Three years ago a 26-year old Tunisian young man, Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire. Bouazizi was a vegetable vendor in a small town of Sidi Bouzid. Out of frustration, and possibly unable to predict the impact of his actions, he set himself on fire and set off what has come to be known as the ‘Arab Spring’ or ‘Arab Revolution.’
His courageous act triggered popular uprisings that led to the fall of regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, thanks to campaigns of civil disobedience; a civil war that toppled Muammar Gadaffi in Libya, and another presently wreaking havoc in Syria. Remarkably, similar protests in Bahrain, Algeria, and Sudan were crushed and extinguished rather quickly.
Today, some in the Arab world must wonder whether it was all worth it. The sacrifices that people made, including paying the ultimate price, sought to bring about enhanced socio-economic opportunities and freedom for those left behind. So far they have produced neither. Old networks that held society together have also broken down, with the void filled by out-of-control militias in Libya. Syria, according to mainly Western sources, risks falling into the hands of terrorist outfits.
Elsewhere, a pernicious social order has translated into a reversal of fortunes, stagnating economies and increasing unemployment rates. Revolutions have left behind countries with weaker sovereignty and more vulnerable to external manipulation and exploitation.
For the ordinary person, it is difficult to avoid the question: Was it all worth it?
Let’s start from where it all started, by examining why Bouazizi set himself alight. The socio-economic context that underpinned the uprisings in Tunisia was characterised by high levels of official corruption, deprivation, and high unemployment, at the time reported to be as high as 30 per cent. In an environment of diminished and still disappearing opportunities amidst plenty, all that the disgruntled needed was a catalyst that would explode their collective rage.
Moreover, elite arrogance and indifference to the plight of the suffering majority served to reinforce the idea that the privileged ruling elite were insensitive to the feelings of those living in economic hardship. So when Bouazizi set himself on fire, ordinary people quickly related his frustrations to theirs. Officials not helping them get work was one thing; being insensitive to their daily humiliation was quite another.
In the same way that Bouazizi was the symbol of popular disaffection, then Tunisian president Zine al Abidine Ben Ali as the figure of state authority reflected insensitive leadership. Something had to be done about it.
That’s how thousands of people found themselves in anti-government demonstrations. It marked the birth of ‘people power’ across small and large cities in much of the Arab World.
That, however, was not the only interesting development. What had began as demonstrations over frustration with poor economic conditions had turned into agitation for political rights. International media quickly connected the insensitivity of political authorities and the plight of those in economic distress to demands for democracy. Soon enough, the demonstrators became ‘pro democracy’ agitators.
In Egypt, seeing an opening, Mohamed ElBaradei, the former director general of the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), quickly sought to portray himself as the face of the revolution. Similarly opportunistic was the Muslim Brotherhood. It quickly demanded “the release of political prisoners.”
Meanwhile, in efforts to hold on to power, then president Hosni Mubarak, through vice president Omar Suleiman, was busy making political promises and offering concessions such as establishing “a committee to review the constitution”. Worried about strategic Egypt falling in the ‘wrong hands,’ US president Barrack Obama assured the American people that the Muslim Brotherhood was “just one of the factions and it does not have the support of the majority of the Egyptian people.”
In short, the revolution had been hijacked from the ordinary people. Their interests had become peripheral to the concerns of the power brokers. Today, they are virtually forgotten.
In April 2011, as the situation continued to evolve and only four months into the revolutions, I contacted one of Africa’s most respected intellectuals at the time, the late Dani Wadada Nabudere, for a sober interpretation of events. He assured me that despite the dominant misrepresentation of what was happening the uprisings were about “the need to move in this direction of pressuring states to have a ‘Heart’ for the people they govern.”
Assuming he was right, that message has been lost in what has become the dominant narrative: that the uprisings were merely about democracy, widely understood as the right to vote.
Clearly, a key lesson from the ‘Arab Spring’ is that whoever sets and controls the narrative wins the argument. If what ordinary people wanted were jobs and a better life, their fight become one for the right to vote.
As of now, one could as well argue that all they got is disillusionment with the freedom for which they sacrificed so much.