Introduction to the Arab Spring

In this post:

  1. My Class Focused on Researching Non-Western Cultures
  2. Tunisia: The Fruit Vendor who Changed the World
  3. Egypt – How Primarily Non-Violent Protest Overthrew a US Backed Dictator
  4. How Non-Violence Inspired the World
  5. The US Changes Decades of Foreign Policy Because of Young people in Egypt and Social Media

Background for post: This post serves as an introduction to my review of the book Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution by Peter Hessler. For the last decade, I have taught about the Arab Spring in a section of my course on researching non-western cultures. This course asks students to study subjects of interest (Hip-Hop, graffiti, environmentalism, LGBTQIA rights, etc.) in non-western cultures. In the second half of the course, we research controversial issues or problems in these cultures.

One of my favorite parts of this course is that my classes plan, organize, and help run events called International Coffee Hour and International Women’s Day with guest speakers form these countries. In regards to the Arab Spring, we have had presentations from speakers from Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, and the Head of Asian Studies at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Each semester, I learn a lot about these issues from the guest speakers and from my students as well. My students study such a wide variety of issues, that I learn a lot from their research. While this class can be challenging, studying a lot of difficult issues, it has been one of the most rewarding experiences in my life.   

It is important to note that the description I have written here is simplistic. The Arab Spring was an incredibly complex moment in history with as many perspectives as people who participated. As a person who has never traveled to the Middle East, I know that my description of these events are reductive. The book that I will be reviewing in my next post, Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution by Peter Hessler, will complicate this understanding. The fact that the writer of this book is an American will lead me to continue being humble in this understanding. I will continue to research these events. In particular, I will be reading more firsthand accounts from people who live in the region. As I continue my research, I will post updates to the information provided here.

Overview: For the last ten years, I have taught about the Arab Spring in my research writing class that is focused on non-western cultures. When the events were occurring, I recall tears streaming down my face as I watched the people of Tunisia and Egypt overthrow their US-backed dictators primarily through non-violent protest. Though the Arab Spring would eventually turn into the Arab Winter, it captivated me more than any other political movement. I knew immediately that I should share this with my students, as it was a revolution primarily of young people using social media. I believed that if young people in America saw the power young people had in other countries, even against US backed dictators, then young people here would feel empowered as well.

Tunisia – The Fruit Vendor Who Changed the World: In my class introduction to the Arab Spring, I use two short videos. The first video is focused on the beginning of the revolution in Tunisia and a fruit vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi:

This fruit vendor, who was trying to raise money to send his sister to college, was harassed by police for selling fruit without a license. He had been harassed by police many times before, but in this case, the officer slapped him and confiscated his scale. Bouazizi decided he had enough. He went home, got a gas canister, went into the middle of the street in front of a government building, lit himself on fire, and said, “How do you expect me to make a living?”. Bouazizi ended up in a full body cast on life support.  

This act of protest inspired thousands of protestors to come out into the streets. The government of Tunisia then cracked down. Tens of thousands of more people came out to protest. The government shot and killed unarmed protestors. Then, millions of people poured out into the streets. The president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, decided to try to calm tensions by visiting Bouazizi in the hospital. The picture of Ben Ali with Bouazizi in a full body cast on life support ended up having the opposite effect. The people continued to protest.

Finally, it happened. Ben Ali stepped down from office and fled the country. It was the first time an Arab dictator had been forced from office by a popular non-violent uprising.

Egypt – How Primarily Non-Violent Protest Overthrew a US-Backed Dictator: After my class discusses the events in Tunisia, we discuss how the Arab Spring revolutions spread throughout Northern Africa and the Middle East. The next pivotal moment in this movement occurs in Egypt, so I show a video made by Egyptian protestors:


The video splices together protest movements from around the world throughout modern history. It compares the events in Tunisia and Egypt to movements like tearing down the Berlin Wall and Tiananmen Square in China. Egyptians, much like Tunisians, were inspired by Bouazizi and the fall of Ben Ali, so they began to take the streets by the thousands. Like Tunisia, the police began cracking down on the protestors. So, more Egyptians took to the streets. Then, the police started shooting unarmed protestors. Millions of protestors ended up coming out into the streets with their home base being in Tahrir Square.  

The video shows some pivotal moments in the protests. The first occurs when police are lined up with thousands of protestors marching towards them. The protestors were warned that the police would open fire if they didn’t disperse, yet the protestors kept moving towards them. After seeing the police kill a few protestors in previous scenes, my students are often relieved to see that does not happen here. The police break the line and allow the protestors through.

The Power of Non-Violence: The next moments come as the President, Muhammad Hosni El Sayed Mubarak, sent out water canon trucks to disperse (and plow through) protestors. Some of the videos show the water canons driving through crowds and running over people. Then, there are moments when people stand in front of these enormous vehicles that are reminiscent of the tank guy from Tiananmen Square. Next, the water cannons try to cross bridges over to where the majority of the protestors are in Tahrir Square. The bridges are flooded with protestors who get down on their knees and pray in front of the vehicles. As the water cannons endlessly spray the protestors, they kept praying. Finally, the water cannons are turned away. Once again, my class breathes a sigh of relief. This moment is also reminiscent of some moments not in the video when Christian protestors surround Muslims to protect them as they pray; then, Islamic protestors protect Churches from vandals trying to set fires. These are incredibly powerful moments that inspired people around the world.

The US Turns Against Mubarak: The protests in Egypt were garnering worldwide attention at this time. The world began to turn against their president Hosni Mubarak. Meanwhile, the US, who had propped up Mubarak for decades with 10s of billions of dollars in aid, weapons, and training, was remaining silent. Mubarak, knowing the world was turning against him, decided to pull back his uniformed armed forces. Instead, he sent in thousands of armed forces in plain clothes to fight the protestors. The video shows a scene of these plain clothed forces riding in on horses and trying to beat the protestors. While the vast majority of the protests were peaceful, the protestors did fight back against officers running over or beating up fellow protestors.

The US Changes Decades of Foreign Policy Because of Young people in Egypt and Social Media: At this point, the American government finally decided to end radio silence and speak against the regime it had propped up for decades. President Obama gave a speech that asked Mubarak to step down. The protestors use this speech in their video over pictures of the protestors. Then, President Mubarak finally gives in, steps down, and flees the country.

Like Tunisia, these primarily peaceful protests (more skirmishes than Tunisia, but relatively few when considering there were millions of protestors), caused an Arab dictator to step down and flee. However, this time was even more powerful. These protestors, often young people using social media, not only deposed a dictator, but they made the most powerful country in the world, the US, change decades long policy. Young people finally were seeing that they had tremendous power when using non-violent means.

In the next post, I will review Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution by Peter Hessler. Later, I will examine the influence of the Arab Spring on the Middle East and Northern Africa in the time period now deemed the Arab Winter.  

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