In December 2010, protests broke out in Tunisia, eventually paving the way for the ousting of longtime President Ben Ali by the end of January 2011.
His ousting then sparked a revolution in Egypt against the 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak, as well as anti-government demonstrations in Algeria, Yemen and Jordan.
Cases of self-immolation were reported in Morocco, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan and the ex-Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, no doubt in imitation of Mohamed Bouazizi’s actions that partially sparked the Tunisian revolt.
Voices from Tajikistan, Sudan, Djibouti, Turkmenistan, Oman, Iran and Kazakhstan also began to speak bravely of revolution.
In an interview with Radio Liberty, an anonymous individual from Uzbekistan stated that “God willing, dictator [Islom] Karimov who is ruling Uzbekistan illegally and despotically will end up like this [referring to Ben Ali]. The day will come when he will pay for all the injustices he subjected his people to.”
In 2005, the Uzbek leader cruelly put down anti-government demonstrations in the city of Andijan, killing as many as 5,000 people in a hail of bullets.
Overall, it is clear that a firestorm is brewing in the Islamic world. And this fire has been stoked in large part by both the recent deluge of WikiLeaks and by the growing popularity of social networking sites.
In Tunisia, WikiLeaks played a crucial role in the overthrow of Ben Ali by exposing the corrupt and autocratic nature of his regime.
The leaks painted a stark portrait, from 2006 to 2009, of a regime becoming increasingly corrupt and unresponsive to the demands of its citizenry.
In a secret cable from July 2009, the U.S. Embassy in Tunis refers to Ben Ali’s government as being “sclerotic” and that “many Tunisians are frustrated by the lack of political freedom and angered by first family corruption, high unemployment and regional inequities.”
It was partly the inability of the Tunisian government to censor such information that contributed to its ultimate demise.
The Cablegate revelations have also fueled Egyptian protests by exposing corruption in the Mubarak regime.
However, according to Mona DeBaz, a political science professor at John Carroll University, the leaks from Cairo served as just part of the broader influence of the Internet on the demonstrations, and that social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter have been at the forefront of the anti-Mubarak movement.
“This past June, a 28-year-old Egyptian man, Khaled Mohamed Saeed, was brutally beaten by the police. He died in police custody and became a rallying point for Egyptian activists on Facebook,” said DeBaz.
Outside of the Internet, DeBaz also notes that genuine anti-government sentiments had been prevalent for some time.
“The countries in the Middle East are in stagnation. They are ruled by autocrats and the people, quite frankly, have had enough,” she said.
Zeki Saritoprak, the Nursi Chair in Islamic Studies at JCU, also noted that many Egyptians invested hope in the administration of President Barack Obama.
“When Obama was elected, there was a general hope that American policy towards the Muslim world would change and that they would encourage human rights and stop supporting autocratic regimes,” he said.
From the Maghrib to Central Asia, the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt have been particularly inspiring to countries throughout the Islamic world, where corrupt strongmen dominate politics.
Specifically, the protests have demonstrated that the people of the Islamic world are not complacent and that they do indeed seek democratic and free societies in their respective states.