The Arab Spring in Context: Background, History and Politics

Professor Nader Hashemi, Professor Orit Bashkin and Dr. Robert Hazan helped place the Arab Spring in context by providing an overview of how the revolution came about. The Arab Spring actually began in the winter. One major catalyst of the revolution mentioned by the panelists was when Muhammad Bouazizi, a Tunisian man who felt he had nothing left to live for, set himself on fire in protest. Tunisian people were outraged by his death began to protest their oppressive government. Bouazizi’s death and the Tunisian protests quickly reverberated throughout Arab countries. Similarly, in Egypt, Khalid Said, a man who was tortured and killed fueled protests against police violence. Many people felt that “[they were] all Khalid.”

"Mural in Progress"
"Mural in Progress"

However, the panelists were quick to note that the fight for democracy has occurred before in many Middle Eastern countries. Professor Bashkin pointed out that the struggle for democracy occurred in Arab countries in 1976, 1905-1906, 1919-1950 and that “to think of the Arab world as having no democratic history is problematic.” For instance, in the 1950’s Egyptian anti-colonial resistance played an important role in the Middle East. Therefore, there is a history of revolutions in one Middle Eastern country affecting other countries in the region. Professor Bashkin explained that the Arab Spring “is a transnational movement” and what happens in Syria affects Egypt and so on.  Dr. Hazan highlighted that the massive amount of protestors were able to overthrow long empowered dictators. Dr. Hazan also emphasized how “the democratization process of the Arab spring” impacted a wide range of Arab countries in differing ways.

The panelists pointed out that the Arab countries share a “common set of political grievances” which fueled the movement. These grievances include, poverty, government corruption, low wages, police abuse, and restrictions on personal freedoms. The “mass citizen discontent across the region” led to the revolts we have seen in the Arab countries explained Prof. Hashemi. However, the Arab Spring is unique because “it is broad in scope. It is the culmination of decades of activism.”

Both Prof. Bashkin and Dr. Hazan also mentioned the importance of social networks like Facebook in fueling the revolutions. Also, the anger of Arab youth played a major role.  People felt strongly that they wanted the current regime to fall. Prof. Bashkin also noted the significance of women’s participation in the movement and the inter-faith nature of many of the demonstrations. For instance, footage of demonstrations depicted protestors displaying the cross, Koran and Egyptian flag.

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