A little more than a year ago, the world changed in a sudden and dramatic way. The long-time leader of Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was ousted after a month of largely peaceful street protests demanding an end to authoritarian rule. A few weeks later, the world changed again, when hundreds of thousands of Egyptians occupied Tahrir Square and forced the ouster of their autocratic leader, Hosni Mubarak.
And then things got complicated.
As the Arab Spring spread beyond Egypt and Tunisia throughout the Arab world and into sub-Saharan Africa, leaders began defending their positions more aggressively. A popular movement to oust Muammar Gaddafi became a bloody civil war as Gaddafi mobilized his troops against protesters. Bahrain’s government responded to unrest with a brutal crackdown and by leveling the monument that served as a rallying point for protesters. Mass protests in Damascus, Syria have turned into an ongoing siege of Hama, Homs and other cities where protesters and government forces have become combatants.
And while Tunisians, Egyptians and Libyans can celebrate the ouster of dictators, it is unclear that removing a dictator leads inexorably towards representative government. Egypt remains under the confines of “Emergency Laws”, and the military government has tried 12,000 civilians – many of them protesters – in military tribunals. It’s a long road from dictatorship to democratic rule.
For much of the world, the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt were broadcast first and foremost by Al Jazeera. Once dismissed by American officials as providing a platform for Osama bin Laden – and fired on by American aircraft during the 2003 Iraq war! – Al Jazeera became a preferred source of news in Washington circles, with Hillary Clinton praising the “real news” the network brought its viewers.
Al Jazeera didn’t just document these popular uprisings – it may have helped bring them about. In a conversation at MIT, sociologist Zeynep Tufekçi and Tunisian activist Sami ben Gharbia explained that Al Jazeera’s coverage allowed Tunisians to witness the protests in the village of Sidi Bouzid despite a Tunisian media blackout – this may have helped the protests spread from one town into a nationwide movement. And Al Jazeera’s heavy coverage of the Tunisian protests was likely a key factor in the spread of protest movements from Tunisia throughout the region.
The man in charge of Al Jazeera during most of the Arab Spring was Wadah Khanfar, a Palestinian activist and journalist who built his reputation reporting for Al Jazeera from Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2003, he became managing director of Al Jazeera, and in 2006, director general. His TED talk, delivered shortly after the ouster of Mubarak, remains one of the most moving portraits of the aspirations and hopes of people who lived for too long under repressive dictatorships.
Now Khanfar has moved on from Al Jazeera, and heads the Sharq Forum, an international think tank focused on political and economic development in the Arab world. Like the people of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, his focus moves from exposing the failings of autocratic governments to the challenge of building fair and representative societies.
Khanfar will be speaking at MIT a week from today, at 6pm on Friday, February 24, at the MIT Media Lab. His talk, “One Year After Mubarak: The Past and Future of the ‘Arab Spring’” offers the chance to reflect on the moment of hope a year ago and the challenges the Arab world faces today. After the talk, he’ll be in conversation with Media Lab director Joi Ito, Head of Online for Al Jazeera English Mohamed Nanabhay and me. I’m always anxious to hear what Wadah has to say, and I’ll urge him to take some tough questions about how a movement that’s succeeded in ousting illegitimate power can succeed in building representative power. I hope you’ll join us if you can. And yes, we’ll be both recording and streaming the event.