At a small gathering of top Indian executives and management professionals in Bangalore this December, Egyptian blogger and spokesman for the "April 6 movement" Waleed Rashed was explaining how the Tahrir Square crowds were inspired and organised by their youth movement, founded in the spring of 2008.
"Few of you would be able to tell me why we picked April 6, even though the date was chosen for its significance to India," he challenged. "It was the day Mahatma Gandhi reached the sea and first harvested salt in the Dandi march." As he ended his dramatic speech, he pulled off his shirt - and underneath, he was wearing an "I am Anna" t-shirt. He said he was glad that the Indian anti-corruption campaigners had taken their cues on using social networks and simple messages to gather crowds from their Egyptian counterparts - the transfer back and forth of the most effective methods in mass mobilisation between two of the world's oldest cultures.
Mass mobilisation is certainly the lasting image of 2011, as the world tuned into massive crowds in Arab countries, threatening and toppling some of the most powerful regimes there. Tunisia's Ben Ali was just the first to go. Egypt's Mubarak was the most powerful leader to be pushed out. Libya's ruler Gaddafi met a grisly end at the hands of mobs. Yemen's President Saleh has all but been removed. And Syria's President Assad could well be next.
Yet much of the euphoria over the exit of these leaders during the year is being tempered towards the end of 2011, as the promise of "democracy delivered", seems to have become one of "work in progress" instead. Slow and shaky progress.
To begin with, many dreams and hopes of the youth that packed capitals from Damascus to Doha, Tripoli to Manama have been shattered in the past few months. The first is that the Arab Spring has not been non-violent. In Syria, Yemen and Libya, the resistance has been armed. In Libya the "assisted regime change" took 10,000 bombing missions by Nato warplanes, and a minister of the ruling National Transitional Council says approximately 30,000 people died in the war. In Syria, hundreds of security force personnel have been killed along with thousands of protestors, and as Assad's brutal grip on his country loosens, the spectre of civil war grows closer.
Written into those clashes is the rivalry between Sunnis and Shi'as driving the clashes not just in Syria but in Bahrain. Many believe what we're seeing here is the power-play between Iran and Saudi Arabia - with Sunni Arabs fighting back the influence of what's called the Shi'ite crescent, stretching from Lebanon to Syria through Iraq to Iran. "Democracy may not be the winner, but the Sunnis certainly will be," concludes author Edward Luttwak in the latest issue of the magazine Foreign Policy.
Caught in the crossfire of the centuries-old Arab-Persian divide, the worries of more marginalised communities are growing. In Syria, not just the ruling Alawite elite, but Christians, Druze and Ismailis fear the impending takeover by a radicalised Sunni Islamist opposition; while, in Bahrain, it's the ruling Sunni minority that worries. In Egyptian rallies youthful Facebookers and women in jeans who came out to Tahrir Square and fought for democracy have been replaced by the Salafists, at gatherings that contain only men. Reporters Without Borders even put out a rare advisory for the ongoing Egyptian parliamentary elections - telling international media organisations not to send women to cover them, as they are unwelcome in those rallies after two women reporters were sexually assaulted last month. The attacks on Coptic Christians earlier this year have also become a source for concern.
"The elephant in the room of the Arab Spring is now the mistreatment of minority communities across the Arab world," writes Lebanese professor Habib Malik in a recent Newsweek article. Regardless of how diverse and mixed the crowds chanting pro-democracy slogans were during the spring, the fruits of their labour in the autumn are being enjoyed by increasingly non-secular, conservative Islamist groups - as borne out by election results in Morocco, Tunisia, and the first round in Egypt.
Of course, elections are only coming to a few countries of the Arab Spring. In most countries that saw protests, the regimes have tightened their grip, and in others like Libya, the future is uncertain. It is certainly curious that all the countries that have seen the major tumult in the Spring (Egypt, Syria, Libya, Yemen) were republics, whereas none of the eight monarchies (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, the Emirates, Jordan and Morocco) have been challenged. In that sense the effectiveness of the mass-mobilisation we've seen in actually delivering democracy remains unproven. As a result, the next round of agitators may have to battle protest fatigue as well. A recent Gallup poll in Egypt, for example, found 84 per cent of the respondents believed the latest protests weren't good for the country.
Fortunately, none of the reasons above are tiring out the pro-democracy protestors of the Arab Spring. Waleed Rashed and the convenor of the April 6 movement, Ahmed Maher, say they will continue to protest in Tahrir till "the generals go, and people rule". In that sense 2011 will be the year we saw "the man on the street" raise his voice. Now, to hope that 2012 becomes the year that man is given some control of his destiny.
(This post appeared in Business Standard on Dec 25, 2011)