The Arab country of Sudan is in the midst of its longest popular protest ever – three months – against a dictator who has been in power for 30 years. Last month, another Arab nation, Algeria, experienced its largest demonstrations in decades against a ruler in power for two decades. Over the past year, several other Arab countries, such as Jordan and Morocco, have seen smaller or shorter public protests, with young people on the front lines.
For Middle East experts who said the surprise uprisings of the 2011 Arab Spring largely failed – except in Tunisia – this bubbling up of new dissent comes as a second surprise. The Arab world’s 360 million people were not yet ready to break free from a history of autocrat or sectarian rule, the experts said. Order and stability are still preferred over individual rights, liberty of conscience, and a peaceful rotation of power.
These latest protests, however, hint of something lasting from the heady protest days of eight years ago. In a region that gave us the metaphor of a genie that cannot be put back in its bottle, many Arabs have not forgotten the sudden shift in their consciousness, which was sparked by a Tunisian fruit seller standing up for his rights. They learned not to fear their rulers or to remain passive in politics, despite handouts of jobs or money designed to ensure their acquiescence.
The mental liberation of 2011 may have been buried by the wars in Syria, Libya, and Yemen and in the harsh crackdowns in Egypt and the Gulf kingdoms. But once gained, the reversal of old thinking is hard to let go. Given the right conditions, it can reemerge, as it has in Sudan and Algeria.
Sudan’s woes are largely economic and lack freedom. A rising middle class wants to see President Omar al-Bashir go. In Algeria, corruption and inefficiency under President Abdelaziz Bouteflika – who seeks a fifth term in office – have pushed people into the streets by the tens of thousands.
Moral progress comes in stages, often in fits and starts. In the Arab world, that progress is still driven by an awakening to the ideals of freedom and civic rights. A half-century ago, such uprisings were foretold by the famous Arab poet Nizar Qabbani:
Corn ears of the future, You will break our chains,
Kill the opium in our heads,
Kill the illusions....
You are the generation that will overcome defeat.
Other parts of the world have experienced mass movements that led to democracy. The Arab world need not be different. The road to freedom is not always straight. But once traveled, freedom is not forgotten.