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2011 birthed the mother of all protests Extinction Rebellion, the Women's March and Occupy can all be traced back to the Arab Spring

The demonstrations in Tunisia that sparked the Arab Spring. Credit: FRED DUFOUR/AFP via Getty Images

The demonstrations in Tunisia that sparked the Arab Spring. Credit: FRED DUFOUR/AFP via Getty Images

December 18, 2019   5 mins

As the decade ends, many distant corners of the world are engulfed in protest (from Hong Kong to Lebanon to Bolivia to Haiti to France, to name just a few). But this resurgence of people power began in earnest at the beginning of the decade, in 2011. That was the year of the Arab Spring, which began in the last days of 2010 with protests in Tunisia, after despondent street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi publicly set himself on fire because his produce cart had been violently seized by police.

While the protests in Tunisia received some international attention in 2010, they made global headlines in the early days of 2011. On January 2, the activist hacker collective known as Anonymous launched cyberattacks against the Tunisian government in solidarity with the protestors. By the end of the month, major protests were occurring in half a dozen countries in the Middle East and North Africa, and the Arab Spring engulfed the region.

Though protests have, of course, been a continuous part of politics around the world (2010, for example, saw a number of anti-austerity demonstrations across Europe), 2011 changed things in several important ways.

The Arab Spring challenged the stability of long-standing dictatorships that many scholars and pundits saw as unassailable — either because the dictators had apparently mastered the political techniques of authoritarianism, or because they simply enjoyed the luxury of living in a region that did not value democratic principles. When Francis Fukuyama asked in 1989 whether humanity had reached “the end of history” with the universal acceptance of liberal democracy, cultural relativists offered the so-called incompatibility between Islam and democratic values as a rebuttal to his argument. But even though dictatorship mostly endured in the region (although specific rulers like Muammar Gaddafi and Hosni Mubarak fell), the tens of millions of people who came out into the streets showed that authoritarianism was contrary to the will of the people. In the words of the late Jamal Khashoggi:

“The debate about the relationship between Islam and democracy conclusively ended with the coming of the Arab Spring, when the people of the Arab world — especially the youth, and even the Islamists, including some Salafis, who were always critical of democracy — supported the protests for democratic and political change.”

The Arab Spring’s demonstration of widespread support for democracy also highlighted the role of youth in the movement. The Middle East is experiencing a youth bulge, and these young people are technologically savvy and significantly more educated than their parents. But they are also frustrated by mass unemployment and the lack of the political freedoms they are able to observe in other parts of the world. Using both old-fashioned mobilisation techniques and social media, these young people drove the push for democracy and freedom in their countries. More recent protests in countries like Lebanon and Iraq show that this desire for change has not abated.

Even if the Arab Spring had been the only major protest movement of 2011, it would have made a strong case for that year being the most important of the decade. But the uprisings that swept across the Middle East and North Africa at the beginning of the year inspired another movement.

In September, thousands of protestors marched, disrupted traffic and in many cases camped out in downtown Manhattan, demonstrating against growing inequality and the seeming lack of consequences paid by the individuals and institutions responsible for the 2008 financial crisis. Occupy Wall Street, as the group was dubbed, was directly inspired by the millions who had come out in places like Tahrir Square. “We are using the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic to achieve our ends,” the group declared.

Just as the Tunisian protests of the beginning of the year soon sparked an international phenomenon, Occupy Wall Street quickly spawned imitators across America and throughout the western world. Like the Arab Spring, the globalised Occupy movement mobilised citizens from many countries around a common theme of resistance to oppression — this time economic rather than political. This latter internationalised movement reached its apotheosis on 15 October 2011, with protests in dozens of countries organised around the hashtagged slogan, “United for #GlobalChange.”

The movement was largely leaderless and amorphous, and as such it was no more successful than the Arab Spring at achieving specific policy goals. But it did manage to significantly shift the conversations about wealth and inequality, especially in the United States — just watch any of the Democratic debates or see the mainstreaming of Democratic Socialism, something that 10 years ago was considered a fringe leftist idea within US politics. Similarly, Jeremy Corbyn’s ascension to Labour leader owes much to the leftward shift triggered by the Occupy movement.

Beyond their effects on mainstream politics, both the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement shaped the nature of protests that have proliferated across the world in the last decade. The Arab Spring successfully merged 21st century, youth-led social media activism with old-fashioned, ‘to the streets’ protests. Whereas ‘hashtag activism’ threatened to undermine more substantive forms of mass political action — why carry a sign and perhaps risk arrest when you could simply forward a tweet? — the Arab Spring used various media, social and otherwise, as tools to complement and magnify the crowds that gathered in the streets and public squares to demand change.

This unique marriage of youth-led organising, virtual propaganda and physical mobilisation has been replicated by individuals and movements such as Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion, or the Parkland school shooting survivors and the American gun control movement.

Meanwhile, Occupy’s lack of clear platform and its emphasis on protests over concrete policy goals represents the movement’s true legacy. Look at the very name: ‘Occupy Wall Street’, not ‘Change Wall Street’. The focus is not on the outcome, but on the protest itself. This model of expressive protest differentiated Occupy from earlier movements, and set the stage for many of the later movements to emerge in its wake.

Black Lives Matter, which has drawn considerable attention to police killings and violence against African Americans, has achieved some successes (the prosecution of a handful of individual police officers, and the mainstreaming of body camera technology as a way to keep officers accountable), but it has often been criticised for emphasising demonstration over specific policy goals. Likewise, the Women’s March, emulating Occupy Wall Street, is largely organised around a specific action (like Occupy, it highlights its tactics, rather than its goals, in its very name). The Right-wing also picked up these tactics, with formerly fringe groups emerging in events like the ill-fated Unite the Right rally.

In short, the forces unleashed in Tunisia and Manhattan in 2011 ensured that the subsequent decade was one in which tens of millions of people around the world found common cause to pour onto their respective streets. Some were demanding change, but many more were simply expressing their displeasure with the status quo.

As we enter 2020, the legacy of 2011 has morphed into seemingly countless movements around the world. But as in any uprising, counter-revolutions have also materialised. The backlash has taken the form of governments and powerful conservative forces responding to the outpouring of often young, often leftist or radical protestors. The outpouring of progressive anger has created a conservative backlash — not just with fringe Right-wing populist groups, but within mainstream politics as well. Although Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren ascended to the top of their respective opposition parties, they remain far from number 10 or the Oval Office.

It can be argued that the Right, having watched Occupy fizzle out with few policy victories, has essentially adopted a strategy of accepting public displays of progressive anger as long as actual power remains in conservative hands. Impeachment, an expression of liberal anger in addition to a response to presidential misuse of power, seems destined to die a quick death in the US Senate. By contrast, Brexit, perhaps the ultimate expression of conservative resurgence, is steaming ahead.

Meanwhile, authoritarians around the world seem determined to prevent a new Arab Spring. Protestors in the nondemocratic world are seeing their internet-coordinated outrage met with increasingly tech-savvy forms of repression, ranging from government-engineered internet blackouts to increasingly sophisticated surveillance technologies. After a decade, neither liberals nor conservatives, young radicals nor older conservatives, seem ready to back down. The battle lines drawn in 2011 have solidified and the years ahead are poised to be as contentious and tumultuous as the outgoing decade has been.

Dr Christopher Rhodes is a Lecturer at Boston University’s College of General Studies.

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