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Christine Folch

Arab Eyes, Arab Voices

Prospects for democracy in the Middle East and North Africa.

Three years have passed since the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi on December 17, 2010 served as the pebble that launched a rockslide. Out of indignation at seeing his meager fruit cart—the only source of livelihood for his extended family of eight—confiscated by a female police officer who then slapped him and insulted his parentage, the young man lit himself aflame on the streets of Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. Public sympathy for the despondent vendor quickly transformed into outrage at the political status quo. Protests erupted on the streets as tweets and status updates burst forth on social networks, the world watching as one of North Africa's most stable dictatorships fell within a month.

Bouazizi died from his wounds before seeing the effects of his actions. Tunisian president Ben Ali was taken by surprise; Egypt's Hosni Mubarak counteracted by attempting to shut down the Internet, but three dynamic weeks of escalating protest in Tahrir Square led to his resignation on February 11, 2011, and subsequent arrest. Across the Middle East and North Africa, governments watched anxiously as unrest stretched to Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Syria, Yemen. Governments in the Persian Gulf promised reforms as a preemptive measure. And when civil war broke out in Libya, the international community in Europe and North America was poised to contribute air support to the rebels on the ground until they bested the forces of Muammar Gaddafi.

Under the twin banners of "dignity" and "democracy," hope spread that, at long last, change was coming to a region beset with economic hardship and autocratic governments. Political élites, regional specialists, and the media commentariat dissected what had caused the uprisings and why now; whether to call them revolutions, mutinies, or civil wars; where they would lead; what democracy would look like in the Middle East and North Africa; where Islam fit into all of this; and what Western countries should do. ...

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