Where are the heroes of the Arab Spring 12 years on?
Upon the anniversary of the eruption of the Arab Spring – around the start of each year – discussion invariably turns towards its fate and ongoing impact. What happened to the young people who led those uprisings which began 12 years ago, in the name of dignity, in which they challenged some of the most brutal dictatorships in the world?
Some are dead, killed while peacefully confronting the violence of the police in the squares and streets of the demonstrations. Others have been imprisoned or ensnared in trumped-up criminal charges.
Others have been forced into exile, and still others have felt compelled to retract their positions – or at the least, sink back into silence – in fear of the vicious counterrevolutionary machine that was kickstarted to mercilessly and indiscriminately crush all remnants of resistance it came across.
"Alaa Abdel Fattah is one of the symbols of the Arab Spring. His star rose in the 25 January Revolution in Egypt in 2011, and he became one of its most prominent figures"
Egypt: Alaa Abdel Fattah
Alaa Abdel Fattah is one of the symbols of the Arab Spring. His star rose in the 25 January Revolution in Egypt in 2011, and he became one of its most prominent figures. After he publicly opposed the military coup led by Abdel-Fattah El Sisi in July 2013, on 28 November that same year, Alaa was arrested and jailed, accused of "protesting without a licence".
This referred to a protest he had taken part in outside the Shura Council against Egyptian civilians being tried in military courts (the "Shura Council events"). In March 2014 he was released on bail, only to be rearrested in June 2014, when the court sentenced him to 15 years imprisonment. In February 2015, the Criminal Court reduced the sentence to five years.
Alaa served his five-year sentence in full, during which harrowing life events further added to the psychological strain and suffering he endured – his father died; his sister Sanaa was jailed; and his family was subjected to repeated, intrusive harassment by the Egyptian security services. Alaa was finally released on 29 March 2019.
However, he did not retract the revolutionary stance he had held prior to his arrest. He continued to openly oppose the military dictatorship, and continued his stinging criticisms of the Sisi-regime.
This led the authorities to arrest him again, just six months later, on 29 September 2019. This time, the fabricated accusations included "links to a terrorist organisation", "spreading false news" and "undermining national security". He was sentenced again, to another 5 years.
During the last period of his incarceration, Alaa has expressed the desire to commit suicide, a response to the extremely harsh conditions of his detention, and the denial of his right to consular visits.
In April 2022, he embarked on an open-ended hunger strike which led to a steep decline in his health. He escalated the hunger strike in November 2022 by refusing water as well as food, on the opening day of the climate conference COP27, which was being held in Egypt.
Despite the demand for his release by many organisations and Western states, who highlight the fact that he holds British citizenship as well as Egyptian, the Egyptian regime has refused point blank to let him go. Instead, it has enlisted Egypt's security-services-aligned media to smear Alaa and his family.
Alaa Abdel Fattah has become a symbol of the revolutionary youth of the region who rejected all the proffered political posts and financial temptations that were offered them by the regimes to undermine their calls for change.
Instead, they continued on the path of resisting injustice and tyranny, and demanding democracy despite the hardships they faced and the devastating price they paid. Alaa is just one of hundreds of young people languishing in jails in Egypt and across the Arab world for refusing to compromise on their views and their stances.
"Alaa Abdel Fattah has become a symbol of the revolutionary youth of the region who rejected all the proffered political posts and financial temptations that were offered them by the regimes to undermine their calls for change"
Morocco: Nasser Zefzafi
In Morocco, the Royal Palace is a master at the game of offering "momentary concessions". It dealt with the young demonstrators of the February 20 movement (Morocco's iteration of the Arab Spring) with its characteristic calm and cunning.
The autocratic Moroccan regime quietly waited until the momentum of the street protests had waned before it wreaked its vengeance on those who had dared take part in the protests that had erupted in 2011. The Moroccan Association of Human Rights documented hundreds of arrests and unfair trials of protestors in its reports.
Nasser Zefzafi, a young activist from Al Hoceima city (from Morocco's northern Rif region) who rose to prominence in the 2011 protest movement, found himself sentenced to 20 years in jail, accused of "involvement in a conspiracy violating the security of the state".
This was after he played a leadership role in the popular mass protests demanding social justice in the Rif region in 2016 – dubbed the Rif Movement by the media.
According to a statement made by Zefzafi, he was tortured – including being raped with a stick - during his detention. In addition to this, a website known for its ties to the security services released a video showing Zefzafi nearly naked in his prison cell – its clear intention to inflict further humiliation on the activist.
Zefzafi has developed several serious, chronic health conditions as a result of the horrific conditions of his incarceration, and the solitary confinement which has been imposed on him. While he was in prison, his mother was diagnosed with cancer – which has added to the weight of the psychological suffering he is under.
Upon the anniversary of the 20 February movement protests, Morocco's state media – aligned to the autocratic regime and unashamed of its links to the security services – launched a well-organised smear campaign against those who had taken part in the movement. It denounced them as agents, spies and saboteurs.
Many were arrested on falsified criminal charges, like journalists Omar Radi (sentenced to six years' imprisonment), Soulaimane Raissouni (sentenced to five years) and Taoufik Bouachrine (sentenced to 15 years). All of them had been part of the 2011 protests, and mobilised support for them through their articles.
Today the European Parliament has firmly condemned Morocco’s repression of human rights and press freedom.— S&D Group (@TheProgressives) January 19, 2023
Omar Radi deserves justice.
Morocco must immediately release all Hirak political prisoners, including Nasser Zefzafi! #FreeZefzafi #FreeOmarRadi pic.twitter.com/hIo2WxPwjj
The region's regimes are doing all they can to scare young people away from politics and entering into public spaces and debates. To this end, they are using tactics of blanket repression on the young activists and protestors who gained prominence in the spring of 2011.
The aim is to make them an example and a deterrent; so that anyone who even lets themselves think about making demands for freedom and democracy in the future will think twice.
However, the post-Arab Spring world is very different to the one that existed before, and the "spectre of the Spring is still wandering the length and breadth of the Arab world" as Azmi Bishara put it.
"The Arab Spring may have failed for now, but the wheels set in motion have not yet run their course"
Moreover, the culture of protest – whether physical or digital – has become deeply entrenched since the uprisings of 2011, and has been frequently deployed in the years that have followed, to express a rejection of injustice, despite the savage reprisals that everyone knows will follow.
The Arab Spring may have failed for now, but the wheels set in motion have not yet run their course. For every time the counterrevolutionary forces gloat about its failure, and chant their racism slogans, like "democracy doesn't suit the Arab peoples", another protest movement resembling those that erupted in 2011 breaks out.
The evidence is in the Moroccan Rif Movement protests of 2016, the 17 October revolution protests in Lebanon and Iraq's Tishreen Movement protests, both of 2019. May better days lie ahead!
Abdellatif El Hamamouchi is an investigative journalist and political science researcher from Morocco. He is a member of the Central Office of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights. He writes for The Intercept, Open Democracy, and Sada- Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is also the author of Moncef Marzouki: His Life and Thought, co-written with Maati Monjib and published by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Doha.
Follow him on Twitter: @AHamamouchi
Article translated from Arabic by Rose Chacko.
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