the country’s revolution, the first in the Arab world, which was sparked by the self-immolation of street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi. Mhadhbi and his team acted as a news organization when none existed in the country, feverishly reporting about the unfolding situation and changing Web locations frequently as the government sought to cut them off.
“I still remember the 14th of January, 2011. I had just come back from a protest, and was rushing to my room to upload the new photos and videos to the Web, when my mother stopped me and told me that Ben Ali was gone. I started jumping, shouting, and crying, and I spent the next couple of days trying not to sleep. I thought it might be a dream, and if I woke up I’d find that the dictator was still there.
“In a single moment, all my fear and fatigue disappeared. All the days that I spent in front of my computer—or outside my house trying to gather the information, photo and video to publish on our Facebook page—turned out to be the best period of my life. It leaves me with the taste of victory, a victory over dictatorship, and one that had ruled Tunisia for more than 50 years. It’s unbelievable how fear can turn to strength, and how the sacrifice of a nation can change its destiny. One year later, a lot have things have changed, not just in my own personality, but in all the Tunisian youth, who are no longer scared to stand against any new dictator who may try to rule.”
Lina Ben Mhenni also played the role of citizen-journalist, traveling across Tunisia to document the regime’s crackdown on the protests. Her blog, A Tunisian Girl, was filled with frontline accounts, along with jarring photos and video of the casualties. Some media outlets suggested her as a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Peace.
“On January 14th 2012, I was in Habib Bourguiba Avenue. The main road of the capital was overcrowded, as it was one year before, as thousands of people took to the streets to commemorate the anniversary of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s ouster. At first glance, one might have had the impression that this was a harmonious and united crowd. But just a few steps into it were enough to suggest a very different reality.
“Some people were celebrating the victory of their political parties in the parliamentary elections, which they deemed the final step in the establishment of democracy. Others were demonstrating against the new transitional government, which they judged as incompetent, and made up of hypocrites looking for power. Indeed, after the euphoria of the first days of the revolution, we started to discover that change is not easy. Building a democracy is tough.
“To win the October elections, some parties drew the country into a debate on religion and identity. They presented themselves as the representatives of Islam, and anyone who dared to criticize them was deemed an enemy of Allah. Those people, now in power, have ignored the real problems of Tunisian citizens—the problems that drove people to the streets last year. Instead of addressing them, as they promised in their campaigns, they are trying to divert our attention to those issues of religion and identity. And, unable to keep their promises, they have started to use violence against the people who continue to demonstrate. In recent weeks, at least five people have set themselves on fire.”
As the protests in Tunisia forced dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali from power, the anonymous administrator of an Egyptian Facebook page, We Are All Khaled Said, was busy scheduling a revolution of Egypt’s own for Jan. 25. On that day, tens of thousands of Egyptians turned out to agitate against President Hosni Mubarak and were met with brutal force from the country’s military and police, as well as pro-Mubarak gangs. Days later, with the protests gaining momentum, the administrator mysteriously disappeared—and the world soon learned the man’s identity: Google executive Wael Ghonim. By the time Ghonim was released from prison, Mubarak was resigning and the Google techie was the new face of the Arab Spring.
“I’ve learned in the past few months that the revolution is a process and not an event. But I’m quite optimistic despite all the challenges and issues we’ve got to deal with. Egyptian youth are empowered and no longer scared to talk and express their views. Egyptians for the first time in almost 60 years have voted in free and democratic elections. And politics is no longer exclusive to the dictator and his followers. What we’ve achieved today would have been impossible without the sacrifice of the great Egyptians who took to the streets and put their lives at risk for a better Egypt.
“This is a country recovering from 30 years of corruption and more than 60 years of military rule, so of course there will be challenges. I see positive signs in the direction of democracy but am still awaiting the most critical point of the new phase—the transfer of governance from the army to the elected president and parliament.”
Another force behind Egypt’s protests was the April 6 Youth Movement, cofounded by activist Ahmed Maher. It had a wealth of agitating experience and helped to spread the word and organize on the streets.
“What has been achieved after a year of revolution? Continuation of high prices, especially the price of food, the continued presence of the same monopolists of the major commodities and services, the persistence of poverty and unemployment. Continued corruption and lack of control over government institutions, the continuation of the unjust laws. The continued presence of the former regime in all state institutions, the same corrupt mentality, and the same old aseptic style that kills off any creative ideas. The absence of any vision for real reforms.
“Perhaps the Egyptian people broke the barrier of fear and made despotism more difficult. But the young people of the revolution are now tried in courts on fabricated charges, and sometimes charges of trying to overthrow the government. The official media has accused them of treason, and of working with foreign enemies to sabotage Egypt, despite the absence of any proof.
“January 25, 2012, should be a day to start a new push for realizing the revolution’s goals. We know it’s hard to uproot a system of military rule dating back 60 years, and we know too well that the battle will last more than one round.”
Activists like Sultan al-Qassemi were among the first to tweet the news of the coming revolution to the rest of the globe. A regional columnist and fellow at the Dubai School of Government, al-Qassemi’s Twitter feed provided the most comprehensive coverage of the region’s uprisings—by one count, he updated every 45 seconds—from Tunisia’s first Jasmine Revolution through Tahrir Square, Yemen, and beyond.
“On January 5th 2011, at the height of the Tunisian regime’s repression of its people and a few hours after his death, I tweeted : “Avenue of Martyr Mohammed Bouazizi, 1985-2011” #SidiBouzi. Perhaps it was naïveté, but I prefer to attribute it to the eternal optimist in me who refuses to believe that it is the destiny of Arabs to live under repressive regimes forever.
“A year on, with countless martyrs, most of whom we will never even know existed, I still see the glass half full, and it is only getting fuller. The Arab people’s struggle for freedom continues to manifest itself across the region in various forms. In all the darkness of the Arab world today, an island of liberty and hope is blossoming in Tunisia, where a tyrant once ruled with an iron fist. Some Arabs, and indeed the world, may not find results of certain elections to their liking, but denying people the right to vote for whomever they want is precisely what led us into the state the Arab world is in today. One year on, despite some election results and the brutality of dictators, I remain an optimist.”
The most popular blogger in Saudi Arabia, activist and journalist Fouad al-Farhan, watched as protests reached his country on a more muted scale, such as rare women’s protests in the deeply conservative country. Still, Saudi Arabia’s monarchy effectively headed off larger demonstrations and has pushed through piecemeal reforms, such as allowing women to vote and run in the 2015 local elections.
“When there were online calls for a Saudi “Day of Rage” in March, a lot of activists were laughing. It was clear that there was no support. We’re not ready for revolution.
“With everything going on around us, why have we looked so peaceful and calm? Is the stability real or not? It’s real, but not because we have democracy or civil liberty, or people are doing well financially, or people are happy with the government. Saudi Arabia is stable because of the foundation the government relies on to keep things calm. The main institutions—religious and tribal leaders, business, and the media—still have a lot of power over Saudi minds. All of them stood against any kind of movement to go down to the streets.
“But the signals are clear. The number of protests that took place in Saudi Arabia in the last year—by women, by teachers, by workers—were more than we’ve ever had. And over the next decade the Saudi market will have to create 3 million more jobs to keep pace with the growing population. It’s do or die. The clock is ticking. As we’ve seen in Tunisia and Egypt, people who are educated and unemployed become a danger to the government, a weapon against it. One day we will have a large number of young people who will look at things very differently.”
When Bahrain’s protest movement kicked off on Feb. 14, it was followed closely by veteran blogger Mahmood Nasser Al-Yousif, an old lion in the Middle East’s youthful cyberactivism world. Unlike the previous uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, however, Bahrain’s opposition movement was stunted by the deadly resistance from security forces loyal to King Hamad. In the pre-dawn hours of Feb. 17, police raided protesters camping out at the Pearl Roundabout in Manama. Later the Army sent waves of tanks into the streets to clear the activists. When the protesters fought back, the government declared martial law and a state of emergency in mid-March, and launched a brutal crackdown of arrests, beatings, and house raids. Thousands have been detained, reportedly under conditions of abuse and torture.
“The Arab as lethargic, fatalistic and acquiescent in abrogating his rights to others to control with their whims is the primary image that has been shattered in the Arab Spring. All Arabs from Morocco to Bahrain have felt this seismic shift. We have now seen that even at great sacrifice, rights are wrested from authority rather than be gifted by them. Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen have seen the fruits of this shift; while Syria and Bahrain are at the cusp of gaining rights that their fathers have never enjoyed.
“The hope is that future generations, the real beneficiaries of this change, will make these wrested freedoms count by being more innovative, creative and responsible without the perennial fear of persecution their parents have lived through. They will have the privilege of holding their governments to account and living in a new world where, as Mark Twain put it: ‘Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.’
The situation in Syria has been so dangerous for protesters in the past few months, as Bashar al-Assad has clung fiercely to power, that leading cyberactivist Rami Nakhla had to resort to a pseudonym as he tried to stir up the fledgling dissent. Writing under the name Malath Aumran, the blogger spread news and helped coordinate on the Web. But as the death toll mounted and thousands were arrested by Assad’s forces, Nakhla fled to America and is currently living in Washington, D.C. This week, Arab League observers called on the United Nations for help after failing to find a way to get the Assad regime to end the bloodshed.
“Don’t believe anyone but Google. Not your sheikh or priest, not your professor, TV, books, or newspaper, not your father. Every one of them has their own mindset, or maybe agenda. We need to listen to them all, then make our own views and take our own stands.
“When I watched North Koreans cry while mourning Kim Jong-il, I totally understood. I remember crying my eyes out when Hafiz Al-Assad, the father of Bashar, died in 2000. The man I considered, back then, my compassionate father, turned out, once I Googled his name in 2006, to be a dictator who massacred tens of thousands to stay in power.
“There is no way back from the Arab Spring. The same tools and principles that made our uprising possible will carry us through the transition to democracy and beyond.”