The Arab Spring Ain't Over

Sure, the democratic revolution has stumbled. But there are also amazing signs of progress.
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,

"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.

Presented by

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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