Three and a half years ago, the world was riveted by the massive crowds of youths mobilizing in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to demand an end to Egypt’s dreary police state. We stared in horror as, at one point, the Interior Ministry mobilized camel drivers to attack the demonstrators. We watched transfixed as the protests spread from one part of Egypt to another and then from country to country across the region. Before it was over, four presidents-for-life would be toppled and others besieged in their palaces.
Some forty-two months later, in most of the Middle East and North Africa, the bright hopes for more personal liberties and an end to political and economic stagnation championed by those young people have been dashed. Instead, a number of Arab countries have seen counter-revolutions, while others are engulfed in internecine conflicts and civil wars, creating Mad Max-like scenes of post-apocalyptic horror. But keep one thing in mind: the rebellions of the past three years were led by Arab millennials, twentysomethings who have decades left to come into their own. Don’t count them out yet. They have only begun the work of transforming the region.
Given the short span of time since Tahrir Square first filled with protesters and hope, care should be taken in evaluating these massive movements. During the Prague Spring of 1968, for instance, a young dissident playwright, Vaclav Havel, took to the airwaves on Radio Free Czechoslovakia and made a name for himself as Soviet tanks approached. After the Russian invasion, he would be forbidden to stage his plays and forty-two months after the Prague Spring was crushed, he was working in a brewery. Only after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 would he emerge as the first president of the Czech Republic.
Three and a half years into the French Revolution, the country was only months away from the outbreak of a pro-royalist Catholic peasant revolt in the Vendée, south of the Loire Valley. The resulting civil war with the republicans would leave more than 100,000 (and possibly as many as 450,000) people dead.
Preparing the Way for a New Arab Future
There are of course plenty of reasons for pessimism in the short and perhaps even medium term in the Middle East. In Egypt, Ahmad Maher, a leader of the April 6 Youth, famed for his blue polo shirts and jaunty manner, went from advising the prime minister on cabinet appointments in the summer of 2011 to a three-year prison term at hard labor in late 2013 for the crime of protesting without a license. Other key revolutionaries of 2011, like dissident blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah and leftist activist and organizer Mahienoor El Masry, are also in jail, along with many journalists, including three from Al Jazeera, two sentenced to seven years in jail and one to ten, simply for doing the most basic reporting imaginable.