By ELIZABETH DICKINSON
But there were common principles that those initial revolutionaries shared, first among them a thirst for the justice that had been denied under dictatorship. With the simplicity of their message, the original vanguard of activists found appeal en masse, including among many who didn’t think like them. Unlike previous social movements, there was no need to organize at the grassroots before demonstrations. Social media offered a direct line to anyone with a mobile phone. When A.B. and millions more like him showed up to the protests they didn’t know who had organized them—and didn’t want to, out of fear of being accused of conspiring. “Liberal activists were outnumbered, but the immense crowds continued to play by the rules of the initiators,” Benchemsi explains.
Across the region, online networks sprung to life in much the same way, mostly within countries but across borders too. In places where the social architecture was new, it was built seemingly overnight. Atiaf Alwazir remembers going to her first protest in Sanaa, Yemen, and not recognizing a soul. Within days of meandering between protest tents, the Yemeni blogger had met the people who would become her best friends. Among progressives like herself, “everyone had felt that they were alone until the revolution happened,” she says, “and they met each other and realized they were not.”
The first days of protest saw something more significant in some ways than the unrest itself. As one Kuwaiti activist described it, society was re-tribed. The traditional categories of family and class broke down, in favor of like-mindedness. Opposition had long been an elite affair; not so in the online and activist circles, where some of the most influential came from the poorest backgrounds.
“These people who never would have talked to one another are now on the same side,” explains Suleiman Al-Jassem, a liberal from the opposition movement in Kuwait that in 2012 gathered tens of thousands to the streets. “The social map is being redrawn.”
It was when the revolution started succeeding in Egypt that activist Ramy Yaacoub began to fear. For weeks on Cairo’s Tahrir square, shouting at police and rattling politicians had been enough. They weren’t sleeping; friends had died; each had scars from police batons or worse; but this was progress. Distracted by immediate aims, the core group put off decisions about the future. “There was a lot of political talk, and the question was: Are we going to work with political parties, or are we going to bring the entire system down?”
For many of the leading activists in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere, politics was anathema to all they were working toward. The leaderless masses were toppling regimes, so how could they submit to authority? Would that not risk creating the same enemy they had just defeated? In Morocco, for example, the February 20 protest movement held organizational meetings, governed entirely by consensus, that lasted hours and rarely yielded decisions
Yaacoub, who had studied in the United States and once interned with a U.S. senator (Democrat Bill Nelson of Florida), argued for more organization. “It was clear to me that we’ve created a vacuum, and someone will have to fill it. Should we not step up?”
Others were also warning that if the liberal vanguard didn’t organize, someone else would. While activists worried about tomorrow’s protest, “we’re distracting ourselves from the real problem. … The real problem is the intellectual vacuum,” El-Baghdadi, the Palestinian activist, argued in an August 2011 YouTube video titled “Has the Arab Spring Failed?” He continued, “It remains up to us to find a political solution. … If we fail to produce a solution, the status quo of authoritarianism will take charge.”
Yaacoub and others lost that debate, and another group seized the initiative. They hadn’t participated in the first protests, but Islamist groups, mostly associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, had both ideology and machinery—an election-winning combination. Founded in Egypt but now with branches across the region, the Brotherhood argued that Islam provides the guiding principles of government. In addition to running extensive social support systems, the organization had a long-running flirtation with electoral politics in Egypt, alternately tolerated and cracked down on for close to a century.
From Cairo to Suez to Alexandria, the Muslim Brotherhood had allies on every block and neighborhood when the first parliamentary elections were held in November 2011. Tunisia’s Al-Nahda party drew upon decades of grassroots social work to rally votes. In Bahrain, it was the Shiite Islamist group Al Wefaq that had representatives in every village and street ready to call the movement to order. But their designs on social mores and women’s rights were diametrically opposed to liberal ideas of personal freedom.
“For 50 years, the only place where people were allowed to sit and talk was in the mosque, so to a big extent, Islamists were ready,” says Wissam Tarif, a Lebanese liberal who spread initial news of the Syrian uprising. “I can organize a meeting with 30 like-minded people, but a man in a mosque has the opportunity every Friday to preach to thousands without making an effort.”
Yaacoub, for one, joined the Free Egypt party, a new, explicitly liberal party that would field Mohammed ElBaredei as its presidential candidate. “There were 56 offices all over the country, with faxing, mailing and hotlines managed perfectly,” he recalls. But upon joining, he found there was no political office at all—no one even charged with the task of coming up with a platform.
A year into the unrest, it had become clear the young online cadre who nudged forward the protests were being overtaken politically. Lacking the desire or tools to build a coherent political platform, it didn’t matter that they had a direct, instantaneous line, via social media, to millions. In Egypt’s first parliamentary vote, seculars, liberals and leftists combined won 16 percent of seats, to the Brotherhood’s 45 percent.
Read more: http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/12/arab-spring-anniversary-113637_Page2.html#ixzz3YgjWkMeN