By Dana M. Moss
The Arab Spring and its early victories heralded new hope for liberal change in the Middle Eastern region. Six years later, its aftermath has wrought unfathomable tragedies. War in Yemen has produced the world’s largest humanitarian catastrophe, leaving 19 million (69% of the population) in urgent need of aid and 10 million on the brink of starvation. Thousands have been killed in Libya’s ongoing civil war between government forces loyal to an autocratic general, local militias, and extremists. Syria has become a theater of horrors leaving half a million dead and 13 million in need of humanitarian aid. About five million Syrians have fled, and those who remain risk being bombarded from the sky, starved on the ground, and tortured to death in regime prisons.
The rise of xenophobic white nationalism in the US and Europe and hawkish foreign policy have compounded these crises. Middle Eastern populations (and those perceived to be Middle Eastern or Muslim) in the West are living in a heightened climate of fear marked by hate speech and vigilante violence. Many are grieving for fallen family members and friends at home and are struggling to support extended families displaced by war. Perhaps most dishearteningly, the Trump administration’s Muslim Bans 1.0 and 2.0 continue to tear families apart and block refugees fleeing persecution, including violence perpetuated by Western governments such as the US’ recent “Yemen raid” that killed over a dozen civilians and an American serviceman.
While good news is increasingly hard to come by these days, there is still room for hope and change. This, I have found, is because the Arab Spring was not confined to the Middle Eastern region alone. On the contrary, the revolutions galvanized Middle Eastern diasporas into collective action. Emerging from relative silence on matters of home-country authoritarianism (with a few exceptions), Yemeni, Libyan, and Syrian activists from Los Angeles to New York, from London to Leeds, mobilized their communities to an unprecedented degree. By publicizing regime atrocities, garnering media attention, lobbying host-country governments, and channeling life-saving resources homeward, these activists lent vital forms of moral and material support to their compatriots at home in 2011 and beyond.
Why does this matter? First, many of the activists who took the lead mobilizing for the Arab Spring in 2011 are now leading the charge against the Trump administration’s Muslim Ban. Brooklyn-based activist Rabyaah Althaibani, for example, came to mobilize her local community for the first time during the Arab Spring on behalf of her family and compatriots fighting for freedom in Yemen. Now, she is fighting the Muslim Ban on behalf of her refugee husband and relatives who have been prevented from joining her in the US. Rabyaah and her fellow activists have since launched the bodega strike on February 2nd and are participating in lawsuits against the ban. The organizers who led the chants “the people demand the fall of the regime!” from the streets of New York in 2011 are now leading the charge to contest authoritarian practices in the US today.
Yemeni business owners and their allies across New York City launched the first ever Bodega Strike against Trump’s Muslim Ban 1.0 on February 2, 2017.
Libyans and Syrians residing in the West also experienced a radical transformation in their collective empowerment and civic participation during the 2011 revolutions. In fact, the Arab Spring marked the first time that these communities organized publicly to contest home-country dictatorships. This was because they were living under the threat of transnational repression before the Arab Spring. Under the watch of regime officials and informants abroad, members of the diaspora feared that speaking out would induce home-country regimes to punish their family members or banish them permanently from their homelands. In contrast to the expectation that “exit” from authoritarianism promotes “voice” abroad (Hirschman 1978) fear of transnational repression kept these communities under-mobilized for decades.
The Arab Spring, however, largely upended this climate of fear. When regime violence at home forced their family members to flee, inflicted extreme punishment on peaceful protesters, and decimated entire towns and cities, this led formerly closeted regime opponents to come out in protest. As Abdulaziz Almashi, London-based co-founder of the Global Solidarity Movement for Syria, recalled during an interview with me in 2014:
When I start joining the anti-Assad demonstrations in late April  we used to hide our faces with scarves because we’re not sure about the consequences, we’re worried about loved ones in Syria. In late May, my friend was killed in Hama… One week after that, the Syrian embassy again contacted me to ask me to join their protests, and I made my decision. I said, “look, I’m not joining you, you are killing our people…” The person said to me, if you don’t join us, that means you are against us. I said, “I am against you, go to hell!”… It was the spark of my activism in the open way.
The Arab Spring, therefore, gave rise to open civic engagement and public protest for the first time, transforming closeted national communities into visible domestic constituencies. Arab Spring-inspired mobilization among Syrian Americans, for example, has produced an explosion in political and humanitarian organizations. Like their Yemeni counterparts, experience gained through transnational activism has also led Syrian activists to vocally defend their domestic rights. Advocacy organizations that first emerged to aid the revolution are now holding voter registration drives, lobbying against the refugee ban, providing forums for community engagement, and training their members on lobbying.
Syrian Americans gathered to commemorate the six-year anniversary of the Syrian revolution in Washington, DC on March 15, 2017. Photograph by Julie Larah, used with permission.
Through the process of transnational mobilization, young activists across these diasporas are also increasingly challenging divides within their communities imposed by generation, age, class, sex- and sexual-orientation based differences. Women activists have been at the forefront of these initiatives, including Rafif Jouejati of the FREE-Syria Foundation, Lina Sergie Attar of the Karam Foundation, Suzanne Meriden of the Syrian American Council, and Shiyam Gaylom of Books Not Bombs, among many, many others. These activists are working tirelessly to address needs on the ground, within refugee camps, and within the diaspora itself.
In all, while Yemenis, Libyans, and Syrians in the West have long suffered from domestic and transnational repression, the Arab Spring has heralded a new era of grassroots empowerment and visibility. While these outcomes cannot outweigh the enormous hardships experienced by members of these communities, both inside the Middle East and within the so-called free world, the promise of the Arab Spring endures. For these reasons, we scholars would do well to understand how revolutions, even ones leading to utter devastation, can empower the marginalized on a global scale.