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One Year Later, Arab Spring Still Reverberating


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The Arab Spring has been both smaller and bigger than you might think. Uprisings ousted autocrats in just three of the 22 Arab countries, but profound shifts are underway everywhere.

Change appears imminent in Yemen and some believe may now be inevitable in Syria. Reactions elsewhere range from reform to repression. Over the past week or so, NPR correspondents Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, Deborah Amos and Kelly McEvers filed a series of stories on what's changed since protest erupted and spread a year ago.

If you followed their reporting and have questions, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, actress Tilda Swinton on her new film "We Need to Talk about Kevin," but first we begin with Deborah Amos in Rabat, Morocco. And Deb, nice to have you back.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: For decades, kings, emirs, presidents for life controlled almost every aspect of public life in the Arab world. As you pointed out in one of your stories, almost all of those rulers remain in power. So what has changed?

AMOS: I think what has changed, a couple of things. One, what people call the wall of fear. It is so telling to listen to people, what they're willing to say now on the Web, on their Facebook pages. That is a big change over the last year.

I think the other change in the places where we've had revolutions, people are talking about politics openly now, how to organize, how to motivate, how to move a population through a political party. And even in the places that are still grappling with whether the autocrat stays or goes, people are learning on-the-ground politics in ways that you haven't seen before.

It is the beginning of a civil society in many of these places that have never had one before, and I think those two facts are extremely important over the next decade for what happens in the Arab world.

CONAN: And probably no place more important than Egypt. Joining us now from Cairo, NPR foreign correspondent Lourdes Garcia-Navarro. Nice to have you back.


CONAN: And Islamist groups in Cairo are celebrating as they look like they have achieved a tremendous electoral success there in the polls, but this is a place that over the past year has changed in so many ways and whose future seems to be so different than it would have seemed 18 months ago.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's extraordinary, actually, always coming back to Egypt, because every time you come back the narrative changes so much. And right now in Egypt we're at the tail end of the parliamentary elections for the lower house, and the Muslim Brotherhood, as you mentioned, has won a crushing victory, closely followed by the Salafist Party, the ultraconservative sect of Islam.

I've spent the day today speaking with various Muslim Brotherhood figures, and it's an interesting time for them, Neal. As one leader told me, we feel like a bird that was trapped and it has been set free. That euphoria, though, is tempered very much, tempered by the enormous responsibility that they're now shouldering.

After decades as an oppressed opposition party, they are now about to ascend to power in this very volatile, very divided country. There are enormous challenges, many pitfalls. How will the Muslim Brotherhood navigate their relationship, for example, with the military junta that runs the country, that ostensibly wants to cling to power?

I got a few answers to those questions today, but Egypt is very much in flux. We're only beginning to see how the forces unleashed in this revolution will play out.

CONAN: And many of those forces unleashed by the demonstrations there in Tahrir Square, demonstrations, well, largely made up, initiated and made up of secular, young, educated Egyptians who may not see themselves represented very much, did very poorly in the elections. Any regrets there?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, the groups that kick-started this revolution, as you rightly say, the revolutionaries of Tahrir, have not fared well. They continue in a lot of ways to live in a state of almost perpetual revolution. They feel, and legitimately, that there's still so much more to be done, that the military junta which rules Egypt co-opted the popular uprising and has committed many abuses subsequently.

But the Egyptian street and many people here are just tired of the constant upheaval, and they see these groups as the culprits. So you have a very odd situation now, where the very people that kick-started what happened here, what Egyptians are so very proud of, this revolution, are now in certain circles being accused of undermining the goals of the revolution.

CONAN: Let me also get back to Deborah Amos. I know you've spent a lot of time in Lebanon. You're now in Morocco, places that haven't changed but have certainly felt the repercussions of change.

AMOS: Well, you could certainly say that here. The February 20th movement was an explosion almost a year ago, and within two months the king here responded with a new constitution and new elections. Now for the first time Morocco has an Islamist party leading the government.

The February 20th movement is not satisfied. They are still on the streets every Sunday in a peaceful protest. We went to one on Sunday and watched them in one of the slums outside of Casablanca, and the idea for them is they keep the pressure up. There really is not an opposition party in this country.

February 20th, this incoherent, chaotic movement, is it. And they feel that they have to stay on the street every Sunday to pressure the government to bring those promises to fruition.

CONAN: Incoherent, chaotic movement, Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, we could have applied those terms to the opposition in Libya, which nevertheless got itself together enough to succeed in a military revolution obviously supported by NATO air power, but nevertheless to overthrow the 40-year-old dictatorship of Moammar Gadhafi and now appears to be going back to disorganized and chaotic.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yes, I just came back from Libya recently, and it is extremely disorganized and chaotic. In fact, what we're seeing there is almost the beginnings of what could be the partition of the country. In many ways this revolution, which united people in this sense of purpose and overthrowing Moammar Gadhafi, has now divided people because everyone's trying to grapple over what they want the country to look like and what their place in that new country will be.

And it is divided along sort of regional lines and also tribal lines, and so we are seeing great problems there now because what has evolved, the National Transitional Council is a very weak body, it is also itself very divided, and people are very fed up.

They're wondering what the next step shall be. So you know, we have protests in Benghazi in the east. We have protests in Misrata. Cities that were so pivotal to the revolution are now saying we are not satisfied with the interim government, and we want elections sooner rather than later.

CONAN: So be careful what you ask for in some respects. Deborah Amos, though, given the pace of change, there is nothing like going back.

AMOS: I think there is not anything going back. The place that I've spent the most time covering is Syria, and while we have now - we are in our tenth month of protest, and the statistics are grim, there's been an Arab League monitoring group that's come to Syria. The idea was that they would stop the violence, and they haven't at all. Four hundred people have died since the Arab League monitors arrived.

However, when you look at the movement there, the political movement on the ground, yet again chaotic, unpredictable, those people cannot go back. The lessons that they've learned over the past 10 months have actually brought people together in various towns. This is very new for Syria.

I think that this is one revolution that will take some time. The army is still on the side of the regime. The elites around President Bashar al-Assad have not cracked. I think that you would find that they would say that of course we can go back. But the truth of the matter is that they can't. This Arab Spring has changed Syria in ways that it cannot return to the status quo.

CONAN: Deb, you and I have followed affairs in this region for many years. I have to say one change that we've seen is the Arab League itself, the idea that it would have called for foreign intervention in an Arab country, unthinkable, that of course was Libya. The idea that it would send monitors to look at the human rights practices, essentially, of one of its member states and be critical of them, jaw-dropping, just 18 months ago, inconceivable.

AMOS: Inconceivable, you're absolutely right, and they are feeling their way. This is all new for the Arab League, and you can see that the monitors are very stressed, that they really don't know how to do this. They wander into giant protests. They barge into hospitals.

I think even the Syrian regime that thought that they would be able to control these monitors has not been able to, and the activists on the ground have been taking remarkable videos of certainly unscripted moments as these monitors try to figure out how to do their job.

This is very new for the Arab League, and I think an interesting development, if they could be some sort of body in the region, it doesn't always have to go to the United Nations. There would be a local organization, the Arab League that could police internally, and that would be a huge step coming out of these revolutions in the last year.

CONAN: NPR correspondent Deborah Amos in Rabat, also with us Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, who is with us from Cairo. We're going to get Kelly McEvers on the line from Beirut in just a couple of minutes. We want to hear from you too as well. If you've been following their reporting and have questions a year after the Arab Spring started, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. We'll start with Matthew(ph), Matthew with us from Portage in Michigan.

MATTHEW: Hi, Neal, thanks for having me on your show.

CONAN: Thanks, go ahead please.

MATTHEW: Yes, because the Muslim Brotherhood has won such a crushing victory in this first - in the lower house, will they have to ally with the Salafis that have been previously feared by some groups? And I'll take my answer off the air, thank you.

CONAN: All right, Matthew, thanks very much. Lourdes, is there going to be a Salafi-Muslim Brotherhood coalition?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: No - I think is the short answer to that. Those are questions that I posed today to various figures of the Muslim Brotherhood, and they were all adamant in saying that they absolutely do not want to have an Islamist coalition. Sometimes we forget that the divisions between Islamists are perhaps greater than the divisions between secular and moderate Islamist organizations or conservative Islamist organizations.

And so basically what I got across the board was a great deal of competitive talk. The Muslim Brotherhood doesn't like the Salafists. They were surprised, they said today, by their victory at the polls. They got some 20 to 25 percent. Those numbers are still not final. And they weren't really welcoming that.

They, as they said to me, consider them to be rivals. They consider them to be part of a different strand of Islam, and they also consider them to be radicals in some sense, and they fear them because they do fear that they're going to push them to take certain actions in Egypt that aren't for the good of Egypt.

CONAN: Wonders may never cease. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro and Deborah Amos are with us. In a moment we'll talk with Kelly McEvers. She's now based in Beirut but traveled extensively in the Persian Gulf, one area where there has been very different results from the Arab Spring. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. In her piece "Looking Back at the Arab Spring" for NPR, Deborah Amos began with a clarification. The Arab Spring was misnamed from the start, she says. It was more like a political earthquake than a season of revolt, and the ground is still shaking.

Amos and her other NPR correspondents, including Kelly McEvers and Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, have been reporting on the aftershocks ever since, including uprising, armed responses and tentative steps toward democracy. If you've followed their reporting and have questions, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website, npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Deb Amos is with us from Rabat in Morocco. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro is in Cairo. Kelly McEvers joins us now from Beirut. Nice to have you with us.


CONAN: And I wanted to ask you, we've been talking about places like Cairo and like Tripoli, where change has been profound, and in places like Syria, where there appears to be no going back. I know you know some about that too, but I wanted to begin by asking you about the Persian Gulf and the uprising that was underway in Bahrain, which has a majority Shia population but ruled by a Sunni kingdom, and the Sunnis have, well, cracked down.

MCEVERS: Yeah, I think you can say that the one Arab uprising that was definitively put down was (unintelligible). You know, you had probably a quarter to a third of the population at one point in the streets, literally hundreds of thousands of people out in the streets calling for reform at first, later calling for the downfall of the regime.

And one month later you had international intervention of a sort, but it wasn't with the protestors this time, like it was in Libya, but it was with the government. It was troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, they rolled into town, and the protests were ended.

In fact, the monument where the people were protesting was later bulldozed, completely cleared, and even to this day you can't even walk to that square.

CONAN: In part, you concluded in your story, things did not change in Bahrain because the United States did not wish them to. The U.S. Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain, it's an important military asset used in the continuing watch of Iran. And in part, as you mentioned, it is because America's important ally, Saudi Arabia, did not want things to change.

MCEVERS: The U.S. considers Bahrain a really important ally, like you said, because of its strategic position in the Persian Gulf. You know, these are not good times with Iran, and having an ally in that position is a very important thing for the U.S. And of course upsetting Saudi Arabia is not something the U.S. does lightly either.

Saudi Arabia is worried about Iran's expansion. Saudi Arabia believed that any kind of Shiite uprising in a place like Bahrain could be seen as Iranian expansion, Iran of course being majority Shiite.

But Saudi Arabia probably also didn't want, you know, protests in its own backyard. That was probably what was really going on. Saudi Arabia has its own Shiite population that has been agitating for years. And so keeping the Bahraini uprising down was very important to Saudi Arabia.

CONAN: And Deb Amos, let me turn to you on this point. To some degree what's been dismantled in - less so in Tunisia but very importantly in Egypt, was a pro-American autocrat who kept things the way America liked them, and the United States was allied not necessarily because the United States loved Hosni Mubarak but because stability was important, and stability in the Middle East remains important.

The United States now remains allied with the autocratic regimes in places like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and make no mistake about it.

AMOS: Well, but you also have seen in the past couple of weeks reports that the Obama administration is reaching out to the Islamists. I think embassies across the region have been given instructions that we now talk to everybody. And they are having, you know, meet-and-greets with Islamists everywhere.

What is very interesting to me, being out in the region, is these days when you do go into an American embassy, you find that the political officers there will ask you what do you think is going on.

They also feel that this is a very new region, and they have to learn how to navigate in this new political landscape. And I think it's going to take a while for the – for any American administration to figure out how to do that.

CONAN: Let's go next to Stephanie(ph), Stephanie on the line from Flagstaff.

STEPHANIE: Hi, thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

STEPHANIE: Yes, my question is what role women had, if any, in the Arab Spring. And then - and will these changes in any way in the Arab nations affect women's rights?

CONAN: Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, let's turn to you in Cairo.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, I think it's an extremely important question, and I think, you know, it depends on which country you're looking at, but across the board I think many women who were involved in the revolution, certainly in Libya, certainly in Egypt, they do feel that they - that it hasn't necessarily empowered them.

AMOS: Here in Egypt, for example, we've seen, you know, the horrific attacks by members of the security forces against women, the sexual harassment that still continues. And there is a concern with the rise of the Islamists and political Islam, what that will mean for women's rights, enshrined in constitutions and how their rights will be protected across the board.

And so I think there's a real concern that while, you know, these revolutions have been an earthquake, a political earthquake that have sort of - as one analyst told me today, you know, awakened the Arab soul, for women possibly they might not have done the same thing. I think it still remains to be seen exactly how it will play out and how women will be effected by this.

CONAN: Stephanie, thanks for the call.

STEPHANIE: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Mary, Mary with us from Davis, California.

MARY: Yeah, hello, first I'd like to express gratitude for the coverage, particularly on Syria, that I heard on NPR because I think it won't surprise your reporters that even if you have family in Syria, you may not get a single news report from them by them by phone. They won't really dare say anything. So it's just how is the weather kind of talk, conversation.

So I really rely on you, and I wonder if you have any inkling of when foreign reporters will actually be in Syria so we won't have to rely on getting things somehow out and about to Beirut and other places.

CONAN: Kelly McEvers, in Beirut, part of the agreement the Syrian government signed with the Arab League was to provide foreign reporters access to Syria. As the Arab League monitors have access to Syria, are they following through?

MCEVERS: Not necessarily, no. There's a trickle. Every once in a while there will be a foreign journalist that's allowed a visa into Syria. But for the most part, our requests are denied. Deborah knows this very well too. It's not an easy place to get into. And so yes, we have to report the story from Beirut, from Turkey, from Jordan, sometimes even from Iraq, from all the places, you know, that border Syria.

And this - yeah, this was one of the elements of the agreement with the Arab League and one of the elements that observers say is not being met.

CONAN: I have to ask, you went in to do some reporting with going in to Syria surreptitiously - is that going to make it more difficult to go in with the permission of the Syrian government?

MCEVERS: Well, we'll have to ask them, won't we?


MCEVERS: A lot of people are doing it that way these days. I mean, look, in Syria the interesting thing is there's no Benghazi, there's no sort of area that's held by the rebels. You know, there's no - it doesn't have a half of the country that's being held by the rebels. Even in the early days in Libya, it wasn't quite so cut and dried.

But, you know, there are small pockets of small neighborhoods in certain cities that may or may not be sort of dominated by protestors or armed groups that claim to be protecting protestors. So this isn't - there really aren't many options. I mean, it's not just that the government doesn't want us to come in, but it's not necessarily safe to go in and cover something that's looking a lot less like a protest movement and a lot more like a conflict.

CONAN: Mary, what kind of family do you have still in Syria?

MARY: Well, a great portion of my husband's family, just about everybody, they stayed behind. He was the only one who really left so many years ago. And yeah, it's been frustrating to try to get - you know, and we don't want to put them on the spot if we ask them.

You can hear even the calls being recorded, and even things could be misinterpreted. So you just kind of say, well, how are you, how's the weather, you know, kind of sad.

CONAN: And you don't want to read something into it if they say the weather is good or bad.

MARY: Exactly, and even the weather, if they say the wrong thing about the weather, that could be interpreted wrong. So you just don't know what to say.

CONAN: All right. We wish your husband's family the best, Mary.

MARY: Thanks very much.

CONAN: Appreciate the phone call. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Bob, Bob with us from Tucson.

BOB: Yes, I have a question for your guests. It seems to me that the common - the concept of religious freedom is completely foreign to those people over there, and how can there ever be any success in these reorganizations and whatnot unless the Sunnis and Shiites and Alawites and so forth are free to follow their religious beliefs?

CONAN: Let's turn to Deb Amos on that point. You've done a lot of reporting from Lebanon, which is one of the most diverse religious communities in the world.

AMOS: Well, it's a complicated question because the truth of the matter is people do somewhat have freedom of religion. They certainly do in Lebanon. Everyone is allowed, all 18 different religious orientations and sects are allowed to practice their religion. And Syria has been, for generations, proud of the mix that is in the country and the fact that you can find a church next to a mosque in almost every community and certainly in the capital. The freedom of religion is not the question. The - it's not true across the Middle East. The problem is in those places where you have a mix, when there's a conflict, it is very easy for an autocrat to use sectarianism, to stir up the divisions between different parts of the population to the autocrat's benefit.

And we've certainly seen that in Syria. I described in the piece I wrote, sectarianism 101, which is you stir up the population as the autocrat, and then you claim you're the only one that can keep the lid on the pot. And that is what we see, you know, in the Syrian's case. And so it is a complex question. I think that Lourdes can also tell us that Egypt also has its difficulties on this question.

CONAN: And I was going to ask about the particular situation of the Coptic Christians there in Egypt. Lourdes?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Exactly right. I mean, that's been one of the tensest conflicts that have sort of erupted after the revolution. You know, in many ways, people would say - and even some Christians would say that Hosni Mubarak kept a lid on that. And subsequently, we've seen, you know, attacks on Christian communities and conflicts between certain Islamic sects here and the Christians. And that is a real challenge for, you know, countries where there are different religions, different sects, people who follow different paths. And that is one of the, you know, the great challenges, I think, after the revolution. You know, basically, the lid has come off in many of these countries.

These were autocratic regimes, and they pride stability above all. And that meant, in many ways, keeping all of these conflicts, you know, under the table. They swept it all underground. And now, in the same way that you're seeing people come out and being able to voice their political ideals, you are seeing people voicing some things that are less savory. And these conflicts are coming out to the fore, and there is fear about what it means for minorities, what it means, you know, how are the Christians going to cope, you know, in a government that is dominated by Islamists. It's a very real concern. When many Christians here saw that the Salafists had done well, many Christians that I spoke to said, I want to leave the country. I'm worried. And so it's a very, very real problem.

CONAN: Bob, thanks very much for the call. We're talking with Lourdes Garcia-Navarro. You just heard her in Cairo. Kelly McEvers is on the phone with us from Beirut. And Deb Amos is with us from Rabat in Morocco. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And, Deb, in one of your pieces, you put this in some historical context. This is perhaps the biggest change in the Arab world since the revolutions that shook that part of the world, following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War. This is 100 years ago.

AMOS: Well, one of my favorite quotes is from the head of the history department at American University in Cairo, and he called that the Lawrence of Arabia moment. In some ways, that was also - had some American flavor to it. You know, this was a moment when an American president in that period was talking about self-determination. I think you might look to these revolutions and say they were fueled, in a way, by American technology: Google, Twitter, Facebook. It is a shared value of democracy that is what the demand is on the street. So we actually have some role in what has happened. We happen to be unpopular at the moment, and that is because historically, we have supported dictators because they were better for our foreign policy.

But now we are confronted with a different landscape in the Middle East, one that we haven't dealt with before. And I think that is why there is such uncertainty in Washington about what does popular opinion mean. We know what it means in the American context. That leaders do have to listen to what the public wants - not completely, but they do have to listen. And we don't know what that means yet in the Arab world.

CONAN: And, Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, in particular, we don't know what it means in Egypt. Yes, Hosni Mubarak, overthrown; the generals who Hosni Mubarak appointed are still in control in Egypt and very much concerned about their future.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Very much concerned. It's so murky here, I can't even begin to tell you. It's so difficult to find out the strands of power and who controls what and how decisions are made now. And it's all extremely confusing, not only for a reporter like myself who's trying to understand it, but just for the average citizens. One the one hand, they feel very much empowered after the revolution. But on the other hand, so much really hasn't changed. There are still, you know, powers that are beyond their control. One thing though that you do see - and we have seen repeatedly - there is a military junta that is in control, but they have had to cater to public opinion. They have had to make concessions, which was unimaginable before.

We've seen throughout the various protests that have happened since the 18 days after, you know, during which Hosni Mubarak was overthrown, that the militaries had to say, OK, we've tried this and people have come out into the streets and so, OK, we won't do that anymore. And that relationship is a very complicated one. They are actually reacting to popular opinion and to popular protest, and that really is a fundamental change in Egypt.

CONAN: We'll end with this email from Jane(ph), who writes: It's impressive that NPR's reporters in the countries undergoing change - the Arab Spring - are women. How is it for female reporters to do those - their work in those places? These three and they're three of our very best, happen to be women. There are others involved who are not women. But in any case, Kelly McEvers, you've been to some adventurous places. What's it like to work there?

MCEVERS: You know, I like to say sometimes it's actually easier to be a woman because even in the most conservative country, we can speak to the women when - where a male reporter can't speak to the women. And, of course, we can speak to the men because they'll always speak to us. And a lot of times, you know, you can sort of be in disguise, you know? You can wrap yourself up in whatever else - anyone else is wearing and kind of blend in better, whether it's at a protest or you're trying to dodge, you know, teargas or sneaking over a border in the middle of the night. So, in some ways, it makes it easier.

Of course, in other ways, it's not. You know, I lived in Saudi Arabia for a year, and that meant that I couldn't drive, you know? And that meant that, you know - just sort of assumed that I was there with my husband wherever I went. So there's definitely a level of assumptions that are made. But I think, right now, despite the fact that women are facing a lot of challenges as these countries are now, you know, in such upheaval, women have played such a great role, and it's just - it's so fantastic to be out and just (unintelligible) all these women and all these protests.

CONAN: Kelly McEvers, Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, Deborah Amos, thanks to you all. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.