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One Year On, Arab Pride and the Long Road Ahead

posted on: Jan 26, 2012

BY: Suzanne Manneh/Contributing Writer

Tareq, a Syrian American graphic designer living in Silicon Valley, says his life has “completely changed 100 percent over the past year,” a change he credits to protests in Egypt’s Tahrir Square exactly one year ago today. That date has since been enshrined as a pivotal moment in the evolution of the Arab Spring.

The toppling of Tunisia’s Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, followed by the fall of Libyan strongman Moammar Ghaddafi have defined what Tareq, who requested that his last name be withheld because of safety concerns for relatives in Syria, calls “the most important time of the region’s history.”

“[These events] have broken the barriers of fear for Arab Americans and Arabs abroad against oppression and reinforced pride in being Arab,” says Tareq, before striking a note of caution.

The road ahead, he says, is long and unpredictable. Events in his native Syria, where an ongoing struggle to oust President Bashar Al-Assad has claimed over 5,000 lives, checks his optimism.

The Year that Changed Everything

Mohammed Bouazizi was not unlike many young Tunisians. A recent college graduate, he was reduced to selling fruit to support himself and his family. On December 17, 2010, Bouazizi immolated himself to protest policies blamed for rising unemployment and poverty.

That singular event launched a wave of protests, beginning in Tunisia and rapidly spreading across the region, culminating in an 18-day rally that drew on Egyptians of all stripes and from all corners who descended on Tahrir and eventually succeeded in ending Mubarak’s 30-year rule.

Egyptians have since celebrated their gains, recently holding the country’s first, if controversial, democratic elections, with the moderate Egyptian Brotherhood sweeping into power ahead of secular and more religiously conservative rivals.

Tunisia also held elections in October 2011, with the moderate Islamist Ennahda Movement winning a majority of the vote.

But for others in the region — including Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria — the ripple effects of the Arab Spring continues to make waves.

“These uprisings toppled the whole idea of Arab equals terrorist, backwards, or illiterate,” said Momen El-Husseiny, an Egyptian and currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Berkeley in Architecture and Global Metropolitan Studies. “All these notions that had been so potent were no longer so. We are now in communication with the entire world,” he said.

El-Husseiny, who spent the past year in Egypt and recently returned to Berkeley to complete his dissertation, said he immediately saw those changes within himself and in others.

The Role of Women

Mokhtar Alkhanshali, of Yemeni descent, says the Arab Spring has altered the way Arabs are seen globally, dispelling widespread notions including that of Arab women being absent from the realm of civic engagement.

Nobel Peace Prize winner and head of the Yemeni organization Women Journalists Without Chains, Tawakkol Karaman, he noted, was “one of the first voices that came out in this movement in Yemen,” having “led the first protests in front of the University of Sanaa.”

Women also played an active and prominent role in Egypt’s Tahrir protests. Such actions, broadcast for a global audience thanks to the proliferation of mobile technology and social media, “changed the face of Arabs,” says Alkhanshali.

“For a Yemeni woman to be the first Arab woman and youngest person to win a Nobel Peace Prize, and play such a role…I feel very proud of that,” he added.

Alkhanshali shared another experience, one closer to home, that spoke to the new light under which Arabs are now being seen. It was last Halloween, he explained, when he encountered a stranger dressed in military fatigues and a Kiffyeh, a traditional unisex headscarf.

“He told me he was a Libyan revolutionary,” Alkhanshali recalled, saying it was then he realized that mainstream society was beginning to replace the image of Arabs as “riding camels and oppressing women” to “fighters for democracy.”

Inspiring Unity and Occupation

“I take my daughter to a (private) Arabic school,” says Hany Elhak, originally from Egypt and now living in San Jose. Recalling the events of the past year, he says that when the revolution first swept through Tunisia, students and parents with roots spanning the entire Arab world celebrated.

“People were bringing in food… We never felt that close,” he says, adding that a resurgent pride in Arab American identity and culture, long overshadowed by conflict in the region and fears of terrorism at home, were evident in recent protests in San Francisco.

“During demonstrations in support of the Syrian struggle, there have been Yemeni’s, Egyptians, everyone there in solidarity. There has definitely been a renewed sense of Pan Arabism, a sense of Arab pride,” noted Tareq.

And inspiration. For if nothing else, the Arab Spring helped precipitate what has become the largest protest movement to hit America since the Vietnam War.

At a recent Occupy Oakland rally, Tareq remembers hearing protestors chanting “The people want to topple Wall Street.” That chant, he says, found its precedent in Tahrir and Tunis, where protestors cried, Asha’ab ureed isqaat anizaam. “The people want to topple the regime.”

“Of course we can’t take the credit, but I do believe that if the Arab revolutions were not this powerful, the Occupy movement would not have been (as powerful) either,” he notes.

Celebration and Reflection

Arabs across San Francisco and the Bay Area are preparing to commemorate the anniversary of the Arab Spring with an event that organizers say will “bring the community together… to reflect on this last year of revolution in Egypt and honor all Arab struggles.”

Janaan Attia, a community organizer and one of the individuals responsible for putting on Wednesday’s event in the city’s Mission District, says it is “vital that Arabs gather and connect” with one another.

Discussions are sure to touch on issues of democracy and the continuing violence in countries like Syria, though many are hopeful and say they’d like to return when conditions improve.

Others are more cautious.

“I’m sure we will see democratic states,” said Tareq in reference to Syria, “but unfortunately (the violence) will continue. We won’t get democracy for free.”