When 2011 began, we could scarcely have imagined the changes it would bring to the Middle East. Near the end of 2010, a young Tunisian man, crushed between the humiliation of poverty and the brutal whims of dictatorship, had burnt himself alive in a desperate act of protest. His blunt message struck a chord in the hearts of his compatriots, and in what seemed like the blink of an eye, strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was shaken from power. Egyptians followed suit with a revolution of their own, and before long, practically the entire region found itself in a state of revolt. The ‘Arab Spring’ had finally come.
Thanks to modern technology, a wealth of information about these uprisings has been shared in real time, often in the form of photographs. Below are four of the most arresting images from the ‘Arab Spring’. Each illustrates a different dimension of the abuse that the people of Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Syria, Yemen and other countries have suffered for decades.
1. Police brutality: Riot police in Bahrain shoot tear gas; as one takes aim at protesters, the other triumphantly raises his middle finger. Many countries in the Middle East are known for corrupt, thuggish police forces that operate above the law and use torture on an industrial scale. These men are deeply resented by the populations they terrorize; this anger has been a driving force behind many of the 2011 protests.
2. Suppression of religion: Protesters pray on a bridge in Egypt while police smother them with hoses. Dictators like Hosni Mubarak have crippled religious expression in their countries in order to silence opposition and consolidate power. This has demoralized traditional institutions, leaving a dangerous vacuum which empowers fringe voices. Coincidentally, Mubarak justified his authoritarian rule by claiming that it was the only way to stop Muslim extremists from overrunning the country.
3. Violence against women: Iman al-Obeidi tried desperately to tell western reporters in Tripoli about her traumatic sexual assault at the hands of Libyan soldiers, but security forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi threw a bag over her head and drug her away. Women have suffered tremendous violence at the hands of police and military forces in many Arab countries. They also find themselves disempowered by the patriarchal social order that flourishes in the shadow of dictators.
4. Persecution of bloggers and activists: In March, prominent Bahraini blogger Mahmood al-Yousif was arrested, apparently because some of his political views upset the government. (He was later released after considerable international outcry.) The internet has been fertile ground for dissidents, but authoritarian regimes have taken extreme measures to silence their voices.