Nine years ago this month, residents of the small Syrian town of Douma were in full rebellion against the regime of President Bashar Assad. Throughout the preceding year, Assad had watched as popular protests ousted dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and demonstrations spread to Bahrain, Algeria, Yemen. Now pro-democracy dissent had ignited across his country — including in Douma, just five miles from the capital Damascus.
The regime stationed checkpoints on Douma’s access roads. Syrian military patrolled the town. As a reporter covering the Arab Spring, I watched as men clustered one Friday at the doorway of a mosque in Douma, gathering their courage. Every few seconds, three or four of them ran across the avenue, shouting “Freedom!” or “Down, down, down with the regime!” as bullets cracked around them.
They dived down a side alley where a crowd was cheering them, just out of range of the regime snipers positioned on Douma’s rooftops. Some residents left the doors of their homes ajar, offering protesters shelter. Others whispered warnings to each other about “dogs” — a reference to the military.
The activists who brought me to Douma — three university graduates in their 20s — secretly filmed the town’s protests for broadcast by Al Jazeera and other foreign television networks. They worked in a safe house, sleeping on foam mattresses in a single room with one tiny window. Like everyone I met participating in Douma’s rebellion, they knew their work could get them detained, tortured or disappeared. The risks were worth it, they believed, because this was the start of a better future.
That future did not materialize.
In Douma and elsewhere in Syria, the regime fought back with unbridled brutality. Loyalists beat and raped protesters. Soldiers and police shot them dead. In some hospitals, patients suspected of opposing the government were tortured. The military shelled entire towns. The uprising turned into a civil war that continues to this day.
“This is a massacre,” Yahya, an activist who’d brought me to Douma, emailed me in July 2012, as tank fire bombarded the town. “I’m barely surviving.”
Yahya and I decided he should only ever give me his first name so that if the Syrian regime ever detained me, I wouldn’t be able to reveal his identity.
That October, he told me seven members of his family had been killed in a single airstrike. It was the last time I heard from him. Another Douma resident told me years later he believed Yahya had been arrested and died in a government prison.
The war in Syria, which has now claimed some 500,000 lives and displaced millions, represents the worst of how the Arab Spring unfolded. Across the region, the hopes from that time have been mostly dashed. Yemen and Libya are in the grips of civil war. Egypt, after a brief period under an elected president, is once again ruled by a strongman in charge of a regime perhaps even more autocratic than that of Hosni Mubarak, the longtime dictator ousted in 2011.
Of the various revolutions that took place, only in Tunisia — where the Arab Spring began with a street vendor’s self-immolation in December 2010 — has democracy endured. But the Arab Spring did bring some changes, and across the region, people are trying to keep its ideals alive.
In Egypt, journalist Lina Attalah cofounded a new, independent newspaper in 2013, as the country’s military ousted the democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi.
The paper, Mada Masr, “was basically born at a time when we could tell that there would be such a retreat in civil and political rights, and be deterioration in socioeconomic conditions,” Attalah says. “There wouldn’t be also any independent voices creating a record out of this crisis, but also trying to engage with it and trying to think through ways out.”
Mada Masr has continued publishing even though its offices have been raided and its website temporarily blocked. Attalah and her team have been arrested for running stories related to President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and his family. This year, Attalah says she was briefly jailed for reporting on the spread of COVID-19 in Egyptian prisons.
Time named her among the world’s 100 most influential people this year for her commitment to independent journalism despite the dangers. “We’re not very obsessed with surviving, in the sense that if we have to do a story that would cost us our life as a newspaper, the choice would be to do it, actually,” she says. “We know very well the chances are this could be over any time.”
She says public support gives her and her team some protection: they have been released from jail, she says, because of the massive outcry their arrests have caused. And she believes that kind of public response is a consequence of the Arab Spring.
She believes the Sissi regime is repressive because it’s fragile. And it’s fragile, she says, because the Arab Spring taught people from all social classes that they have a right to be political, to organize for independent journalism and human rights.
“This was a radical change in the way people think about the authorities, the state, and about their rights,” she says. “There is this power-building, you know, that happens incrementally, step by step together with people.”
Part of that power has found expression through the arts.
In Libya, I met Islam Medani when he was a teenager in 2011. He and some friends in his hometown of Misrata formed a band named FB-17 — a nod to February 17, the day in 2011 that clashes began in Benghazi between protesters and security forces from the regime of Moammar Gadhafi.
The band rapped songs about Libya’s revolution. “No More Lies,” with lyrics like “we need to be free, that’s what we need to be,” and other songs became instant hits in rebel-held parts of Libya, blasting from boomboxes on the front lines to raise the spirits of opposition militias.
Medani, now 27 and a music producer, says he’s been dragged into Libya’s cycle of wars and ceasefires. The revolution that ousted Gadhafi in 2011 resulted in a cycle of tribal and factional infighting, and a civil war that has essentially divided the country. When ISIS captured the nearby city of Sirte in 2015, Medani joined the militia that went to fight them.
“I didn’t want to have to go and fight. But if I didn’t go to the fight, the fight would come to our families,” he says.
Then he fought forces belonging to Libyan general Khalifa Haftar.
He has lost many friends to these wars. But he says he can’t bring himself to regret the revolution — because it has also brought some freedoms. Under Gadhafi’s regime, Libya was notoriously closed off. “The government was always chasing anyone who tried to reach the Internet or YouTube,” says Medani. “We were living in a black box.”
Now, at least, he says, Libyans are connected to the wider world. They know there are different and better ways to live. These days, Medani gets together with friends to sing songs about their hopes for Libya’s future.
Music can help people “make a revolution in themselves,” he says. “And after that, maybe they can make a revolution in the country.”
This growing awareness is part of a continuum of change, an ongoing process that started in 2011, analysts say.
“It is completely unrealistic to expect political systems that are entrenched, that have been in place for decades and that are highly autocratic, to overnight change into democratic systems,” says Lina Khatib, who leads the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House in London.
She believes it will take a generation for Arab Spring countries to see fuller change: “I think we should reserve judgment and wait,” she says. “The youth of today will be the leaders of the Arab world and then it will be a very different landscape.”
In Egypt and across the region, she says she sees “young people who are not as scared as their parents are of change.” The young generation, she says, “perhaps because the world is globalized, can see that there is an alternative out there, that they don’t have to settle for the systems that they have grown up with.”
One sign of this, Khatib believes, is a spate of recent victories by independent candidates in student elections in Beirut. University elections are often seen as a bellwether for national politics in Lebanon, which has been governed by entrenched sectarian leaders since the end of the civil war in the 1990s.
Last year, Lebanon experienced massive popular protests against poor public services and state corruption. Some referred to the protests as Lebanon’s own Arab Spring.
The protests forced the resignation of the country’s prime minister, but did little to bring real political change. So now, Lebanon’s youth are trying a different way.
Leen al-Harake helped bring about a sweeping victory for independent candidates in October elections at the Lebanese American University, where she studies architecture. She has spent much of the last year protesting the incompetence and corruption of the Lebanese government.
She was 12 years old during the Arab Spring, but says that time was instructive: “The movements that were happening then were teaching us a lot about what we could do and how we could stand up [to] governments, how we could stand up for people and power.”
Being involved in student politics and organizing independent political parties is a sign of how popular opposition to power is evolving into “practical, logical” tactics, she says. She hopes those tactics will someday bring about lasting political change in her country — and in the region.
Nada Homsi contributed to this story from Beirut.