But anger and hatred was not enough 10 years ago and it will not be enough in future. I sympathised strongly with the protesters then, though I never gave much hope for their chances of permanent success.
They had initially the advantage of surprise, massive popular support and governments that were baffled by unprecedented events. But none of the kleptocratic powers-that-be intended to give up without a fight. They soon recovered their nerve and struck back with unrestrained violence.
Egypt, with a population of 90 million and a powerful cultural influence on the region, was the crucial test case. For 18 days, the secular and Islamist opponents of President Hosni Mubarak fought side by side in Tahrir Square in a successful bid to end his 29 years in power. When he finally departed, they appeared to have won a great victory, but it was more incomplete than it looked because the revolutionaries failed to gain control of the Egyptian security forces or the state-controlled television and press, which went on smearing the protesters as sexual degenerates and the agents of foreign powers.
Astonished by their own unexpected success, the protest leaders did not know how to consolidate their gains and prevent the return of an old regime that had been shaken but was far from defeated.
It is too easy to retrospectively blame the leaders of the protests for not acting like experienced revolutionaries determined to grasp the levers of power when that leadership, in so far as it existed, had no such background. Their lack of such a revolutionary track record was why the omnipresent secret police of the region had not taken them seriously enough. Sadly, this is not a mistake that those secret police are likely to make in future.
Some protesters, and many foreign diplomats, argued that they should have sought compromise with the existing elites, but that was easier said than done since the latter had no intention of sharing power with anybody.
When street protesters looked for leadership and organisation, the only place they could find it was among Islamists, as with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, or among the Islamists and jihadis in Libya and Syria. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad probably deliberately militarised the crisis in 2011 so that his own ruling Alawite sect and other religious and ethnic minorities would feel, with good reason, that they were facing an existential threat from a Sunni jihadi uprising. In Yemen, the Houthis, a Shia sect that had fought the government for years, took advantage of the protest movement to seize the capital Sana’a, which they still hold.
Foreign powers cynically intervened on behalf of their local proxies and their own selfish national interests, usually helping to tip the balance towards autocracy. I always thought it absurd to imagine that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, the last absolute monarchies on the planet, would want to spread democracy and freedom of expression among their neighbours.
Was hope of progress towards political freedom a mirage 10 years ago and is it a mirage today? Protests, as widespread and prolonged as anything seen in the Arab Spring, erupted in Iraq and Lebanon in 2019 and are continuing. Political Islam has largely discredited itself because its protagonists have turned out to be as corrupt, violent and incompetent as their opponents.
Overall, the greatest force for revolutionary change in this vast war-ravaged and misruled region is that the humiliation, misery and injustice that Ayat denounced 10 years ago is even greater today – and so is the rage they inspire.