05/31: Beginnings of the Arab Spring

The Tunisian Revolution started in the town of Sidi Bouzid, the seat of governance for a rural province of the same name in central Tunisia. By January 21, Time magazine summarized the catalyst of the unrest with the following record of one Mohamed Bouazizi: …on Dec. 17 his livelihood was threatened when a policewoman confiscated his unlicensed vegetable cart and its goods. … Not satisfied with accepting the 10-dinar fine that Bouazizi tried to pay ($7, the equivalent of a good day’s earnings), the policewoman allegedly slapped the scrawny young man, spat in his face and insulted his dead father. Humiliated and dejected, Bouazizi, the breadwinner for his family of eight, went to the provincial headquarters, hoping to complain to local municipality officials, but they refused to see him. At 11:30 a.m. … Bouazizi returned to the elegant double-story white building with arched azure shutters, poured fuel over himself and set himself on fire.1 After initial protests and riots occurred outside the provincial headquarters in Sidi Bouzid, the protests spread throughout the country. The unrest amongst large portions of Tunisian society could easily be broken down into the marginalized and unemployed (and those supporting their cause) protesting against the corrupt leaders at all levels of governance. The situation was more complicated than that, however. The sprouting of fancy shopping centres, yacht marinas and housing developments along Tunisia’s breezy coast provided a shiny veneer of prosperity. … But the exterior sheen conceals a growing sense of anomie, compounded by swelling unemployment and material expectations fed by rising educational standards.2 While the underlying causes of the unrest are still being discussed, its immediate effects were witnessed world wide. (Sidi Bouzid below, Tunis after)

sidi bouzid tunis diagram

On January 25th protests were planned across Egypt. The location of these protests were always in the public realm, plazas and government ministry buildings. “Some 80,000 Egyptian web-surfers signed up, pledging to march on the streets to voice demands for reform.” Exploiting a subdued police presence, “demonstrators in Cairo managed by late afternoon to seize control of Tahrir Square, a broad traffic junction in the city centre.” “The minister of interior, Habib al-Adli, issued a stern warning that no further street gatherings of any kind would be tolerated.”3 Any street within Egypts major cities held the potential for protest, and the Interior Ministry was intent on regulating such activity. Protests continued for weeks, with Tahrir Square serving as ground zero for the movement, and after many casualties and much internal and external political pressure, President Hosni Mubarak resigned February 11th, 2011.

In Yemen protests were also planned for January 25th. In the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, protests against President Ali Saleh were preempted by police action. A February 14th report by Al Jezeera mentions “state forces have blocked access to public squares, several coincidentally named “Tahrir Square” – both in Sanaa, and around the country. … Several checkpoints have appeared on streets leading to Sanaa’s presidential palace, and many have been blocked with razor wire.”4 Whether confronted by armed police forces or armed supporters of President Saleh, the protesters were forced to regroup and set up camp on the campus of Sana’a University. “If you ignore the burned-out and smashed-up cars, the anti-government demonstration at Yemen’s Sana’a University looks much like a summer music festival, with its fluorescent tents and juice stalls decked with artificial flowers. … Now the demonstrators have set up camp and say they are staying put”5. The power of the presidential palace as setting for protest was understood by both the supporters and the dissenters of President Saleh. It was a matter of either luck or police machinations that the supporters of the presidential set up camp outside his palace first. Dissenters on the campus of Sana’a University found themselves miles away and on the periphery of the city fabric.

On February 14th, 2011 protesters in Bahrain took to the streets (via similar social network organization) of the capital Manama to protest the social and codified discrimination of the majority Shia populous. By February 24th, the Economist had this to say: AFTER the most explosive week in its recent history, with seven dead and hundreds injured when troops opened fire on protesters, an uneasy truce is holding in Bahrain. Protesters have reoccupied Pearl Square in the capital, Manama, after the crown prince, Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, ordered the troops off the streets. The site now houses a sprawling camp of several thousand, with free-food stands and a barber doing a busy trade. From a small stage, a steady queue of speakers call for the downfall of the regime.6 Pearl Square, the location of the protest camp, was located in the middle of a traffic circle, around which multiple major highways circumnavigated. The square, today, is no more, demolished by government officials in an attempt to break up the protests. “Members of the opposition expressed their disappointment at the demolition of a structure the government itself had described as one of the kingdom’s ‘most striking landmarks’”7. In one violent act, the government of Bahrain disrupted the protest camp and killed off a possible symbol of the political unrest. If the Pearl Square statue no longer represented the government, it would represent no one. (Cairo below, then Sanaa, Manama after)

cairo sanaa manama

These four events share much in common. The four countries share language, religion (albeit with different minority groups and different demographic break downs), common history (in either the Islamic Caliphate or Ottoman Empire), and political interest (all are members of the League of Arab States while none are members of OPEC). Each nation came to be defined by its current borders within the last sixty years. For Egypt and Tunisia, this meant they were colonies of England and France, respectively until their independence was gained in 1952 and 1956. All four countries operated under some sore of martial law for an extended period of time running up to the beginning of 2011. Each of the five cities mentioned had examples of neighborhoods with western style orthagonal grid organization patterns in addition to large remnants of a history pre-western city layout (either of Ottoman or Islamic origin). Each city mentioned served as a capital (for Sidi Bouzid, this meant being the location of the seat of the provincial government of the same name) for their respective countries. The capitol buildings themselves are found in the modern/western parts of the respective cities.

1Time Magazine, “Bouazizi: The Man Who Set Himself and Tunisia on Fire” by Rania Abouzeid, 1/21/ 2011

2The Economist, “Tunisia’s Troubles: No End in Sight” 1/14/2011

3The Economist, “Protest in Egypt: Another Arab Regime Under Threat” 1/27/2011

4Aljazeera.com, “Thousands Rally Across Yemen” 2/14/2011

5The Economist, “Protests in Yemen: Getting Together” 1/24/2011

6The Economist, The Nervous Gulf: Bullets and Bribes” 1/24/2011

7CNN.com, “U.S. Condemns Arrest of Opposition Figures in Bahrain” 3/19/2011


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