From the Arab Spring to the Great March of Return

Palestinians participate in Great March of Return protests along Gaza's eastern boundary with Israel (Mohammed Zaanoun - ActiveStills)

Ahmed Abu Artema

Al-Jazeera  /  March 6, 2021 

How the Arab revolutions inspired Palestinian mobilisation in Gaza.

When I reflect on my 35 years of living in besieged Gaza, I often think of the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011 as one of the happiest moments in my life. Although 10 years have passed since the world-shattering events of that year and many heartbreaks and disappointments have come along since then, I still recall the Arab revolutions in all their glory, vitality, and hope.

When the first protests started in Tunisia in late December 2010, I, like many Arabs who had limited knowledge of Tunisian politics, did not pay much attention. But as the protest movement grew and shook the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, I started following closely.

The news of Ben Ali’s escape on January 14, 2011, shocked us as much as it thrilled us. The idea that an Arab nation could come together, defeat fear and topple their tyrannical president, long ruling over them through intimidation and violence, was inspiring to the rest of us, Arabs, who have lived under similar oppressive circumstances.

Soon the Tunisian flame made a spark in Egypt. On January 25, thousands gathered in Tahrir Square to denounce police brutality and call for President Hosni Mubarak to step down. We Palestinians were thrilled.

Egypt has a special significance for us. It is not only a gateway to the outside world for Palestinians living in Gaza, but it also has historically been a guarantor of Palestinian rights. We believe that we are bound by fate to Egypt because of its leadership in the Arab world and that its weakness is our weakness and its strength is our strength.

We believe Israel’s increasing abuse of and aggression towards the Palestinians has to do with Egypt growing weaker in the past few decades and its ruling regime failing to represent the will of its people.

So when the protests escalated, it hit home for us. We felt these were not events in some other country, but in our own. Between January 25 and February 11, I was one of millions of Arabs who stopped following local news and turned to social media and Al Jazeera to find out the latest on what was going on in Egypt.

My heart shook with joy whenever I saw the number of protesters in Tahrir Square increase and the chants of the crowds get louder and I held my breath every time I saw the number of demonstrators decrease, as thugs attacked them.

I prayed that the people of Egypt would be victorious, that their country would be liberated and that a new government would come, bound to the will of the people and ready to back us in our own struggle for freedom and justice.

February 11, 2011 was one of the most beautiful days of my life. I was with friends when the news reached us that Mubarak had stepped down. We jumped with joy and hurried to the store to buy sweets to give away in the streets.

The celebrations in Gaza were bigger than in Eid. Thirty years of authoritarian rule and corruption had just ended in Egypt and we celebrated in solidarity with the Egyptian people. Their dictator and our oppressor – the man who kept the Rafah border closed, helping Israel lay a debilitating siege on Gaza – had fallen. The man who had brought Egypt to its knees and sold out the Palestinian cause was gone.

In the following weeks, revolutions broke out in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria. The chant “The people want the downfall of the regime!” echoed across the Arab world. In the Arab streets rebelling against dictatorship, the Palestinian flag would be a regular feature. The Arab revolutions awakened a feeling of unity in the hearts of the Arabs. The Sykes-Picot Agreement had built up walls among Arabs and divided us politically, but the revolutionary winds of the Arab Spring brought them down.

They swept through Palestine as well. Many of us, young Palestinians, felt renewed energy to continue our struggle against our own oppressor – the Israeli occupier.

Shortly after Mubarak’s downfall, I had a talk with a group of friends. We said: “We do not have a ruling system that we can overthrow in the same way the other Arab peoples have. But we have a big issue which is being refugees in our own homeland. We want to return to our homes, and so, let us say, ‘The people want a return to Palestine.’”

On February 24, 2011, I published an article entitled “15-5-2011: Date of the historical march to Palestine” in the Arabic online newspaper Elaph.

In this piece, I proposed the day we mark the Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe, to be an occasion for a peaceful protest of Palestinian refugees to demand their right to return to their homes.

Here is what I wrote:

“We are in a time when dreams are rapidly turning into realities, which tempts us to dream and persevere in pursuing our dreams. And because I firmly believe that the will of the people is stronger than all challenges, and that nothing is impossible when there is faith and persistence, I hope that this idea will quickly find people who will adopt it and push for its realisation.”

The response to my article was greater than my expectations. In just a few weeks, groups of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and occupied Palestine-1948 adopted this call and started mobilising to stage a demonstration on May 15.

When the time came, tens of thousands of refugees gathered at the closest point to the borders of Palestine in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. This was an unprecedented event and a symbolic achievement. Hundreds of Palestinian refugees residing in Syria were able to penetrate the Golan Heights barriers and enter Palestine, waving Palestinian flags and the keys to their Palestinian homes.

The Israeli army responded violently, shooting at the crowds and killing and injuring a number of protesters. That day, Israel felt that the winds of the Arab Spring have reached the Palestinian territories it occupies and it got worried. It knew that the Arab people are overwhelmingly opposed to its occupation and colonisation of Palestine. An Arab awakening was going to be bad news for its colonial project.

Our moment of joy and feeling of freedom, however, was short-lived. The Arab revolutions had only decapitated the regimes but the body – the deep state – had remained. Undoing decades of dictatorship was going to take more than a few weeks of mass protests.

The remnants of the regimes joined hands with external counter-revolutionary forces and started to systematically undermine the peaceful, democratic drive of the Arab Spring protests. In Syria, Libya, and Yemen these forces managed to use local sectarian and tribal divisions to destroy society-wide protest alliances and plunge these countries into bloody civil wars.

In Egypt, the military, backed by external forces, led a coup against the democratically elected government. This helped stifle the revolutionary spirit across the region and thwart efforts to establish a new Arab reality.

Our disappointment grew into despair, as the counter-revolution imprisoned, tortured and killed with impunity. Meanwhile, Israel was basking in the defeat of the Arab Spring and the renewed interest from Arab regimes in normalising relations. Arab despots felt they needed Israeli backing to guarantee their own security amid the persisting legitimacy crises they were facing. That alliance seemed natural: both Israel and Arab dictatorships vehemently opposed Arab democracy.

In Palestine, we felt suffocated. It was not only moral suffocation, but physical too. Soon after General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took power in Egypt, he ordered the destruction of all the tunnels under the Gaza-Egyptian border. These were the vital channels through which the Palestinians in Gaza brought in food, construction materials, and other necessities which Israel had banned through its debilitating siege on the strip. Then, Israel launched another deadly assault on Gaza, killing more than 2,000 people, including hundreds of children, and destroying whatever it had not in its 2008 onslaught.

As a result, the humanitarian situation in Gaza started to deteriorate quickly. The economy was on the verge of collapse; services, like electricity, sewage and potable water, were almost absent. In 2015, the UN released a report saying that by 2020 the strip may become “uninhabitable”.

Anger, frustration and desperation grew in Gaza. And by 2018, it was ready to explode. It was that year that amid the suffocation and destitution, we decided to resurrect our call for a march of return. The massive mobilisation that we witnessed in response was a clear sign that despite the brutality of the Israeli siege, occupation and colonisation, the Palestinians were not going to give up fighting for their rights. It was a declaration that the Arab dream was still alive.

After it flickered in Palestine, several months later it flared up in Sudan. Protests started all over the country against the misery the Sudanese regime had reduced its people to. Soon after, Algeria rebelled. By the end of the spring in 2019, two more Arab dictators had been toppled. The revolutionary torch was then passed on to the Iraqis and the Lebanese who carried it forward with pride.

What some have called the “second wave” of the Arab Spring also resulted in a lot of death, destruction and despair. The Arab people continue to pay a hefty price for their stolen revolutions. But they are also learning. They have tasted freedom – albeit only momentously – they have seen what people power can achieve, but they have also understood their failures – that anger and enthusiasm are not enough to defeat deeply rooted oppressive regimes.

For the people who have lived the Arab Spring, it remains more than just an exciting memory or a beautiful dream. The events of 2011 awakened something in the Arab world.

Today, the Arab streets may appear quiet, but that burning feeling of injustice, that drive for freedom are still there, simmering under surface, ready to erupt and sweep Arab authoritarians and their allies off their feet once again.

Ahmed Abu Artema is a Palestinian journalist and peace activist