The Arab Spring Ain't Over

Sure, the democratic revolution has stumbled. But there are also amazing signs of progress.
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egypt justice ministry protest banner.jpg
Protesters opposing Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi shout in front of the courthouse and Office of the Attorney General, which has been graffitied with anti-government slogans, in Cairo on February 22, 2013. (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters)

"...Stimulate that process of reawakening..."

(From the "About" section of the Arab webzine, TahrirSquared.com.)

"Despair is Treason"

(A slogan of the independent news outlet, the Egypt Independent.)

It has been two years since the start of the Arab uprisings. When they began, there was a lot of hope in this part of the world - the promise of a new dawn for the Arabs. There has been much disappointment thus far, and many within and without the region wonder: Is this the future? Or can that promise of that original spirit, which was launched in those powerful places of Tahrir Square and elsewhere, be realized? Is there still the potential of an "Arab promise" for a better future?

The Democracy Report

In the last few years, there has been much to be disappointed about. The media, and more broadly freedom of speech, have seen better days. Quality has not exactly increased, and in some countries, it has become more polarized. Censorship, by different means, still exists, and this was evident in a recent banning of a film called, Jews of Egypt. How can free societies emerge without less control on free speech? We have seen the rising to prominence of radical religious voices that are extreme, if not violent.

Religious identity aside, the MB has been "outed" as merely a political movement - not the vanguard of religion that warrants automatic support of the pious.

The radical voices are loud and have been pushing people forward in Syria, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Sectarianism between different religious groups shows up in the most unexpected places. Pro-revolutionary activists like Alaa Abdel-Fattah and Mona Seif in Egypt have, along with others, been summoned for investigation by the Egyptian prosecutor general in a move that is being interpreted by opposition figures as the Muslim Brotherhood government clamping down on dissent.

Yet, in the midst of all of these challenges, there are great signs to be optimistic about the future. The reality of the uprisings and revolutions is that they may have begun two years ago, but they are grappling with decades of trauma and turmoil. None of this should have been assumed to be easy, but the real success story is where in spite of these challenges, very powerful moves are taking place.

When it comes to media, there are certainly things to be optimistic about. Despite the pressures and the difficulties, it is in this period of Arab history that the likes of Bassem Youssef, the "Jon Stewart of the Arab world," has emerged. It is at this time where media like Egypt Independent has come into its own as a truly independent media establishment. It is at this point where other multimedia initiatives that seek to promote the effects of the revolution were born. Tahrir Squared, for example, sought to bring together original insight from experts, along with the latest information and news on the region, to be a "one-stop shop" in that same spirit - something that would have been unthinkable a few years ago, but which has already received a lot of attention.

It was inevitable that radical religious voices would become prominent after years of being kept underground. Yet, more mainstream voices are also engaging - and are engaging well. Habib 'Ali al-Jifri of the Tabah Foundation in the United Arab Emirates has been rated as the most influential religious voice on social media - and he consistently promotes a deeply respectful and open-minded interpretation of religion. His following is growing.

Beyond specific religious preachers, there are also signs that a narrow, Islamist political project is failing. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, arguably the mother-movement of all modern Islamism, has had an abysmal record thus far - and while Egyptian Muslims remain, on the whole, religiously conservative, MB Islamism can no longer be considered the automatic "pious" choice. Religious identity aside, the MB has been "outed" as merely a political movement - not the vanguard of religion that warrants automatic support of the pious.

On the contrary - and in the midst of that, other voices are becoming prominent. Within Syria, the leader of the Syrian opposition is Moaz al-Khatib - a religious conservative, but not affiliated to either the MB or radical movements, with his speeches always mentioning positively the role of women and the need to build a wider inclusive society in Syria, including the Alawites. That is the mainstream, not radicals like the Nusra, who have been harshly criticised by the Syrian opposition. Islamists might think that this is their time - but in actuality, it is more likely the beginning of their end, as their old formations are incapable of meeting the challenges of building a new Arab world. These countries are laying down the groundwork for a new Arab political centrism.

Sectarianism continues - but so do the voices that rallied against sectarianism. Bigotry will not be a part of the new Arab world if these activists have anything to say about it. One might be saddened by the pressure put upon the makers of Jews of Egypt - but one can equally be clear about the positive aspects of such a film being made, and the success of its makers in getting it out. The film can be seen as a direct investment into Arab citizenship - where Jewish Egyptians and their story are part and parcel of the Egyptian narrative, rather than being formed as a suspicious appendage. Any new Arab centrism is going to be pro-Palestinian (if not pro- certain Palestinian political factions) - but it needn't, and shouldn't, be anti-Jewish.

Nor should anyone count the revolutionary activists as down and out. If anything, these pressures seem to show the strength of their resolve - Mona Seif, the anti-military trials activist who has been summoned by the Egyptian government's prosecutor general, continues to insist that if MB members were to be yet again unfairly imprisoned, she would agitate for their release. Commitment to lofty principles is not, for these activists, something convenient - it is something necessary.

When it comes to women's rights, one can appropriately recall that not only do the likes of Moaz al-Khatib urge respect for this half of the Arab world - but also that other religious, and religiously inspired voices, such as the neo-Islamist, left-leaning Abdel Monem Aboul Fotouh do as well. The religious scholarly establishment took the time to express support for the sacrifices of Libyan women at a key moment during the uprising against Qaddafi itself - all of these, hopefully, are signs of a potentially promising future. Anti-sexual harassment initiatives likeHarassMap and Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment are other indications - firmly, even stubbornly, holding to the idea that a new Arab world will not leave the subject of sexual violence off the table.

All of these different phenomena reject the concept of seeing the revolutions as just a moment, and instead identify them as dynamics that are driving positive change in the region.

These revolutions are not challenges nor promises alone - they are both, and both have to be kept in mind as the revolutions continue to unfold. These countries' populations are not going to settle for anything less than a new and real change: one that gives reality to the idea of a genuinely autonomous, respectful Arab world. For the revolutionary activists, they have an "Arab Promise" to keep to future generations.

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H.A. Hellyer, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution and the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs. 

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