Iowa Alumni Magazine | June 2015 | Features

A Dignity Crisis

By Shelbi Thomas
Five years since the dawn of Arab Spring, a UI-hosted global forum examines how the ongoing revolution may forever transform the political and social climate of the Middle East.
Dignity

In a small dusty city in the heart of Tunisia, a young fruit vendor became the symbol of a revolution.

Mohamed Bouazizi operated a food cart in the streets of Sidi Bouzid to support his six siblings and widowed mother. For years, power-hungry police officers took delight in harassing him and other vendors, stealing baskets of fruit, issuing undue fines, and demanding bribes. Then, in December 2010, the officers ordered Bouazizi to relinquish the cart for not carrying a permit to sell his wares. When Bouazizi refused, a policewoman slapped him. Infuriated and publicly degraded, Bouazizi doused himself in paint thinner and set himself on fire in front of a government building.

In a country where pride means more than gold, Bouazizi's act of defiance in the face of humiliation and injustice had less to do with his livelihood. It had everything to do with his dignity.

The horrific photos of a young man in flames resonated across the nation, igniting massive protests calling for Tunisian President Zine al-Abadine Ben Ali and his corrupt regime to resign. The demonstrators' eventual success in overthrowing their government launched a revolution against oppression known as the Arab Spring, which soon spread to Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and other countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

Now, five years since Bouazizi's painful death in a burn unit, some of the world's foremost scholars on the Arab uprisings recently gathered at the University of Iowa to consider one of history's most significant modern events—a phenomenon that continues to unfold in real-time. The 2015 UI Provost's Global Forum, titled "The Arab Spring in Global Context," drew more than 30 university experts from as far away as Paris, Prague, and Morocco to present on topics such as the revolutionary power of social media, the art of uprisings, the status of women, and the ongoing war on terrorism. With such a broad assembly, the UI forum became one of the first international conferences to consider all aspects of the movement, its ripple effect, and where the global community goes from here. Throughout the week, the scholars engaged in valuable, lively exchanges that gave them new directions for their research that could potentially shape foreign policy and improve human rights. The conference's findings will later appear in the online Journal of Islamic and Middle Eastern Multidisciplinary Studies, edited by forum organizer Ahmed Souaiaia, UI associate professor of Islamic studies and adjunct faculty member in the UI College of Law.

"As a major research university, we have a responsibility to engage our students, one another, and the public in discussions on important subject matter," says UI Executive Vice President and Provost P. Barry Butler, describing the intent of his global forum. "The events in the Middle East impact the entire world."

In its third year, the forum has become the premier annual event on campus focused on a complex international theme. Previous conferences have cast broader understanding on the plight of refugees and the widespread scale of child abuse and neglect. But no matter the topic, the multidisciplinary event emphasizes how and why such issues impact and connect us all as global citizens.

In the case of Arab Spring, conference presenters seized the opportunity to dispel misconceptions about the Middle East. The U.S. has a long history of involvement in the Middle East, including aiding rebel factions in Libya, initiating airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) in Syria, and defending a newly reformed Yemeni government. But despite this deep political investment, scholars say, many Americans know little about the region. Though there are 350 million Arabs and 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, experts point out a strong tendency to paint them with one stereotypical brush and overlook the region's rich religious and political diversity.

"The media overestimates the influence of extremist and radical groups when in fact they are on the fringe," says Sahar Khamis, an associate professor of communication at the University of Maryland and keynote presenter, addressing the violent images of savagery often perpetuated by the media. In truth, Khamis says, Americans and Arabs share much in common, especially when it comes to the universal human desire for justice, dignity, and freedom.

Another important angle to consider is the role of youth-led movements in changing the course of history. Throughout time, young people have protested for what they view as a better world. It's no wonder, with two-thirds of the Arab population under 30 years old, that the region teems with ongoing revolution. While their uprisings may seem distant and far-removed, several forum speakers drew parallels among the Middle Eastern movements and the unrest boiling over in the streets of Baltimore, New York City, and Ferguson, Missouri, over alleged abuses of authority. As 'ad AbuKhalil, a political science professor at California State University, says that young Arabs identify with these U.S. protestors, even though their American counterparts may not be aware of their shared struggles with social injustice and youth disenchantment.

Interestingly, the 2011 Occupy Movement against income disparity and bad business that began on Wall Street and spread across 82 countries drew inspiration from youth in the Middle East. The same goes for tens of thousands of young Spaniards, who camped in city plazas earlier that year to call for more economic opportunity in a nation suffering a 21 percent unemployment rate.

Says keynote presenter Mohammed el-Nawawy, professor of Middle Eastern studies at Queens University of Charlotte, North Carolina, and president of the Arab-U.S. Association for Communication Educators: "Today we're living in a global village. Whatever happens anywhere affects [all of us]."

As Mohamed Bouazizi lay dying and covered with bandages in the hospital, Ben Ali attempted to sway public opinion in his favor by showing up at the burn unit with a camera crew and $14,000 check. The publicity stunt only backfired when the check left the room with Ben Ali. Bouazizi died three weeks later, and when one of his cousins posted a Facebook video of the protests in Sidi Bouzid, the uprisings spread like wildfire.

The revolution against Ben Ali wasn't Tunisia's first uprising. In 1987, Ben Ali assumed the presidency after a bloodless coup over the modern country's founding father, Habib Bourguiba. While Ben Ali promised a more democratic government, he quickly proved to be an authoritarian who amended the constitution to extend his rule for 24 years. Ben Ali also restricted the press and reorganized the country's economics to benefit his family and supporters at the public's expense. During the 2011 revolution, his regime was responsible for more than 300 deaths and 2,000 injuries. In the end, he fled to Saudi Arabia and faced 18 charges in Tunisia, including drug trafficking and voluntary manslaughter. Meanwhile, a new government began to form.

The nature of Tunisia's revolution is a point of pride for Souaiaia, himself born in Tunisia. Following the overthrow of Ben Ali's police state, he observed firsthand the 2011 election of the constituent assembly charged with writing a new constitution for the people of Tunisia. Although it took three years, Tunisia's assembly adopted a document that Souaiaia deems progressive—featuring language that includes term limits, universal health care, the freedoms of conscience and expression, and respect for the nation's women, youth, and minorities. Last year, Beji Caid Essebsi became head of Tunisia in its first free and fair presidential election since gaining independence from France 58 years ago.

Tunisia is a fledgling democracy and an Arab Spring success story, owing in part to its small size and relatively homogeneous population. Yet, other nations have faced more challenging quests for dignity and human rights.

As in Tunisia, outrage against a citizen's maltreatment became the rallying point for a movement in Egypt. In June 2010, Egyptian police brutally murdered Khaled Mohamed Saeed outside an Internet café in Alexandria after the 25-year-old posted a YouTube video revealing police drug use and corruption. The officers tried to cover their crimes, claiming Saeed was a drug dealer who choked on a joint he swallowed when they went to arrest him, but the video and images of his battered face told a different story. As photos of Saeed's disfigured, bloodied body traveled the Internet, more than 200,000 people joined the "We are Khaled Saeed" Facebook page to express their outrage. The incident—coupled with hopeful news from Tunisia—fueled growing discontentment in Egypt that led to the uprising known as the "Facebook Revolution."

While forum experts largely believe that Western journalists have overstated the role of social media in the Arab Spring, it's still a popular research focus for scholars studying the movement. "Social media can't substitute for political activism on the ground," Khamis said in her keynote presentation on its role in the Egyptian revolution, "but it can be a catalyst to speed up the democratic transition." Though many uprisings took place in the Middle East long before Facebook, these are the first to occur in the age of social media, when news crosses borders with the click of a share button. Adds Khamis, an Egyptian native, "I sometimes tease my students by reminding them that social media is not just for online dating, since their peers in Egypt used it to launch a revolution."

At the time of the 2011 uprising, about a quarter of Egyptians had access to the Internet. Though small in number, those users were effective in spreading information about the protests to their friends and family without Internet access. Social media—used in conjunction with more traditional forms of communication—helped mobilize a large crowd to action and set in motion a global response.

In January 2011, tens of thousands of protestors gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square to demand the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarek. People of all religious and political backgrounds united under the cause, exasperated and incensed with 30 years of dictatorial rule, police abuse, and financial distress.

"We found something in Tahrir that we've missed for so long," demonstrator Wael Eskander wrote in his "Notes from the Underground" blog. "In Tahrir, we found each other; we found the true meaning of nationalism."

At the UI conference, Khamis also explained how online citizen journalism forced government-controlled media outlets in the Middle East to address previously unreported social and political issues such as sexual assaults and other human rights violations by Egyptian authorities. Though foreign journalists were sometimes barred from countries involved in the Arab Spring, YouTube videos brought the news to the world. Traditional media outlets such as Al Jazeera then re-aired the videos until government-controlled outlets couldn't ignore the issues anymore. "When I used to flip the channel to [Egypt's state-run] Channel One, I'd see the Nile looking so beautiful and romantic. And then I'd turn to Al Jazeera and see the tanks and violence," says Khamis. "It was like they were talking about two completely different countries."

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned after 18 days of protests in Tahrir Square, handing the government over to the military until a presidential election held in spring 2012. The popularly and democratically elected President Mohammed Morsi was overthrown by the military in July 2013; then Egypt held a new election in May 2014 that has again returned the country to an authoritarian security state. Meanwhile, power struggles rage on with civil wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen (see timeline). Despite the uncertain outcome, Souaiaia says, "The relationship between the ruled and the rulers has changed irreversibly. Change is slow, but there's no stepping back."

While once united under a common cause, many protestors involved in the Arab Spring are now divided as focus turns from toppling corrupt governments to determining how to best accomplish employment and freedom. Tunisia stands as one of the few success stories of the Arab uprisings, Souaiaia argues, because it immediately focused its spirit of unity toward creating a constitution in which everyone had a voice. Even there, the revolt against oppression came at a high cost. Thousands of people across the Middle East and North Africa have been killed in clashes with government authorities since the Arab uprisings began. Government instability in countries such as Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Iraq has also led to the growth of terrorist groups like ISIL that bring further death and destruction to the region. As in most wars throughout history, freedom is not free.

Forum participants concluded that the strongest, most powerful weapon against violence in the Middle East will be the transition to peaceful and stable governments that respect human dignity. Such hope can seem elusive in a region gripped with turmoil. Nevertheless, experts don't see the youth of these nations giving up the quest. While it may take decades to fully know how Arab Spring's chapters will read in school history books, the University of Iowa has emerged as a leader in shaping the future dialogue.