The past week marked the tenth and the first anniversary of two different events, both of which started off as a protest against the ruling regime and then snowballed into larger movements. The first was called ‘Arab Spring’ and the second was the Shaheen Bagh ‘sit-out’. Let’s go back to how these two movements started and what did they achieve.
Ten years ago when a young street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid set himself on fire on 17 December 2010, he started a revolution which spread across his country and then to most Middle Eastern countries.
Due to the Arab Spring protests, Tunisia has been transformed in many ways. It has held numerous elections, strengthened its parliament, adopted a new constitution that enshrines civil liberties and women’s rights while limiting the powers of the armed forces.
The protestors had hoped for change, the dawn of a new era of prosperity and freedom. But ten years later, that spectacular moment of joy and liberation has faded away to reveal a sober reality. A small country is still struggling to find its way out of economic stagnancy, persistent corruption, and stark political and cultural polarisation.
Though Tunisia is widely celebrated as the sole success of the Arab Spring for a transition to democracy, and the revolution might have achieved its first aim of winning political freedom for the country, yet economic prosperity still eludes.
Western view of the Arab Spring
The Western media viewed the Arab Spring and its results through its outdated and flawed Orientalist prism. The mise en scène of the event instigating the Arab Spring constructed in the Western media theorised the outbreak of the Arab uprisings not as a logical reaction to despotism and natural drive for freedom and democracy, but as a product of perceived Arab irrationality and impulsiveness.
Second, Western media and scholarship have reduced the Tunisian revolution to a story of success or failure. It has also done much to validate the tired trope that Arabs are not ready for democracy.
Aftereffects of the Arab Spring
The ten years of the “Arab Spring”—the last of which is the year of Covid-19—have brought many Arab countries to the edge of an abyss. Food shortage, unending wars in Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, the Iranian expansion, and global apathy have worsened the distress of the Middle East.
However, the Arab Spring and the political movements spawned by it were rejection of decades of failed governments and aspiration for a democratic style of governance, in most countries. The uprising in Syria, for example, began as small regional protests calling for political reforms, not the downfall of the dictatorship. It was only after the initial calls were met with overwhelming violence that those calls eventually changed.
But other than geographic proximity and a shared history of living under dictatorship, the Middle Eastern uprisings had very little in common, besides the chant that spread collectively across the region: “The people want the downfall of the regime.”
Oz Katerji, a British-Lebanese freelance journalist, sums it up by saying that the Arab Spring may be over but the civilian uprisings in the Middle East have barely begun. The Middle East now finds itself in the state of flux that Karl Marx described as permanent revolution, the aspirations of its people permanently churning but never fulfilled. There is no way for dictatorships to turn the clock back to 2011, and there is no desire from their populations to accept a status quo that permanently disenfranchises them. The powder is drier than it has ever been; all that is missing now is the next spark.
The Shaheen Bagh sit-out started very quietly on the night of 16 December 2019, when late at night four men and six women, with some children in tow, moved from the lanes of Shaheen Bagh, a Muslim ghetto in south Delhi, onto the main road that connects Delhi to the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh. They silently sat on the road, a few hundred metres from the spot where earlier in the evening the police had dispersed a crowd of youngsters protesting against the controversial Constitutional Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC). The location of the sit-out made it stronger as it affected the traffic between the capital city and its neighbouring state to a large extent, and the resultant chaos lent it more publicity.
From the night of 16 December onwards, these handful of women were joined by hundreds of protesters, mostly women, both young and old. Their main grouse was the exclusion of Muslims from the CAA and the plethora of complexities which will be thrust on the shoulders of Muslims to prove their identity, as and when the NRC-NPR were rolled out in the country. Besides, the women were raising their voice against the barbaric police action on students of Jamia and AMU, and in several other cities of UP, days before.
The Shaheen Bagh demonstrators were full of determination to force the government to listen to them, and had a clear view – like Shaheen, the eagle’s – of the trials and tribulations that Muslims would have to comply with, once the NRC-NPR were rolled out.
Shaheen is a word of Persian origin, referring specifically to the Barbary falcon. In Persian, Shaheen literally means ‘majestic’ or ‘like a king’, besides symbolising victory in regard to a decision that has already been made. The vibrant bird also signifies strength, as though small in size yet it preys on larger birds.
In Urdu, renowned poet Allama Iqbal, in poetry addressed to the Muslim youth, has used the word Shaheen symbolically to motivate and inspire them to provide leadership which can lead their nation to self-determination, and is best exemplified in his concept of the perfect man (Mard-e Mo’min).
The women protesters at Shaheen Bagh took upon the qualities of the Shaheen bird after which their locality was named. They proved that they were visionary, resolved, determined, and tenacious like the eagle. They were ready to take on the might of an unresponsive establishment through their silent protest.
Within months, this sit-out, which was removed by authorities in late March earlier this year when the countrywide lockdown was implemented, became a symbol of unswerving voices against what has been perceived to be a discriminatory law against the minorities and the downtrodden.
These women described their fight as a fight to save the Constitution of the country. They became a symbol of resolve and tenacity, just like a mother who can move mountains for the welfare of her children. Similarly, they felt that they were fighting to secure a dignified and proud future for themselves and their children as enshrined and guaranteed in the Indian Constitution.
The two events of Arab Spring and Shaheen Bagh though separated by thousands of miles had quite a few similarities between them. Both were spontaneous actions, with no pre-planning and no idea of what will be the ultimate result of their action. Yet, both were able to involve a large number of people and were able to influence both the rulers and the ruled. Both found unparalleled support and adulation besides attracting the attention of the world. They showed the strength of people and the power of silent protests in charting a whole new path for their countries and for fellow citizens.
The writer is a political commentator based in New Delhi. He was associated with BBC Urdu Service and Khaleej Times of Dubai. [email protected]
The views expressed in the article are the writer’s and not Kashmir Reader’s.