Currents News Staff
Ten years after the Arab Spring, the uprisings that inspired so much promise have fallen short of expectations. But the fight for freedom in the Arab world continues. As Pope Francis embarks on his trip to Iraq, a message of hope still resonates with the faithful there.
It’s been a decade since a humble Tunisian street vendor gave birth to a revolution – lighting himself on fire in protest of government corruption, poverty and a lack of basic human rights.
His sacrifice sparked demonstrations that quickly spread across the Arab world: toppling governments in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen, and triggering deadly civil wars that led to a global humanitarian crisis that’s still playing out today.
“They called for bread, freedom and social justice,” said Steven Cook, an expert on the region and senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations.
“If you think about those three things, what people were asking for was for dignity,” Steven said. “And living in these societies where there is corruption, crony capitalism, an arrogance of power, police brutality… these are things people essentially wanted to throw off and build a more just and open society.”
Widespread unemployment, especially among young people, pushed activists to rally in the streets and to use social media to spread the word of their discontent.
“It was interesting to see how activists and protesters used social media,” Steven said.
He also went on to say that “It’s important to recognize social media was not the beginning and the end of it: these governments had the ability to shut down the internet. Activists then subsequently organized in some old fashioned ways through the mosque, through word of mouth, through neighborhoods and continued to turn out big crowds in what are now very famous public squares.
But 10 years in, unfulfilled promises and voids in leadership have taken their toll.
“None of them, save perhaps Tunisia, really did make a transition to a more open and democratic society,” Steven explained. “The results have been either civil wars or authoritarianism.”
And the rise of terrorist groups, like ISIS, who brutally seized power in parts of Iraq, Libya and Syria, where Edward Clancy with Aid to the Church in Need says the aftermath has been devastating.
“Syria has had essentially 10 years of civil war that has come from the Arab Spring, so it’s hard to say that many good things have come,” he told Currents News, “And the same could be said of Yemen —Yemen is really a disaster. It’s an economic and political disaster..people are starving. There’s a lot of problems, and a lot of violence.”
In Iraq, violent extremists smashed centuries of priceless artifacts that bear witness to a history of cohesion among Muslims and Christians. It was all in an attempt to destroy Iraq’s Christian identity.
“Islam and Christianity have existed side by side in Iraq and in the region for many generations. One of the terrible things that ISIS did or does is try to remove or expunge all remnants of history or cultural significance of people or their opponents,” said Edward.
But the faithful of Qaraqosh in the Nineveh Plains – the heart of Iraq’s dwindling Christian community – could not be extinguished. Their beloved cathedral was restored after it was nearly wiped out by ISIS, with help from Aid to the Church in Need.
“The cathedral was rebuilt. and now, it’s the pride and joy of the Nineveh Plains,” said Edward. “It stands as a point of particular contact in the community but also as a source of pride and resistance that the people say when there’s a church, they know they can remain.”
As Pope Francis spreads his message of unity, hope and tolerance in Iraq, the significance of his visit has the world watching.
“You can’t help but think that the pope’s visit will shine a light on the tenets of christianity,” said Edward.
“It’s extraordinary that the pontiff is going to Iraq,” added Steven. “It’s an important visit not just for Iraqi christians, but for all Iraqis of good will who would like to pull their country back from the brink of collapse.”