Yemen election hints at Arab Spring's deeper meaning

A popular vote Tuesday in Yemen appears to mark the fall of the fourth dictator in the Arab Spring. But in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and now Yemen, the post-dictator problems show why each Arab must embrace democratic ideals.

Hani Mohammed/AP
A man shows his inked thumb after casting a vote in Sanaa Tusday. Yemenis voted to rubber-stamp their US-backed vice president as the new head of state tasked with steering the country toward democracy.

A year ago, a popular vote in Yemen to end a dictator’s rule would have been hailed as another triumph of the Arab Spring.

But that was not the case on Tuesday for Yemen’s election to endorse a new president – even though the event marks an end to the longtime rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh and the start of a shaky transition toward democracy.

The people of Yemen have learned – as have Arabs in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya – that simply removing a strongman does not make a democratic revolution.

In each of these four countries, the post-dictator period has been difficult, even chaotic, violent, and uncertain. Many of the former regime’s cronies or security forces remain entrenched. Antidemocratic Islamists wait in the wings. Tribal divisions undermine unity. And the economic woes drag on.

What really matters, says Wael Ghonim, a leader of Egypt’s revolution a year ago, is that individuals continue to operate from the strength of mental freedom, throwing off any fear and acting together.

“Inside many of us, it was already over,” he said. As a result, the revolution would have had to happen.

Mr. Ghonim was the Google executive who quietly set up a Facebook page that galvanized Egyptians into organized, peaceful protests against Hosni Mubarak. He spent two weeks in jail for his techno-activism. He is now on a worldwide tour to promote his memoir, “Revolution 2.0: The Power of the People Is Greater Than the People in Power.”

The book serves as a reminder that democratic revolutions are as much about eternal ideas being spread heart to heart as they are about protests and ballot boxes.

“Revolutions are processes and not events, and the next chapter of this story is only beginning to be written,” he says in his epilogue. He adds that not all Arabs want to be public activists, but they can still be engaged in some way, especially with the soapbox of free speech that the Internet provides.

During a stop in Chicago, Ghonim said that pro-democracy Arabs have a dream and are ready to die for that dream – as the world still sees daily in Syria with entire cities being attacked. Those opposed to democracy, he says, are not willing to die for the “nightmare” that they have created and currently control.

His words echo a poem by a famous Arab writer, Nizar Qabbani, that was written more than four decades ago:

Arab children,

Corn ears of the future,

You will break our chains,

Kill the opium in our heads,

Kill the illusions.

After ousting a dictator, a country like Egypt will face hard times, notes Ghonim. “You just opened something that has been closed for 60 years – with lots of surprises inside,” he says. He remains confident that Egypt, the centerpiece of the Arab Spring, is going in the right direction.

Yemen’s future, too, will depend on how many of its people embrace the ideals of the Arab Spring. A number of Mr. Saleh’s relatives still hold power in the Yemeni security forces.

Fortunately, voter turnout for Tuesday’s election was strong, even though the vote was merely an endorsement of a successor to Saleh, the vice president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. In a deal brokered by Saudi Arabia and endorsed by President Obama, Saleh left the country for medical treatment in New York (after surviving an assassination attempt).

The Arab Spring was ignited with the single act of an individual – the self-immolation of Tunisian fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi – in a desperate cry for dignity and freedom. And it will only succeed as more Arabs realize that revolution starts – and must continue – inside each of them.

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