Has Spring Really Sprung in the Arab World?

Starbux has been amazed by the suddenness and speed with which the recent spate of uprisings and full-blown revolutions has swept through North Africa and the Middle East.

At London demonstrations in support of the Libyan uprising, the favourite chant among young Arabs from many different countries was: 'From the Ocean to the Sea, All Arabia shall be Free'.

Why now? What changed on the Arab street to make people take a stand and risk their lives after decades under the yoke of the region's brutal dictators? The freedom of information allowed by the internet certainly played a role in building up frustration and anger. The true extent of corruption, greed and nepotism was made explicit in wikiLeaks, on Facebook pages and news networks freely available even in the most draconian states where the conventional press is totally censored.

Given that nowadays more than 50 percent of the region's population is under 25 the internet really matters. 65 million Arabs are now online at home and millions more use internet cafes. Online they discovered that Egyptian ex-President Hosni Mubarak had amassed a personal fortune estimated at more the $70 billion (the US gives the state $2 billion a year and allegedly gave Mubarak a personal allowance in the millions) while 5 million of his unfortunate people are so impoverished they have to live in Cairo's massive graveyards.

As reported in The La Bouche 'Insanely Rich List', Colonel Gadaffi's sons had enough dough from Mad Bad Dad to pay Mariah Carey, Beyonce and others millions of dollars to perform a few songs at private parties in the Caribbean. Meanwhile the rest of the nation was shaking in its boots at the mention of that tyrant's name.
In Tunisia the youth was frothing at the mouth at the excesses of their 74 year-old ex-President Ben Ali, who had been in power for 24 years, and his widely reviled wife who was popularly known on the streets as the 'Queen of the Oafs' for her nouveau-riche vulgarity and conspicuous consumption. She had more than 50 sports cars and fled the country with $60 million in gold bullion when the revolution began. Meanwhile youth unemployment was 30 percent...which is where our hero comes in.

Mohammed Bouazizi, 26, lived on the outskirts of an obscure little town called Sidi Bouzid (about two hundred kilometres inland from Sfax). His father died when he was three and Bouazizi was the main bread winner for a family of eight. He was well educated but couldn't find a job, like so many young Tunisians. He had the initiative to set up his own little business, selling vegetables from a barrow but was immediately targeted by the town's corrupt officials who demanded daily bribes just to let him go about his business. When he was unable to pay one day in December they overturned his barrow, spilling his vegetables onto the dirty street, before confiscating it, claiming he did not have the correct permit. According to eye-witnesses, Bouazizi burst into tears and started shouting at which point he was slapped in the face by one of the officials, a woman in her 50s – which in Arabic culture is the most incredible insult. Just hours later, Bouazizi went to the municipal office, doused himself in petrol and set himself on fire.

Bouazizi's death from his burns on January 4th was the spark that ignited the Tunisian revolution. Galvanised and organized via social networking sites, the Tunisian protestors gathered in Government Square. A spirit of martyrdom raised them up above normal fear (something all these revolutions have in common) and they braved gunfire with their bare chests. Twitter and mobile phone texting was key to this and later revolutions because the protestors could synchronize their actions, warn of approaching danger and so on219 gave their lives...just ten days later, President ben Ali fled the country for Saudi Arabia which has become something of a refuge for elderly despots – they've got Idi Amin there too.

The young people across the whole Arab world realized that they could fight their ancient oppressors (the average age of the region's leaders is 73) and major protests erupted in Bahrain, Yemen and Iraq – which are still ongoing.

On January 25th they got cracking in Egypt, where America's best friend in the region, 82 year-old Hosni Mubarak had been in charge for the best part of thirty years. Tahrir Square became the scene of incredible bravery and resilience – 'better to die for something than live for nothing' as one youth tweeted at the height of the violence. 384 protestors died and at least 6000 were injured. Again the revolution succeeded and on February 11th Mubarak retired to lick his wounds in a luxury villa in Sharm-el-Sheikh.

Snug between Egypt and Tunisia lies Libya and the youth here too thought they'd have a go starting February 15th. Perhaps blasé by now, commentators declared that Gadaffi was finished and would be out by the end of that short month. Unfortunately, as we have seen, that has not been the case. The protests quickly turned into armed conflict, essentially a civil war, which still rages across Libya.

Gadaffi has said the he will die rather than give in – and in that respect he is equal with the protestors. Now we have the West intervening to stop bloodshed as a result of UN Security Council resolution 1973 which is good...and bad. It would certainly have been better if the Arab nations and got together and done it themselves - or at least armed the rebels so it was more of a fair fight. The risk is that the west finds itself in another Iraq-type situation.
Gadaffi's fight back does not seem to have stalled the pace of change. Yemeni president Saleh, 64, staged a bloodbath on March 16th when millions gathered in Sanaa to demand he resign after 32 years in power. In Bahrain, Saudi Arabia has sent a thousand troops to help out beleaguered colleague in regal despotism King Khalifa who has faced daily protests since mid-February. Thus bolstered, the military managed to clear Pearl Square on March 16th but the protestors say they will be back.

The revolutions and demonstrations have revived the spirit of pan-Arabism, which died in the mid 1960s. The young people across the region long for the day when every country will be a real democracy living in peace with its neighbours, proud to be Arab and Free.

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