A girl raises her hand with her fingers painted with flags of Yemen, Egypt, Syria, Tunisia and Libya, (Photo: Reuters).
On 14 January 2011, long-time Tunisian dictator Zein El-Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunis on an airplane. His sudden departure followed weeks of protest by Tunisian citizens who called on him to leave office.
The spark of the Tunisian uprising was ignited by the injustice served to a poor fruit vendor who was harassed by Tunisian police who confiscated his cart, his only source of income. His situation became a revolutionary symbol and a mobilising force after he set himself on fire in protest.
Arabs across the region, frustrated by their corrupt authoritarian states, followed news from Tunisia closely. Hoping for a domino effect to take place in their countries, some prayed, others mobilised, for mass protests.
Now, a year later, four dictators have been overthrown. One fled, one isw on trial, one was killed and one resigned.
Tunisian strongman Ben Ali, the antagonist in the opening chapter of the Arab uprisings, and his clique were described by the US State Department as a “quasi mafia”. Ben Ali had taken over from his predecessor, Tunisian leader Habib Bourgiba, in 1987 by a coup d’état where Bourgiba was decidedly medically unfit to rule.
Ben Ali was versed in the art of quelling dissent, having been before president the head of National Security in Tunisia, known to be one of the fiercest police states in an intensely policed region.
As a result of the ruling family’s overt extravagance and the state’s intolerance and oppression, coupled with widespread unemployment and deteriorating economic conditions, protests sparked by Mohammad Bouazizi — the fruit vendor — quickly spread, reaching the capital Tunis. Ben Ali was toppled shortly after.
The regional response was swift. Celebrations at Tunisian embassies, hasty economic benefits meted out by Arab governments, and assertions that the Tunisian revolution is not contagious, hit headlines in the days following Ben Ali’s flight.
Early vestiges of revolt peaked over the horizon. Protests in Jordan and Yemen kicked off and Egyptians marked the 25 January as revolution day.
Hosni Mubarak was Ben Ali’s Egyptian counterpart, in title and practice. Both amended constitutions to perpetuate their presidencies and both were re-elected multiple times, many presidential elections completely uncontested.
Mubarak was handed power after Egyptian President Anwar El-Sadat was assassinated in 1981. Egypt, a former regional heavyweight, had sharply deteriorated in the Mubarak years and was ripe for an uprising, especially that the Mubarak regime was evidently planning — to the indignation of Egyptians — to either nominate Mubarak for a fifth term, or facilitate a succession to his son Gamal.
The plans fell through. Egyptians ousted Mubarak on 11 February, when he was replaced by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). SCAF promised a peaceful transition of power and, under pressure from further protests, put Mubarak on trial.
Third in line was Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, the longest ruling among the ousted four, often seen as the most eccentric among Arab rulers. Gaddafi called protesters “rats” and vowed to hunt them house by house.
While feigning to uphold direct democracy, Gaddafi’s unique political system — which he established in 1977, eight years after he seized power in a bloodless coup, and called the Libyan Jamahiriya (translated "State of the Masses") — enabled him to be a demagogue, with he and his family monopolising power.
Gaddafi allowed no political opposition, hunted dissidents abroad and repressed them locally. He had a tense and fluctuating relationship with the West; it was Libyan agents who carried out the Lockerbie airline bombing in 1988 as well as bombing a discotheque in Berlin a few years earlier.
The initially peaceful 17 February uprising in Libya developed into a civil war soon afterwards. A new situation arose where rebels took up arms and foreign planes led by NATO bombed the country to “protect civilians” against Gaddafi after his forces used heavy weapons and fighter planes to subdue the nascent revolt.
This prolonged the Libyan conflict and complicated its outcome, and Gaddafi — when captured after a NATO raid on his convoy — was given a violent death by the rebels.
Throughout unrest in Libya and Egypt people were taking to the streets across Yemen on a daily basis. Yemen’s Taez had seen some of largest mass gatherings across the region calling for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down.
Saleh is perhaps the wiliest of the quartet. Since the eruption of the Yemeni uprising, Saleh stood in the face of constant mass protests, dodged an assassination attempt and writhed his way out of three internationally-backed deals to cede power to his deputy. He agreed to sign fourth time around.
After Saleh took power following a coup in 1978 he proved a resilient ruler, suppressing a secessionist southern movement and a Shia insurgency in the north. He used tribal sentiment to his benefit and pitted Islamist militants against his rivals while helping the US fight Al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula.
Saleh’s was in office for 33 years and like Egypt, speculation was high that he would try to facilitate a succession to his son Ahmed. After Tunisia ousted Ben Ali, the political unrest fueled by him and his ruling General People's Congress (GPC) Party as well as the impoverished state of the country created fertile ground for revolution.
While the Yemeni scene was complicated in that tribal rivalries had created pockets of defecting troops who joined protesters but who also engaged in armed skirmishes with Saleh’s loyalists, unarmed Yemeni protesters stood their ground, staging sit-ins and returning to the streets even when caught in the crossfire.
Under pressure from the street, the Gulf and Western countries, Saleh signed a transition deal. The deal would see a coalition government, including the GPC, formed. It would also grant Saleh immunity from prosecution. Protesters rejected this; they remain in the streets demanding Saleh’s prosecution.
If 2011 would be remembered as the year Arab dictators fell, or started falling (protesters in Syria demand President Bashar Al-Assad step down), it would also be the year where a struggle for radical changes in the region started. Forcing a dictator to step down was not the end of any of the uprisings taking place; rather the repeated chants calling for freedom, dignity and social justice give a better clue as to what was sought after the autocrats departed.
The situations in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen vary greatly and many challenges lie ahead.
In Egypt, though Mubarak is being tried, protesters are still being brutalised in the streets and tried in military tribunals, creating serious doubts that SCAF is serious about fairly trying Mubarak, who stands before a civilian court.
Libyans, after killing Gaddafi and publicly displaying his body for days, have the primary mission of disarming the rebels or integrating them in a national army, an institute virtually absent under Gaddafi. It is yet unknown whether political infighting will start between different groups on the ground.
Tunisians, having elected a constituent assembly, formed a cabinet and appointed a president, are starting the process of drafting a constitution, but still grapple with economic woes left by an unstable year and the corruption of the Ben Ali era.
The fallen dictators are but a symbol of the difficult historical stage Arabs are now living. The coming year may carry clearer indications on which direction the uprisings will take in the future.