Six long years ago, protests were sparked across the Middle East and North Africa. In Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain, Oman, and even Saudi Arabia, protestors took to the streets to demand change and, in some cases, an entirely new system of government. They were protesting against corruption and crony capitalism, and against the entrenched power of political and economic elites in their countries. They called for an end to police brutality and the detention of oppositionists. After a lifetime being fed government propaganda, from the classroom to the news media, the protestors decided to stop believing the lies.
For me, this was a personal turning point – the time when I realised that people in the Middle East are so much more than victims of war. I began to question everything I read about the movement which soon became known as the Arab Spring. Why, if it was OK for Tunisians to overthrow their dictator, could Yemenis and Syrians not be praised for trying to do the same? What was the vital difference between Qaddafi and al-Assad that saw one deposed with support from NATO and the other left in power to attack his people at will?
more than ever we need to stand in solidarity with people fighting oppression in other countries, so we can fight it too.
There is no such thing as a perfect movement, but the movements which began throughout the Arab world at that time were, in many ways, very beautiful. People came together and occupied public spaces, turning them into places for debate and political organisation. In Yemen, revolutionaries stayed in their camp in Change Square for three years, conscious that their movement was vulnerable to forces of counter-revolution. Despite the power and initial effectiveness of the group of protests known as the Arab Spring, they have since faced huge amounts of pressure from those in society who benefited from the pre-2011 status quo. In Egypt, it was the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which was happy to sacrifice the figurehead of President Mubarak in order to ensure it had full control of the political transition. Egypt is now governed by a new autocrat from that very group, who is ensuring that it’s business as usual for the rich and powerful, while standards of living have plummeted for the majority of the population.
In Syria and the Gulf, the backlash was more instant, and more violent. After slandering the protestors as terrorists, foreign agents, and sectarians wanting to divide society, the Syrian regime’s military and security services unleashed the full force of their repressive arsenal. Assad and his supporters crafted a narrative based around the counter-terrorism rhetoric which had become so common-place over the previous decades. This approach, which is also used by political leaders in many other parts of the world, seeks to justify acts of violence or discrimination against a population on the grounds that they represent a “terrorist threat”. It’s very convenient, because it’s very hard to prove that one isn’t a terrorist.
Hence, the Israeli government uses the existence of Hamas to justify keeping Gaza under siege, President Sisi uses the spectre of the Muslim Brotherhood to exert pressure on journalists and activists, Donald Trump bans citizens from seven countries in which he has no investments from entering the US because they might be terrorists. In Syria, this has meant bombardment, attacks with chemical weapons, and the forced displacement of entire towns. While there are extremists present in Syria, they are nowhere near as dominant as the regime would have us believe, and even if they were, this kind of collective punishment must surely be condemned.
Meanwhile, the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, most especially Bahrain, have also seen an intensification of state repression of dissent. In March 2011, Saudi Arabia tanks rolled into neighbouring Bahrain to help the government clamp down on that country’s own protest movement. Since then, the small island nation has seen journalists and activists arrested and executed, restrictions to press freedoms, and allegations of torture by those arrested for taking part in protests.
in many ways, Trump and the alt-right movement for which he has become a figurehead are similar to the dictators who were the focus of the Arab Spring protests.
So, what has all this got to do with the UK today, or, indeed, with Donald Trump? Well, despite all the above, those hoping for a better, fairer future for their countries and for the Middle East as a whole have not stopped fighting. Bahrainis still go out to protest. Syrians still sing songs and hold up placards in the hope that one day, their country will be run for them, and not for the interests of an autocratic elite. And in many ways, Trump and the alt-right movement for which he has become a figurehead are similar to the dictators who were the focus of the Arab Spring protests. All of them have a fundamentally authoritarian, paternalistic attitude to governance, in which citizens are expected to submit to the power of the security services, and all critics of the political elite are branded as traitors. All of them use populist rhetoric while enriching their friends and business associates the public’s expense. All of them are willing to lie, and cheat, and incite violence in order to get what they want.
I believe that there is a connection between the counter-revolution in the Middle East and the rise of far-right white supremacists in the USA and Europe (see Wilders, Le Pen et al.). Although it’s tempting to focus entirely on North America right now, we need to look to other parts of the world and learn from other people’s experiences; more than ever we need to stand in solidarity with people fighting oppression in other countries, so we can fight it too.