A year ago, 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi was getting ready to sell fruits and vegetables in the rural town of Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia.
Bouazizi was the breadwinner for his widowed mother and six siblings, but he didn't have a permit to sell the goods. When the police asked Bouazizi to hand over his wooden cart, he refused and a policewoman allegedly slapped him.
Angered after being publicly humiliated, Bouazizi marched in front of a government building and set himself on fire.
His act of desperation resonated immediately with others in the town. Protests began that day in Sidi Bouzid, captured by cellphone cameras and shared on the Internet.
Within days, protests started popping up across the country, calling upon President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his regime to step down. About a month later, he fled.
The momentum in Tunisia set off uprisings across the Middle East that became known as the Arab Spring. A year after the young Tunisian became a martyr, where does the Arab world stand on demands for democracy?
Mixed Success In Egypt
Along with Tunisia, Egypt has been viewed as a victory.
Esraa Abdel Fattah, an Egyptian democracy activist known as "Facebook Girl" for her social media savvy, fought for a new Egypt. She was also an organizer for the major protest in Tahrir Square on Jan. 25.
When President Honsi Mubarak stepped down, it was thought that Egypt had completed its revolution. But now, as Egypt starts its first round of "free and fair elections," Fattah tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz that she isn't so sure the work is over.
"Always I am optimistic for the future of Egypt, but now I have some worry," she says. "I think maybe the result of the revolution will take longer than I expected."
Fattah says Egypt is already having major setbacks during this period of transition. And despite Mubarak stepping down, she says, the country is still in the "Mubarak regime" and life is not better than it was a year ago.
Egypt's Next Steps
Fattah is among those who say the real transition in Egypt will happen when a civilian leader is elected. The recent elections, however, put the Muslim Brotherhood ahead, which perhaps is not exactly what secular activists had in mind.
Shadi Hamid, director of research for the Brookings Institute in Doha, says he doesn't see ascendants of Islamist groups as a pitfall for the Middle East.
"None of this should be surprising," he tells Raz. "Islamists are popular, they're well organized. It was inevitable that they were going to win and dominate in these elections."
He says the Arab world is a religiously conservative place and people generally want to see Islam playing an important role in public life.
"They're a reality on the ground and the people have voted them in," he says. "America has to learn to live with political Islam."
Hamid says the U.S. should engage with the Islamist groups to understand them and learn how to work together. The sense in the region, he says, is that the Obama administration has been "on the wrong side of history." Waiting until the last moments to take action and show support for the aspirations of the people is troubling, he says.
"I think in times of historical ferment like these you need strong, bold [and] decisive leadership," he says.
In the year since the beginning of the Arab Spring, leaders have been ousted in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen. At the start, it would have been hard to imagine how much the movement would spread throughout the region, Hamid says, but it certainly can't be said that it came out of nowhere.
The revolution had been building up for decades in Egypt, he says.
"I think there was a loss of faith in working within the system, and that's when people began to think more and more about civil disobedience, mass protests [and] going out in to the streets," he says. "When your political process fails you, there's really only one option left."
A Continuing Battle
If storming the streets is the only plan the activists had, then they were at a disadvantage from day one, says Raghida Dergham, a columnist and senior diplomatic correspondent for Al-Hayat, one of the leading daily pan-Arab newspapers.
Dergham believes the youth activists where hijacked by longer established Islamist groups.
"When the youths went to Tahrir Square and other places they wanted a modernist future," Dergham says. "Suddenly they were encroached upon by the very well-organized and well-experienced Islamist parties ... and they won the day."
Dergham says people should not prematurely celebrate what is being called "moderate Islam." As long as there is no separation between religion and the state, she says, there will be a huge price to be paid by much of the population in the Arab region — particularly women.
The bottom line, she says, is that the men in power will have the authority to interpret the laws set in sharia, or Islamic law.
"They have the right, in that case, to say what the laws are," she says. "If there [were] any guarantees that there will be a civil constitution that would rule any country where Islamists win the day in elections ... no problem. But I'm afraid that we do not have any such guarantees."
In a recent column, Dergham wrote that the "Arab Awakening will end in the Slumber of Dark Ages" if Arab women fail to take the initiative. She says they should stand up to the Islamists now for the rights of women in the new Arab world.
"These women fought with these young men to bring the change," she says. "They should not be sidelined."
Watching the Arab Spring during the past year, Dergham says, she often feels like she's on a seesaw. One moment she is exhilarated and proud of what has taken place and other times she'll find herself questioning what has been done.
"I am really not clear yet, but I still want to bet on the good day that will be coming after the turbulent times that we are witnessing now," she says.
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GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
And you're hearing the sounds of clashes from central Cairo earlier today between protesters and military police. Demonstrators want the ruling military council to hand over power to civilian leaders. Most importantly, they want presidential elections.
These clashes in Egypt are happening a year to the day when a single act of defiance in a village in Tunisia sparked a wave of revolutions across an entire region.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Foreign language spoken)
RAZ: This is a protest from exactly a year ago today. Locals in the Tunisian village of Sidi Bouzid demanded justice after a street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire. That day, December 17, 2010, he couldn't produce the proper permits for selling fruits and vegetables in the street. And because he refused to hand over a bribe, the local inspector slapped him across the face. Bouazizi headed to the municipal office, set himself on fire in protest and died a few weeks later after sustaining severe wounds from the fire.
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RAZ: Our cover story today: One year on, taking stock of the revolutions of 2011.
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RAZ: Esraa Abdel Fattah was one of those young tech-savvy Egyptian activists in Cairo's Tahrir Square, who helped overthrow Hosni Mubarak. For her work, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Esraa hopes for a secular democracy. And I asked whether the recent victory of Islamists in Egypt's parliamentary elections is cause for concern.
ESRAA ABDEL FATTAH: Always, I am optimistic for the future of Egypt, but now, I have some worry. I have some concern about the future of Egypt. I think that maybe the result of revolution will take longer than I expect.
RAZ: Is life better for you in Egypt now than it was one year ago when Mubarak was still in power or...
FATTAH: No. It's not better. The only better thing that the Egyptian revolution is continual.
RAZ: That's Esraa Abdel Fattah, a young pro-democracy activist in Egypt. We reached her in Cairo. She was out again this weekend, demonstrating against the military rulers who replaced Mubarak.
In Egypt's parliamentary elections earlier this month, Islamists won a clear mandate. It was a similar story in Tunisia where a moderate Islamist party won control of the parliament as well. Shadi Hamid, the director of research at the Brookings Institution in Doha, says it's a development that shouldn't necessarily worry the West.
SHADI HAMID: Well, none of this should be surprising. Islamists are popular. They're well-organized. It was inevitable that they were going to win and to dominate in these elections. Also, the Arab world is a pretty religiously conservative place. And generally, people want to see Islam playing an important role in public life.
There is a lot of alarmism now in Washington, D.C., but I think we have to keep things in perspective here. Groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or Ennahdha in Tunisia are pragmatic actors. They're willing to play by the rules of the game. They're not going to go in and impose Shariah law tomorrow.
Even if they do things that we as Americans aren't going to like, which they almost certainly will, we have to face the fact that Islamists are here to stay. They're a reality on the ground, and the people have voted them in. America has to learn to live with political Islam. And more than that, we should be engaging with these Islamists groups, understanding them and getting a better sense of how we can work together because we're going to have to work with them.
RAZ: There's a widespread perception that these revolutions were ignited by young, secular, liberal activists in places like Tahrir Square. Whether that is true or not, are those activists the losers at the end of the day?
HAMID: Well, first of all, Western observers were projecting some of their own desires onto the Arab Spring. The Egyptian revolution was not a secular, liberal revolution. So that was a misconception from the very beginning. The liberals are struggling in the new Egypt, and it's not enough to just say we're not Islamists, vote for us, and exploiting the fears of religious ascendancy and Islamic state and all of that.
That can work for 10 to 15 percent of the population, maybe, but it's not going to help you reach out to the mass of ordinary Egyptians who are quite religious and don't mind seeing religion playing a larger role in society.
RAZ: The United States is entering uncharted waters here. What should the U.S. approach be at this point from a policy perspective?
HAMID: Well, there's a real sense here in the region that the Obama administration has not been on the right side of history. There's always a sense that the Obama administration waits until the very last moment to take action and to really cast its lot with the aspirations of the protesters on the ground. And that's really troubling because this is an historic moment, I believe, on par with the fall of the Berlin Wall, 1945, 1848, you name it. And I think in times of historical ferment like these, you need strong, bold, decisive leadership.
RAZ: Shadi, a year ago, Hosni Mubarak was still in power. Moammar Gadhafi was still in power. Ben Ali was in power in Tunisia. President Saleh was in power in Yemen. Could you have imagined we would be having this conversation now a year later and none of those people be in power?
HAMID: No. I don't think any of us really could've imagined to what extent this has really spread throughout the region. At the same time, however, I mean, we shouldn't pretend that this came out of nowhere. This has been building up for decades. Sooner or later, it was going to collapse.
And I was actually in Egypt for last year's election before the Arab Spring began in November, and it was the most fraudulent election in Egypt's history. The ruling party won 209 out of 211 seats in the first round. And I remember just being there watching the election being stolen in broad daylight, and you felt something, that something was on the verge. And Egyptians were saying to themselves, we've tried to work within this political system, but it hasn't worked.
And I think there was a loss of faith in working within the system. And that's when people began to think more and more about civil disobedience, mass protests, going out into the street. When your political process fails you, there's really only one option left.
RAZ: That's Shadi Hamid. He's the director of research at the Brookings Institution in Doha.
Raghida Dergham is a columnist for the Pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat, and she's been warning against the rise of Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia. And she's written that it's a sign that the Arab Spring is now entering a dark winter.
RAGHIDA DERGHAM: When the youths went to Tahrir Square and other places, they wanted a modernist future. And suddenly, they were enclosed upon by the very well-organized and well-experienced Islamist parties, and, yeah, they won the day in the elections. You may tell me this is democracy and you need to accept it, and I will say, yes, but pay attention.
Don't prematurely celebrate what we are calling moderate Islam, because as long as there is no separation between religion and state, I think there will be a huge price to be paid and particularly by half the population of the Arab region, namely, women.
RAZ: Well, you speak to this notion of moderate Islam. And, as you know, many observers, particularly in the Arab world, have said, look, there should be no cause for concern here. If you look at Tunisia, the Islamist party that won there is a moderate party. The Muslim Brotherhood will act as a moderating force in Egypt. This is a transitional phase, but these Islamist parties are not a threat to the West. In fact, they should be embraced and can be worked with. What do you say to that?
DERGHAM: I say nonsense. I say then let them declare themselves clearly on the issue of the constitution. The bottom line is that even though the Shariah itself is a very respectable document of laws, the unfortunate thing would be that the men who are going to be in power will have the authority to interpret the Shariah, and they have the right, in that case, to say what the laws are.
If there are any guarantees that there will be a civil constitution that would rule any country where the Islamists win the day in the elections this time around, no problem. But I'm afraid that we do not have any such guarantees.
RAZ: What do you suggest that policymakers in the United States do? I mean, they don't want to be on the wrong side of history. The public has elected Islamists in Tunisia and in Egypt. And the United States, of course, wants to have a good relationship. What point would there be to try and undermine those groups?
DERGHAM: Why would the point have to be to not undermine the Islamists but OK to undermine the modernists? It is a very important distinction to be made here because when you have countries, Middle Eastern countries, pouring money in support of the Islamic parties, but we do not have any such support system of the modernist parties or the secularist parties, well, how are the modernists going to fight or at least stand up to the Islamists?
So I think Western countries, the United States, must stop celebrating Islamists only. Pay attention also to the modernists, because these are the moderates that have been actually undermined before and are being undermined again, and they're asking just why.
RAZ: You have written recently in Al Hayat in your column: The time for serious work is now because the Arab awakening will end in the Slumber of Dark Ages if Arab women fail to take the initiative. You sound very pessimistic about what is around the corner.
DERGHAM: Well, you know, I was listening to Iranian women and they are saying to Arab women beware. We thought that if we are patient, if we take our time, if we are quiet in the beginning that we will recapture our place in the society. And they say, take a look at us. That is not a place where you want to be. So they're telling us to stand up to the Islamists and say explain to me what are my rights. These women fought with these young men to bring the change. They should not be sidelined.
RAZ: Are you worried about the direction that the Arab Middle East is headed in?
DERGHAM: I feel sometimes I'm on a seesaw. One moment, I'm truly exhilarated and proud of what had taken place in the Arab region. Then on the other hand, sometimes I wake up and I say, what have we done? So I am really not clear yet, but I still want to bet the good day that will be coming after even the turbulent times we are witnessing now.
RAZ: Raghida Dergham. She's a columnist for the Pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.