Both types of change are rippling through the Arab world. It’s been a year since massive demonstrations began Jan. 25, 2011, in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, ultimately toppling longtime Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak. In the days before and after that turning point, nearly every country in the region experienced social and political shifts of greater or lesser magnitude.
It started in Tunisia, where the first uprising of what would become the “Arab Spring” began in December 2010 after a young protester burned himself to death. The old authoritarian regime there has been replaced by a democratically elected one, dominated by Islamic political parties promising moderation.
Things are a lot murkier in Egypt, but a similar result seems likely – if the military-backed caretaker government hands over power after elections are completed later this year. Parties representing Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and the even more conservative Salafists won the majority of seats in the new parliament.
In Syria, the collision of a protest movement and a long-ruling regime determined to crush it is mutating into civil war. In Libya, the civil war is over and a dictator is dead. What happens next is unclear, but secularists and returning Libyan exiles hope to share power with Islamists as they build a new society from the ground up. Turmoil in Yemen rages on as the long rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh staggers to an end. Other movements for change continue in Bahrain, Morocco, Jordan and elsewhere.
“The political uprisings that have swept the Arab world over the past year represent the most significant challenge to authoritarian rule since the collapse of Soviet communism,” declared Freedom House, the human rights monitoring group, in an introduction to its just-released annual survey of global political freedom. “Yet even as the Arab Spring triggered unprecedented progress in some countries, it also provoked a harsh and sometimes murderous reaction, with many leaders scrambling to suppress real or potential threats to their rule.”
It’s a mixed bag, in other words. Discouragement, anger and fear have descended on many protesters, particularly in Egypt, who believe their revolution has been hijacked by forces hostile to real reform. Even so, Freedom House President David J. Kramer insists “the past year’s trends give reason for hope. … We are at a historic moment.”
Veteran foreign correspondent Robin Wright, who has covered the region for more than 30 years, is even more optimistic. Her 2011 book, “Rock the Casbah,” explores changes brewing not just in Arab lands but throughout the Muslim world.
“The most important story of the early 21st century is the epic convulsion across the Islamic world,” she asserts. “Rage against geriatric autocrats is only one part of it. Most of the region … is also actively rebelling against radical ideologies. … (F)rom mighty Egypt to Islamic Iran, tiny Tunisia to quirky Libya, new players are shattering the old order. Uprisings in the Middle East – breathtaking in their scope and speed, if unnerving in their uncertain futures – represent the greatest wave of empowerment” currently breaking across the world.
Some might call that view naïve or premature. But the thirst for change across the Arab world is real, and it transcends politics alone. The “unseen” revolution is unfolding in different arenas: the hearts and minds of people. Especially young people, who want the freedom to think for themselves.
“There’s a large number of people who, in their heart and mind, have seen a glimpse of what they want,” says an American Christian worker with extensive experience in the Middle East. “They do not want to go back. You have a group of young people who are empowered. We see this across the region – whole countries where young people, 24 or younger, make up a large percentage of the population. And they are saying, ‘We’re not going back.’”
To the worker, that new mindset represents an answer to prayer – and a window of opportunity.
“We [U.S. Christians] often want to back off because it is working with Muslims,” he says. “We want to back off because these are difficult areas to go to. And yet right now the opportunity is so great. We’ve never seen an opportunity like this. Across Northern Africa and the Middle East, we’ve seen a sweeping of these revolutions where we have been able to go in and do things now that we’ve never been able to do. We’ve been able to pass out materials door to door. We’re able now to go into communities and have a clinic when before the government said we couldn’t do that.
“It is a window of opportunity that could close so quickly. We need to walk alongside our partners and help them so that if and when we have to leave, we have partners on the ground who can pick up the baton and continue on. This is an opportunity that we weren’t expecting, and yet we should have been. We have been praying for revival in the ‘10/40 Window’ [the region containing most of the globe’s unreached peoples]. God has opened up the window. This may not have been the response we were thinking of in that prayer, but right now we have the opportunity and we need to respond to it.”
Conditions for Christians in the region are difficult and may get worse, he acknowledges. Some believers are leaving for friendlier, safer nations. Those who remain are facing new challenges and uncertainties or the return of pressure and persecution. Many fear what may happen if Islamists consolidate political power. Yet churches are stepping forward to minister and proclaim the gospel in ways he has never before witnessed.
“It is critical that we know that God is at work, that this is His,” the worker says. “He raises up rulers and kings and He takes them down. This is not happening in a vacuum. If it doesn’t go the way we think it should, that doesn’t mean God has stepped away from it. We need to stay with it. It’s going to get hard for believers in some of these churches. We need to be praying specifically for these countries and these peoples daily. God sent his Son to die for these people and we cannot lose the eternal big picture. We just have to see what door He is going to open because of this, and then walk through it.”