In January 2011, days after the first uprising in Tunisia and the protests in Tahrir Square, the Guardian invited leading writers from across the Arab world to reflect on the revolutionary fervour sweeping the region. Then, they expressed great optimism for the future. Here, they revisit their responses and ask, is there still room for hope?
Robin Yassin-Kassab, Alaa Abd El Fattah, Ahdaf Soueif, Mourid Barghouti, Laila Lalami, Raja Shehadeh, Khaled Mattawa, Tamim al-Barghouti, Nouri Gana, and Joumana Haddad in The Guardian:
Five years ago the Guardian asked me to evaluate the effects of the Tunisian uprising on the rest of the Arab world, and specifically Syria. I recognised the country was “by no means exempt from the pan-Arab crisis of unemployment, low wages and the stifling of civil society”, but nevertheless argued that “in the short to medium term, it seems highly unlikely that the Syrian regime will face a Tunisia-style challenge”.
That was published on 28 January 2011. On the same day a Syrian called Hasan Ali Akleh set himself alight in protest against the Assad regime in imitation ofMohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia. Akleh’s act went largely unremarked, but on 17 February tradesmen at Hareeqa in Damascus responded to police brutality by gathering in their thousands to chant “The Syrian people won’t be humiliated”. This was unprecedented. Soon afterwards, the Deraa schoolboys were arrested and tortured for writing anti-regime graffiti. When their relatives protested on 18 March, and at least four were killed, the spiralling cycle of funerals, protests and gunfire was unleashed. In 2011, I wrote that Assad personally was popular, and so he remained until his 30 March speech to the ill-named People’s Assembly. Very many had suspended judgment until that moment, expecting an apology for the killings and an announcement of serious reforms. Instead, Assad threatened, indulged in conspiracy theories, and, worse, giggled repeatedly.
I underestimated the disastrous effects of Assad’s neo-liberal/crony-capitalist restructuring during the previous decade. I was soon to be wrong about many other things too.