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Reflecting On The Arab Spring, 10 Years Later

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

What is left of the Arab Spring? After a decade of civil wars and government crackdowns, it's easy to forget that December of 2010 started as a time of hope in the Middle East.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Arabic).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That chant - the people want the fall of the regime - was heard from Tunisia to Egypt to Syria. NPR's Ruth Sherlock in Beirut covered those events and reports that some are still trying to keep the ideals of the Arab Spring alive.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: On December 17, 2010, a Tunisian fruit seller set himself on fire in a desperate protest against corruption. His act brought people to the streets in mass demonstrations.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: And in just a month, longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country. Then something even more shocking...

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST AMBIENCE)

SHERLOCK: In Egypt, crowds occupied downtown Cairo's Tahrir Square. The demonstrations spread to Bahrain, Algeria, Yemen and beyond. In Libya, protests turned to fighting, and the U.S. and other countries backed the rebels. The dictator Muammar Gaddafi was forced from power and killed in late 2011, but the Arab Spring had taken a dark turn.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

SHERLOCK: In Syria, regime troops fired on crowds of protesters, igniting a civil war that's claimed half a million lives, displaced millions and still goes on. Libya has also seen continued fighting. And in Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sissi has imposed a new dictatorship. Around the region, there's been chaos, repression and civil war. So did the Arab Spring fail? We spoke with people about some of the changes that it did bring, starting with a prominent Egyptian journalist who says she presses on despite the dangers.

LINA ATTALAH: We're not very obsessed with surviving in the sense that if we have to do a story that would cost us our life as a newspaper, the choice would be to do it, actually.

SHERLOCK: Lina Attalah is the chief editor of Mada Masr, an independent Egyptian newspaper. Mada Masr's offices have been raided. Its website was blocked. Colleagues have been arrested. And then earlier this year, Attalah herself was briefly jailed for reporting on the spread of COVID-19 in prisons.

ATTALAH: We know very well the chances are this could be over any time.

SHERLOCK: But she believes this regime is more repressive now because it's more fragile. And it's more fragile because, she says, the Arab Spring taught people how to be political, how to organize for independent journalism and human rights.

ATTALAH: There is this power building, you know, that happens incrementally, step by step together with people.

SHERLOCK: She's saying there's many ways to oppose dictatorship. One of those ways has been through art and through music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO MORE")

FB17: (Singing) No more violence.

SHERLOCK: In Libya in 2011, I met a group of young guys who formed a band, FB17, to sing and rap about the revolution.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO MORE")

FB17: (Rapping in non-English language).

SHERLOCK: The songs became theme tunes that were blasted out on loudspeakers on rebel front lines.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO MORE")

FB17: (Rapping in non-English language).

SHERLOCK: This week, I rang one of the members, Islam Medani, or Covo as he was nicknamed back then, to catch up.

Hello. Hello.

ISLAM MEDANI: Hello.

SHERLOCK: Covo, hi. Hi.

MEDANI: Hi, Ruth. How are you doing? I still remember that days - you know, those days we were together here in the same studio I'm standing right now, you know?

SHERLOCK: A lot has happened for Medani. In the years since Muammar Gaddafi was ousted, there's been a cycle of wars and cease-fires.

MEDANI: A lot of wars comes. One year we go in war, and the second year we just take a break. And after that, it's - you know, it's like looping. I have a lot of friends that died since - I mean, even the last year, a lot of my friends died.

SHERLOCK: I asked him if he wishes that the war to remove Gaddafi just hadn't happened.

MEDANI: I'm sure they - a lot of people in here in Libya and outside, they think that this whole revolution is wrong and it's just - drive us to the hell itself. But it's not like that.

SHERLOCK: He says there are more freedoms now.

MEDANI: We wasn't able to be free in that stage, you know? And the government always, you know, chasing who's - anyone who tried to reach the Internet or YouTube. We was in a black box.

SHERLOCK: He still sees a role for music.

MEDANI: So the music - it's something that you can use to make people make revolution in their selves. And after that, maybe they can make a revolution in their country.

SHERLOCK: An analyst, Lina Khatib with Chatham House, tells me people just had too high an expectation of what the Arab Spring could achieve.

LINA KHATIB: It is completely unrealistic to expect political systems that are entrenched, that have been in place for decades and that are highly autocratic to overnight change into democratic systems.

SHERLOCK: Khatib from Lebanon says the turmoil in these countries is part of a process that was started by the revolutions in 2011, and that will take time.

KHATIB: When I look across the region, I see a lot of young people who are not as scared as their parents are of change. I think we should reserve judgment and just wait. The youth of today will be the leaders of the Arab world, and then it'll be a very different landscape.

SHERLOCK: One of these new leaders is Leen al Harake in Lebanon.

LEEN AL HARAKE: I'm 23 years old, and I'm studying architecture. I graduate this year, hopefully.

SHERLOCK: She was watching the Arab Spring on TV when she was 12, and now she's protesting the corruption against the Lebanese government.

HARAKE: I guess the movements that were happening were teaching us a lot about what we could do and how we could stand up for government, how we could stand up for people in power.

SHERLOCK: One lesson learned is do it carefully so it doesn't lead to a war. She's focused on student elections, which in Lebanon can influence national politics. This year, she helped lead a group of new independent candidates to victory at her university.

HARAKE: I think what we're seeing now is the revolution translating into more practical, more logical channels so that we're not on the streets, but we're still actively working.

SHERLOCK: It's clear that most of the hopes of the protesters who took to the streets in 2011 have yet to be realized. But for people like the Egyptian journalist in Cairo, the rapper in Libya and student activist in Lebanon, obtaining those dreams is a process that still goes on today.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.