This time last year, Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire, sparking a popular uprising in Tunisia that spread to countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The uprisings have come to be known throughout the world as the "Arab Spring" and have caused more change in one year than the region has seen in decades. For months, chants across the Middle East echoed, "The people want the downfall of the regime." Only a month after Tunisians ousted Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, it took the Egyptian people only 18 days to overthrow Hosni Mubarak after being in power for 30 years.
Shortly after the downfalls of Ben Ali and Mubarak, Libyans took up arms against Muammar Gaddafi. After ten months of violent battles that took the lives of thousands of civilians, Libyan revolutionaries claimed victory when Gaddafi was killed in his hometown of Sirte.
Protestors in Yemen hope to turn a new page after months of bloody crackdowns as embattled ruler Ali Abudllah Saleh belatedly signed the Gulf-brokered deal that will transfer power in the country by early next year.
In Syria, anti-regime activists are unyielding in their ongoing fight against Bashar al-Assad. As the death toll has reached over 5,000 according to the UN, the international community is slowly boosting efforts to end the months-long bloody crackdown.
Protests and subsequent crackdowns have spread through Bahrain, Oman, Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia but have received far less media attention.
In his article "From Tunis and Tahrir to Wall Street, and back again," UC Irvine Professor Mark Levine explains the common frustrations of people throughout the region. He states, "The lack of hope or possibility to find decent work, or overcome the corruption and repression there that defined life in [Sidi Bouzid, Bouazizi's hometown], was a microcosm of political and economic life in Tunisia under Zine Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt under Hosni Mubarak and most every other country in the region." Khoda, a Syrian housepainter turned insurgent, had a different view: "In Egypt, the revolution started because of poverty and hunger," he said. "In Libya it started because of misuse of power. In Syria, the main purpose of the revolution is to gain back our dignity and our honour."
As the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya are being hailed as successes by some, other observers aren't as optimistic that they will lead to the kinds of changes that protestors had hoped. Daniel Byman of the Washington Post predicts, "The Arab Spring may not bring freedom to much, or even most, of the Arab world. Even as the United States prepares to work with the region's new democracies, it also must prepare for the chaos, stagnation and misrule."
As we reach the one year mark of the start of the "Arab Spring," there are many lessons to be learned from the unparalleled and tumultuous revolutions that rocked the Middle East and North Africa in 2011. Mohamad Al-Ississ, a professor of economics at the American University of Cairo, says the fight is not over and that "this is the moment where we go forward or we go back to ground zero." Levine warns that "democracy is a means, not an end," pointing to our own Western system today that is "so dominated by money and power that inequality and corruption are reaching 'third world' levels."
Huguett Labelle, chair of Transparency International and author of "The keys to change across the Arab world," offers wise words of advice to the future leaders of the Arab world: "listen to the people, or risk being overtaken by them."
Photo Credit: An anti-government protestor displays paintings on her hand of other countries involved in the Arab Spring revolutions during a rally to demand the ouster of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa on October 26, 2011. The words read, "Go out." REUTERS/Louafi Larbi