A new way to witness the Arab spring

A new way to witness the Arab spring

Looking at the various "Arab Spring" movements, I am struck by how events in each country have influenced other countries and shaped the broader revolution. The very fact that it is known as the "Arab Spring," (or "Arab Uprising," or any number of other variations) emphasizes its transnational character. This might even be expanded further beyond the "Arab" dimension, if we consider the 2009 Green Movement in Iran as one of the catalysts, or the recent protests against recrudescent Putinism in Russia as one of the fruits. Yet for all the transnational characteristics of this movement as a mass uprising against autocracy and repression, it is also a series of unique national movements with particular characteristics and diverse outcomes. These differences are evident in Tunisia’s cautious progress, Egypt’s imperiled transition, Libya’s post-conflict fragility, and the crucible that is Syria, just to cite a few.

In each of these countries the uprisings have been comprised of motley crews and mixed motives, ranging from peaceful and democratic reformers who seek genuine freedom for themselves and their fellow citizens, to militants and Islamists whose purposes are more suspect. Even as the democratic reformers work to advance a positive vision grounded in human dignity and liberty, their efforts risk being eclipsed by non-democratic elements, and their stories risk being forgotten.

Here an important new resource has just been launched that will highlight the work and lives of these reformers, not only in the Middle East but from every continent: the Freedom Collection of the George W. Bush Institute. Shadow Government readers are encouraged to check out the Freedom Collection website.

The Freedom Collection preserves the stories of activists in repressive countries who have devoted their lives to the cause of liberty. Using a combination of video and oral interviews and a unique documentary archive, it features profiles of dissidents and reformers from every continent, of diverse faiths and backgrounds, and a common commitment to advancing human rights and democracy. Their backgrounds are remarkably diverse, and include well-known figures such as Vaclav Havel, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and the Dalai Lama, to others whose stories deserve to be highlighted, such as Chinese house church leader Bob Fu, Venezuelan democracy activist Cristal Montanez Baylor, and Syrian dissident Ammar Abdulhamid. These leaders represent the very incarnation of courage, and yet "courageous" seems almost trite and insufficient to describe the suffering that many of them have endured, and why they have endured it.

The Freedom Collection communicates to reformers and dissidents around the world that they are not alone, that while the path they walk may seem isolated and perilous, their efforts are remembered. And not just remembered, but can serve as both inspiration and practical tool for other would-be reformers in other repressive countries.

It will also be a resource for scholars, who seek to understand better what drives such movements, and in particular what motivates the people who led such movements. In a way the Freedom Collection will also offer a contribution to the perennial debate over what drives change, human agency or structural forces. While both play a role, the Freedom Collection highlights the personal dimension of human agency — the unique attributes of intrepid individuals who resist cultural and governance barriers in their efforts to promote better lives for themselves and their nations. Finally, I hope the Freedom Collection can put a human face on what are sometimes needlessly partisan debates over the question of democracy promotion in foreign policy. While the policy questions are manifestly complex, that complexity should not obscure the individual lives that are at the center of these questions, and whose voices should also be heard at the policy table.