The Arab Spring: Images, Power, and Change

Tomorrow marks a year since Mohamed Bouazizi of Tunisia set himself on fire after a policewoman slapped him. Self-immolations and protests have proliferated since in many countries. Six months before, Khaled Said, a young businessman in Alexandria, Egypt, was dragged from an Internet cafe by police and beaten to death in the street; he had posted a video of the police divvying up drugs from a bust on his blog. Soon after, a Facebook page, “We Are All Khaled Said,” became a clearinghouse for information on protests and often graphic photos and videos of police brutality. With astonishing speed, tools like blogs, Facebook and Twitter have spread images of these events around the world.

The result? Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali stepped down after 23 years of rule. The 30-year regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was overthrown. In Libya, NATO bombings helped the rebel coalition defeat the country’s leader, Muammar el-Qaddafi, who was captured and killed in October 2011. In Dara’a, Syria, the arrest and subsequent torture of 10- to 15-year-old boys who wrote anti-regime graffiti outraged people and sparked civil unrest against the regime, which has continued to react with violence and brutality. With his country on the verge of civil war, Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad is now faced with the devil’s choice: he is damned if he accepts the rules of democracy, and he is damned if he does not.

Powerful images of these events have had a deep impact in the Arab region and around the world. Much has been said about the role of social media in the blossoming of the Arab Spring, but factors such as the massive increase in the number of mobile devices with cameras and the greater accessibility of the Internet, with its ability to reach millions of people worldwide, are just as important.

Take one telling example: today, there are virtually no images of the 1982 massacre in Hama, Syria, where estimates of casualties vary from 5,000 to 25,000 people or more. Thirty years later, amateur videos and photos of even the smallest protests are posted on YouTube and Facebook and are brought to global attention within hours. This is not just the work of international professional photographers and journalists. These images are generated and publicized by local amateurs. “People power” has acquired a whole new meaning.

Many of the events that triggered the Arab Spring concern human rights violations, humiliation, and lack of dignity: a young man slapped by a police woman; another beaten to death by corrupt police officers; or boys tortured by officials working for a brutal regime. These are hardly new events, but they are now being documented in images that are reaching the world in real time and that are making a real difference. There is, without a doubt, a clear link between social networks and social change.

But, the advances of new technology are only the tool, not the reason, of the Arab unrest. Factors such as demography, economics, and politics have played the pivotal role. It is the interaction between these factors and new technologies that have furthered the current unrest.

Demographic trends are essential to understanding the root causes of the uprisings. Since 1950, the population of the Arab region as a whole has nearly tripled. On average, 42 percent of the population in these countries is between 15-29 years old. In addition, most people now live in cities. While urbanization is a global trend, it is particularly prevalent in the Arab world. Since 1970, the population of Cairo, the largest Arab city, has doubled from 5.6 million to 11 million. In contrast, London’s population grew from 7.5 million to 8.6 million people over the same period. Cities connect people in ways not possible in rural areas.

Economics has also contributed to this unrest. In general, the size of the Middle East economy has grown more than twice as fast as the rest of the world over the last 50 years. However, the gains in economic development have, in some cases, been eroded by immense population growth, with the wealth remaining in the hands of a few rather than distributed across society. Unemployment remains high, especially among the young, and millions still live under their national poverty lines. Literacy rates also went up during the past two decades. However, in some cases, there has been a mismatch between the quality of education and its relevance to the job market. Factoring in the recent economic stagnation, it is easy to understand why a large mass of frustrated young people, who cannot get a job, start a family, or fulfill their aspirations, have taken to the streets to voice their dissatisfaction.

And then there is the political aspect. Tarnished by authoritarianism, corruption, nepotism, and inefficiency, political institutions in North Africa and the Middle East have not evolved to match societal expectations. This imbalance is what the United Nations 2010 Arab Human Development Report referred to as the democratic deficit in the Arab world.

Of course, each country in the Arab region is distinct. But, while there are political particularities in each country, most share these common characteristics: problems of governance, lack of economic opportunities, and disenfranchised populations.

In sum, the frustration with living standards and governance has reached the boiling point for a large number of young Arab women and men who have chosen to confront their leadership head on. A crisis of expectation has fed these grassroots movements. And, thanks to new technologies unknown to previous generations, these movements have grown stronger and more vocal.

The inspirational power of the images of Arab Spring events is the main difference between recent and past uprisings. Someone in the Arab region told me that in the past, a revolt could be killed like a scorpion. Today, events in the region look more like a starfish: even if one arm is cut off, the organism will continue to live and the arm will regenerate. No single movement is isolated. Rather, each sustains and inspires the other. The modern technologies available, and the resulting immediacy of images, have brought the Arab Spring to all of us. The message is loud and clear: more change is coming.

Francesco Mancini is Senior Director of Research at the International Peace Institute.

About the photo: Mohammed Bouazizi