10 Years Later: The Impact Of The Arab Spring : Throughline The Arab Spring erupted ten years ago when a wave of "pro-democracy" protests spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The effects of the uprisings reverberated around the world as regimes fell in some countries, and civil war began in others. This week, we remember the years leading up to the Arab Spring, and its lasting impact on three people who lived through it.

A Symphony of Resistance

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DORRA AGREBI: (Reading in Arabic).

We love this country as none has done - morning, evening, before morning, after evening and on Sunday again.

(Reading in Arabic).

Should they kill us, as they have done...

(Reading in Arabic).

...Should they expel us, as they have done...

(Reading in Arabic).

...Conquerors to this country, we shall return.

(Reading in Arabic).

On our lands, trees shall grow again. To our nights, the moon shall return. And aloud, the martyr shall shout then...

(Speaking Arabic).

...Peace, peace upon those who stood firm.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Singing in Arabic).

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, HOST:

Ten years ago, people throughout the Arab world took to the streets, protesting, singing, making their voices heard any way they could - a symphony of resistance. They were demanding a better future with more equality, more economic opportunity and more of a voice in electing their leaders.

RUND ABDELFATAH, HOST:

International media soon labeled it the Arab Spring, but it was more commonly known within the countries themselves as...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Althawratu.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: Althawratu.

ABDELFATAH: ...Althawratu - the revolution.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: The basic story you've probably heard about the Arab Spring starts in December 2010.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Through interpreter) At around 10 a.m., as he was making his way through the streets, the policewoman began to harass my son.

ABDELFATAH: Mohamed Bouazizi was working as a street vendor in Tunisia, selling fruits and vegetables, barely making ends meet. Since he didn't have a permit, the police and other officials were constantly harassing him. It got so bad, he told his family, quote, "I can't breathe anymore," and then...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: ...Decided he just wasn't going to take it anymore.

ABDELFATAH: He set himself on fire in an act of protest.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The martyr, Mohamed Bouazizi, this poster says, the spark of the uprising.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Tweets, photos and videos began popping up on the internet from Tunisia, warning of trouble to come.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Arab neighbors nervous of how revolutionary feelings could spread.

ARABLOUEI: And then, like a wave, these pro-democracy protests, uprisings led by Facebook-savvy youth, spread from Tunisia through Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, Jordan...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Either this is the first Arab revolution of the 21st century, or it will be brutally suppressed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: The Arab Spring was a moment of rupture captured on phone, computer and TV screens when people throughout the Arab world woke up to the hidden world around them. And the thing about these moments of rupture is that once you're awake, you can't go back to sleep. You can't unlearn the things you've learned. There's no eternal sunshine of the spotless mind.

ARABLOUEI: Maybe that's why, as a team, we've been so fixated on the idea of rupture, of revolution, since January. Does life just move on after an insurrection in your country's capital? Where does that energy go? What sparked it in the first place? A moment like that - it echoes through our lives and shapes the future in ways seen and unseen. And we can speculate all we want about what that moment meant. But the truth is we're trying to historify something we're still living.

ABDELFATAH: In a way, there's no better example of that than the Arab Spring. Reporters often talk about it like it has some fixed parameters in time, a thing that happened 10 years ago that we can now evaluate from a distance and make into history. But nearly all of the countries impacted by the Arab Spring are still reeling from it, the hope, the chaos, the violence. Some even called the present moment an Arab winter. But whatever you call it, the rupture didn't just happen and then stop in 2011. And the people who took to the streets then are still living it now.

ARABLOUEI: So in this episode, we wanted to get a closer look at where the seeds of revolution came from and what it felt like to experience that moment of rupture. Each country has its own complicated backstory, so we're going to focus on just three places.

ABDELFATAH: We'll begin in Tunisia, ground zero, with Dorra Agrebi...

ARGEBI: I am Dorra Agrebi. I'm 30 years old. I teach at the University of Kairouan in Tunisia.

ARABLOUEI: ...Then go to Egypt with Lina Attalah...

LINA ATTALAH: I've been working as a journalist for the past 20 years, and currently, I'm the editor of Mada Masr, which is a Cairo-based news website.

ABDELFATAH: ...And finally to Syria...

QUTAIBA IDLBI: A lot of us has kind of buried away the image we had about Syria.

ABDELFATAH: ...With Qutaiba Idlbi.

IDLBI: I'm the special representative of the Syrian opposition coalition to the United States, and I'm a fellow at the International Center for Transitional Justice.

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: And you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: Part I - Tunisia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARGEBI: I grew up in Tunis, the capital, in this place called Bardo, which is where the parliament is. So I was - I'm a city girl.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

ARGEBI: In the house I grew up in, my grandparents also lived there, which is very normal amongst Arabs to have the grandparents as well. And my grandfather is fond of gardening. And I remember our house, which is still my parents' house today, being always taken care of and having a nice garden and, you know, the jasmine tree in the summer. Like, until today, when I go to my parents' place, if I smell the jasmine, it will always recall the summer nights, also all the Ramadans.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARGEBI: I grew up with people who lived in houses that looked exactly like ours inside. I would say everybody has moved there around the '50s - all middle-class families, so we could afford to go to school. We could afford good clothes. And my parents always emphasized for me and my brother, who was five years younger than me, that education is your way of leading a better life.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARGEBI: I went to Manouba University, which is within greater Tunis, in the capital. It's a very leftist university, I would say, very socialist. And it was the biggest cultural shock of my life.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: For more than 20 years, he was an omnipresent but untouchable leader.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: He founded and ran Tunisia's military security force for 10 years before turning to politics in 1986.

ARGEBI: Every morning, there is someone on top of a table telling something about the regime, telling a story, a scandal. Arrest people for what they think. People are not really free. Maybe we don't know the truth about things. It was political, but also social and economic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Economists call it crony capitalism when political connections make a few people very rich.

ARGEBI: I would say 70% of the students were not from the capital, and most of them came from very, very underprivileged areas in the country, away from the coasts. Some of them - their parents were taken away from them, were arrested in the middle of the night. I'm not talking about exceptions here. I'm talking about many people. And these people felt the gap between the capital, between the cities on the coast and where they come from. That's when I actually discovered I was living in a country where there were people who were really poor and people who were oppressed. And maybe that's not me, that's not my family, but these people actually exist.

And we had police officers who used to sit with us - like, obviously pretending to be students, but everybody knew who they were - who sit with us in the auditorium and listen up to lectures and take notes of what the professors say and take notes of what we say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: (Reading) It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking 13.

ARGEBI: I mean, we used to study things like "1984" by George Orwell or things like that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: (Reading) Until they become conscious, they will never rebel. And until after they have rebelled, they cannot become conscious.

ARGEBI: They were not smart enough to know what the books were about. But every other week, or, like, at least once a month, we used to come and get a beating from them. Everybody who went to this university at least had one good bruise from a baton. And that made me hate the regime and hate the police because I felt the police was the arm of the regime with which it was oppressing us.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: (Reading) Before the revolution, they'd been hideously oppressed by the capitalists. They'd been starved and flogged.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARGEBI: I remember hearing about Mohamed Bouazizi on social media first. There were so many interpretations of why did he set himself on fire and so many narratives, I would say, around that. You know how social media functions. Some people would say he was slapped by this lady who works for the city council. Other people say he wasn't slapped. They just took away his cart. Some people say he has a university degree, and then we discover he doesn't have a university degree.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST AMBIENCE)

ARGEBI: There were videos. They were on Facebook - people, like, setting tires on fire and, like, throwing rocks at the police coming to disperse them and make them go home and things like that. I don't think the revolution would have happened without Facebook.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: (Reading) Just for a moment, what almost frightening power had sounded in that cry from only a few hundred throats.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: (Speaking Arabic).

ARGEBI: The 2 of January, I went to university, and I remember we were gathered, us students, trying to see what we can do, and that's the moment when one of our professors said, come with me. And then we went into the teacher's room, and there were plenty of our professors there from the department of English, from philosophy, from everywhere. And all of them were like, if something should start from this campus, it has to start with the arts and humanities, because change has always stemmed from people who read literature, from people who read philosophy. It felt so thrilling, I think - like, the rush of adrenaline and also the pride in those people who just - I thought they just taught us literature but who actually believed in the things they used to teach us.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Chanting in Arabic).

ARGEBI: And we're going out hand in hand, and I don't know, I was happy I got beaten by the police. I was not alone. There was a lot of fear, but also a lot of hope.

When my mother, you know, started worrying about me going out and protesting and all, I remember saying that these people can get to anyone. I said before, maybe you thought for a moment that you were safe from the regime, that if you do your job and you keep your head down, then you're fine. But look at us. Look at you and dad. You've been keeping your head down all your lives, but it is coming into your lives - through me, through my brother in the future - so it's inevitable. If we don't do this together, then no one is safe.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #3: (Chanting in Arabic).

ARGEBI: Bread, freedom and national dignity. It was time for the regime to fix itself. That's why I was going out. I thought there needs to be serious reforms. And then, bit by bit, the more people died, the more oppressive the regime got, we got into (speaking Arabic) - people want the regime down.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAHYA TOUNES")

EL GENERAL: (Singing in Spanish).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZINE EL ABIDINE BEN ALI: (Speaking Arabic).

ARGEBI: The president delivered a speech. It's called the fehamtkum speech, which is I understood you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BEN ALI: (Speaking Arabic).

ARGEBI: And I'm going to do things to fix that.

And then they did a bit of a stupid move, which is to cut internet because they were afraid of the flow of videos, and that made people go in the street. Even people who are not curious just wanted to go out to see what was happening. That's when I understood that this has taken a turn, like, a point of no return, basically. I felt like if the regime doesn't fall, we may be in very, very big trouble. There was police taking pictures of us and everything. They know you. They know where you are. They can come get you eventually. So I thought, this has to succeed. We have no other choice.

January 14, I remember my mother telling me, please don't go today, just today. Today, don't go out. And I was like, OK. I mean, it felt like another day. You know, we're still building up the pressure, but I didn't think it was the day.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARGEBI: And I remember this very well. My parents, my brother and I - we were watching television, and on national television, there was this sort of breaking news.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: (Speaking Arabic).

ARGEBI: And I'm like, oh, my God, he left.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: (Speaking Arabic).

ARGEBI: And my mother was, like, a bit freaking out, a little bit, you know, because she's like, are you sure that's a good thing? We will be without a government, and how will that be?

I remember my parents' reaction was very different from the one I had. I was overwhelmed. I started crying. I think that was the first time I felt like I was really free. Oh, my God, it's such a strange, strange feeling. And I remember going upstairs to my room, and I think I didn't have a smartphone back then, so I went upstairs to my laptop, and I wrote on social media, we're free. No matter what happened after that day, that feeling was definitely worth it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARGEBI: The next days, there was a lot of fear and a lot of hope and a lot of waiting. I just wanted to know what's going to happen next. I just really wanted to know.

ATTALAH: I was working as a journalist in Egypt, and I was sure that I needed to get to Tunisia and witness what was happening. But also, calls for protests in Egypt were starting to circulate. You know, my attention was organically shifted to that.

ARGEBI: We sort of here felt, like, a sense of pride, but also a sense of responsibility. We felt like, oh, this was something that we are now exporting. It's not only olive oil and dates anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: Breaking news tonight from Cairo, where after a day of unprecedented violence...

ARGEBI: The media coverage, the international media coverage, of the Tunisian Revolution - it's, like, incomparable.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: My administration has been closely monitoring the situation in Egypt.

ARGEBI: I mean, Tunisia is not Egypt is not Libya. And definitely, the stakes were not the same.

ATTALAH: Egypt is not a country in a bubble. There are repercussions to anything happening in Egypt to the whole world.

ARGEBI: Sometimes I feel that we're lucky. We're lucky they didn't pay that much attention. Maybe it wouldn't have succeeded.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: When we come back, journalist Lina Attalah takes us to Tahrir Square - Liberation Square - and inside Egypt's revolution.

JANET: Hi. This is Janet (ph) from beautiful Heidelberg, Germany, and you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ARABLOUEI: Part II - Egypt.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: It has been a very, very ugly night, and it could shape up to be an even uglier day.

ATTALAH: The security apparatus was trying to deter the protests by excessive force from Day 1 to test how far the protesters would go.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #4: (Chanting in Arabic).

ATTALAH: Tahrir square becomes the urban icon of the revolution. It's where the biggest encampment in 2011 took place.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: There was shooting, heavy shooting, into the protestors, turning Liberation Square into something of a war zone as people fought for control...

ATTALAH: Tahrir Square was an extension of my everyday life way before the revolution unfolded. The 10 years preceding 2011 were marked by the beginning of my work as a journalist and my university years. I went to the American University in Cairo, which overlooks Tahrir Square. The early 2000s were the years where a protest movement was emerging in solidarity with the Palestinian intifada.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: During the second intifada, Palestinian militants pitted themselves against Israeli troops following the breakdown of peace talks in 2000. It claimed 4,700 lives, 80% of whom were Palestinians.

ATTALAH: Later, in solidarity with the Iraqi people in the wake of the U.S. war...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: U.S. warships and planes launched the opening salvo of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

ATTALAH: ...But also the beginning of certain political mobilizations around different domestic demands - workers' rights, the right to a national minimum wage, against police brutality. What I was trying to bring in the reporting back then is that sense of discovery. I was rather interested in the rupture that these protests were making to the state of affairs that we've lived through in Egypt for years and years, specifically since the '90s.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ATTALAH: I grew up in Cairo back in the 1990s. All I remember is skipping class and spending time on the rooftop of the school, staring at the sky and just, you know, dozing off completely.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ATTALAH: It was a time where we were forced to believe that nothing much was happening. We mind our own businesses, stay home, you know, pursue our education, you know, not worry about anything, especially not worry about politics. It did feel like the state of induced sleep. I think it was the epitome of a long-term process that specifically started in the '80s in the case of Egypt.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: (Speaking Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #8: Hosni Mubarak was a former Air Force pilot who seized power in Egypt after the 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat.

ATTALAH: Mubarak was around for as long as I was around in this world. You know, no elections, nobody else has taken up this role but him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #9: This Islamic group is saying that your government is repressive, that it's denying due process, that it is not permitting democracy to flourish in your country.

HOSNI MUBARAK: That's good. That's good. We are not with democracy.

ATTALAH: He was speaking a lot of the times as a patriarch - the person telling you what to do and what not to do, what to think and what not to think.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MUBARAK: Believe me. These people, whenever they take power, there will be no kind of democracy at all. They deny government. They deny armed forces. They deny everything. So don't believe that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE")

GUNS N' ROSES: (Singing) Welcome to the jungle.

ATTALAH: Music - you know, it used to totally grab our imagination.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE")

GUNS N' ROSES: (Single) Whatever you may need, if you got the...

ATTALAH: You know, Prince, Guns N' Roses, Bon Jovi (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE")

BON JOVI: (Singing) It's all the same. Only the names will change.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #10: A brutal secret police who crush opposition.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE")

BON JOVI: (Singing) It seems we're wasting away.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILL CLINTON: The United States and Egypt have been partners in the quest for peace in the Middle East for two decades now, and I think it's important that we continue to do so.

ATTALAH: What I have learned is that repression ebbs and flows. It's there as a constant, but it also ebbs and flows. And part of this dynamic was the changing relations with the U.S.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE")

BON JOVI: (Singing) Dead or alive.

ATTALAH: Classically, Egypt has played this role for the U.S., but also the entirety of the West. It's a marker of regional stability.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #11: The waters of the Suez Canal joining the Mediterranean and Europe with the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean beyond.

ATTALAH: The Suez Canal and its, you know, centrality to international trade...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #12: The canal has existed since the 1860s, eliminating the long haul around southern Africa and thus saving time, money and energy.

ATTALAH: ...To, you know, the more complex dynamics of Israeli security.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #13: Against the tide of the Middle East, he kept the truce with Israel, which earned him lucrative military aid from the United States.

ATTALAH: Egyptian autocratic rulers, you know, have managed to engineer a narrative where the control - the political control and the repression are an accessory for the stability to survive. And that's a narrative that was most of the time accepted from the Americans and Western allies in general.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ATTALAH: As of the early 2000s, with, you know, increased exposure to technology, Egyptian young folks writing on their blogs about people's religion, people's love affairs, meanderings about freedom and written in very personalized tones, but they were extremely political. So there was a broader awakening, and I just happened to locate myself or to position myself within it by deciding to be a journalist.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ATTALAH: Mubarak was trying very hard to weaken the possibility of a movement all while seeming economically open. What he would do to put some control on this, you know, politically contentious movement that's emerging online is to basically jail the people behind these blogging sites. I must say it was an intelligent political game for quite some time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JESSICA DESVARIEUX: Sidewalks are being repaired, and there's heavy lifting. It's official. Cairo University will be the site of President Obama's speech to the world's Muslims.

ATTALAH: I remember the city being prepared for the talk - was in the summer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DESVARIEUX: On Thursday, June 4, from the university's dome Great Hall, the president will take center stage. But for now...

ATTALAH: There was a lot of anticipation about how this could mark changing influence, let's say, that the U.S. can have on the region and on Egypt.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: Good afternoon. I am honored to be in the timeless city of Cairo.

ATTALAH: There was also a lot of skepticism about, you know, what would lie beyond the rhetoric.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: As-salamu alaykum.

(APPLAUSE)

ATTALAH: So he left, and things carried on.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #5: (Chanting in Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #14: Egypt erupting.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #15: Demonstrators demand President Mubarak's resignation.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #16: Protesters are back on the streets of Cairo for a fifth straight day. Dozens have been killed; thousands wounded.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #17: The protesters hold their ground.

OBAMA: The people of Egypt have rights that are universal. That includes the right to peaceful assembly and association, the right to free speech and the ability to determine your own destiny.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #1: (Singing in Arabic).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: These are human rights. The United States will stand up for them everywhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #1: (Singing in Arabic).

ATTALAH: I like to think of the revolution as something really embodied or transcends big talks about politics and principles and ideas and abstractions. It's in your body.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ATTALAH: Moments of emancipation, even if they are temporary moments of emancipation, there's moments where you act in accordance with your first nature. So, you know, when you become your first nature, if your first nature is to dance and sing and all of that, then, of course, at a revolutionary time is the place for this nature to manifest.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ATTALAH: In my case, my job was the revolution. My job was to create that record alongside other journalists.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #18: President Hosni Mubarak has decided to step down. President Hosni Mubarak has...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #19: The army telling people that it's time for them to go home is bringing this a little closer to a confrontation.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #20: Who could fill the political void?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #21: There was another powerful force at work behind the scenes of the uprising.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #22: The opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood - they've been touted by experts as the possible next ruling party of Egypt. But if that's the case, should we be worried? Some label them as a radical Islamist group. Others say they're a moderate movement that respects democracy.

ATTALAH: Hope and despair have always been budding fellows to me. You know, they sort of feed off of each other. Ever since the revolution started, there was also a lot of anxiety of, you know, what's next? It's not just about protesting. But it's about collectively reimagining how we want this country to be like.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

IDLBI: I remember we held a vigil outside the Egyptian Embassy. You know, it was silent. But then at the end, we sang "Mawtini, Mawtini." It's the national anthem for Iraq today. It's a famous, you know, national song.

(Singing in Arabic).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAWTINI")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #2: (Singing in Arabic).

IDLBI: We were surrounded probably by a few thousand police and intelligence members filming us. In the back of everyone's minds, you know, the Syrian regime, the Assad regime was not in good relations with Mubarak. So we were kind of acting in a zone where we're like, oh, no, we're celebrating the uprising against your enemies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

IDLBI: But then once that was over, like, someone yelled from the back the beginning of a song where a prisoner is, you know, singing to his jailer and telling him, like, hey; you know, no matter how much basically you try to keep me in the darkness, there will always be light. That was the moment when kind of, like, hell broke down.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAWTINI")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing in Arabic).

ARABLOUEI: When we come back, we go to Syria with Qutaiba Idlbi.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAWTINI")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing in Arabic).

ASWAR: Hi. This is Aswar (ph) from Burlington, Vt., and you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ARABLOUEI: Part III - Syria.

IDLBI: I don't know. I don't know where to start. At least for the first 15 years of my life until 2005, whenever Syria was mentioned in slogans and propaganda, it was always called (speaking Arabic), Assad's Syria. Assad was the country. Assad was Syria. But in a way, my world kind of changed in 2005.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #13: (Singing in Arabic).

IDLBI: My father passed away in April 2005.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #13: (Singing in Arabic).

IDLBI: You know, funeral service in Damascus or generally in Syria, people will sit in, someone would be reciting Quran, and time would pass. You know, someone would come in and drink a cup of coffee, stay for five minutes, and then they leave and so on.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #13: (Singing in Arabic).

IDLBI: And that was kind of, like, the first 10 minutes of my dad's funeral service. But then suddenly, one of his friends stood up at the time, and he said, those kids deserve to know who their father is.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #1: (Singing in Arabic).

IDLBI: And he said, I will start. So he grabbed the microphone. And he said, I knew Yusef, my father. He stood against this regime. He stood for what is right since he was 16 years old. He was detained in this place and this place, trying to protect other people. Everyone else kind of, like, stood in line, and they were just doing their, you know, eulogies, talking about the time that they spent with my father. You know, I was just sitting there, and I'm like, who are you talking about? - because never in my life that my father ever spoke about what he did when he was younger. You know, for me, my dad was a publisher, an editor and maybe interested in politics from all the books we had at home. But there was nothing much to it. I'm, like, going through the process of rewriting my own history.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

IDLBI: So between 2005 and 2010, I was looking at the footsteps of my father, looking at, you know, articles or documents that he would have, the blogs he - you know, he was going into or the books that he's reading.

(Reading in Arabic).

One of the books my father worked on for a long time on the original manuscript was (speaking Arabic), "The Natures Of Tyranny And Slavery" by Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi.

(Reading) A tyrant is the enemy of truth, the enemy of freedom and the one who fight to kill them both. Truth is the father of mankind, and freedom is their mother.

I learned first that, you know, there were groups and parties who actually have been and still are involved in, you know, speaking up against the regime.

(Reading) If they wake them up, they will turn up. If they call upon them, they will respond. Otherwise, their sleep will be their path to death. And I think that started opening my eyes to the underground Syria that I never heard of from anyone else.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HAFEZ AL-ASSAD: (Speaking Arabic).

IDLBI: It started somewhere, I think around the '60s, with Hafez al-Assad.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #23: Al-Assad Senior led a peaceful coup in 1970. The following year, he became Syria's president. Over the next three decades, he ruled with an iron fist.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

IDLBI: There was a revolutionary movement happening in the '70s. Some people decided to go on demonstrations, do strikes. My father was very active at the Damascus University at the time, organizing students.

But a group of people decided to go after military leaders and take out or assassinate military leaders of the regime. Hafez al-Assad kind of went crazy not knowing, you know, who was behind this - jailed people, tortured people and starved people.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #14: It's estimated anywhere from 10 to 40,000 people were killed in the nearly month-long siege in the city of Hama.

IDLBI: People would say, like, (shushing) walls has ears. And then when they found out who the group is, an off branch of the Muslim Brotherhood at the time, they went on basically to arrest anyone at a time with a beard or anyone basically who regularly goes to mosque. By implementing that sense of fear through this machine they created, people will just volunteer up to rat on anyone they know, even their family members, just because they feared the destiny that those people might face.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

IDLBI: In the early 2000s, people had hopes in that Bashar al-Assad, as someone who, you know, was educated, partially educated in London - people had hopes that, you know, he would change things. But what kind of we didn't expect is that he will come in with his own insecurities.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

IDLBI: Bashar al-Assad grew up kind of in the shadows of his older brother, Bassel. So Bassel was kind of like the son who was always favored, who's always seen as the upcoming leader for Syria after Hafez al-Assad. Bashar was always looked down at, as, you know, this shy little brother who, you know, is going to be useless for ruling.

But then his brother died in a car accident. And you know, he became the crown prince that needs to come in and fill the position. It was always in the mentality that I need to prove all of those who didn't believe in me that they were wrong and that I can not only be my father, but I can be a stronger version of him. And he would use a stronger iron fist to hold Syria. We are the kingdom of silence.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

IDLBI: When I was 20, before the uprising, I was operating a pizza franchise business. You know, finished my two years diploma, kind of my community college, got a full scholarship to a private school. So in a way, things were up and going for me, let's say, you know, economically.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIAL-UP MODEM CONNECTING)

IDLBI: Because, of course, I mean, you know, communication increased, you have better internet is coming. And I started hearing about, you know, what's happening in the countryside outside Damascus, especially in north and in east Syria.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #24: Grievances against the authorities in the Syria he presides are many. They include corruption, the dominance of Assad's minority Alawites over the Sunni Muslim majority, economic hardship and a rising cost of living.

IDLBI: The government, you know, ended social subsidies for basic commodities between 2007 and 2010. There was the drought that displaced the agricultural society in Syria. People were starving.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

IDLBI: It was literally like "Hunger Games." Damascus was the capital where, oh, everything is going fine. But then everywhere else it was hell.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

IDLBI: One day, one of my employees basically came to me. And he said, hey, boss. Do you want a gun? - because everyone is buying a gun. And I was like, how do you know? And he mentioned one size - I think it was 9 or 14 mm gun. He said it went up from 25,000 Syrian pounds to 75,000 Syrian pounds, so literally 200%. Everyone is buying.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARTILLERY FIRING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #25: (Speaking Arabic).

IDLBI: When things were going around, you know, Tunisia, especially after Egypt fell down, some kids in elementary and middle school in the city of Daraa in southern Syria, you know, after school went out and wrote on the wall of their school, (speaking Arabic) - it's your turn, Doctor. The doctor here is the president, Bashar al-Assad, as in, like, you're next. They went to their homes. They arrested those kids. And they basically sort of, you know, held them, tortured them to know who actually wrote this sentence on the wall of the school.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #26: The picture that's been emerging on the internet from within Syria tells a story of mass protests, shootings and killings.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #27: Syria's president has blamed the unrest sweeping his country on foreign conspirators and defied calls to lift...

IDLBI: The president decided to come and give a speech. And he said, actually, all the wrong things.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASSAD: (Speaking Arabic).

IDLBI: He never apologized. He never acknowledged the problem, you know, the torturing of kids in Daraa. He said, hey; you know, if you want war, we'll give you war. What the regime that is just pulling out strategies they used back in the '70s and '80s - jail people, torture people and starve people.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #28: We remember Hama and your father, Hafez al-Assad. He ruthlessly set out to eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood. Are you simply being your father's son here?

B AL-ASSAD: I don't know what you mean by ruthless because...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #28: You know what happened at Hama.

B AL-ASSAD: I've never heard the word soft war. Have you heard about soft war? There's no soft war. War is war.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

IDLBI: What the regime did at the time was to put a siege on the city of Daraa and stop the flow of flour. So if the government stops the flour flow, basically bakeries are shutting down. But when I saw this basic image, I was like, OK, next Friday, I'm going to be in that same place.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

IDLBI: Our pizza franchise business had our own warehouse of flour. Basically, we supplied the businesses. I organized with some of my other employees. I said, like, hey; you know, let's go there, and I'll give you the flour and - like, in the warehouse. So went there basically, you know, give them the flour. But someone saw me standing with those activists, and he went and ratted me to the air force intelligence. And they called the checkpoint and said, like, hey; you know, when this car comes out, basically bring them in. Then on my way out, I was stuck.

They were like, hey; you know, the general wants to chat with you over a cup of coffee for five minutes. Of course, I mean, that cup of coffee over five minutes. There was a lot of jokes around it because the intelligence always say that when they want to arrest someone.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

IDLBI: They covered my eyes, but they didn't put cuffs on me. So basically, I took out my phone and looking from underneath the blindfold, I deleted all contacts and messages, basically cleared my phone. They pushed me to the ground, you know, hitting us with their guns while dancing and jumping on the top of me and slapping, punching. They turned electricity on - screaming, screaming, screaming. I felt my body stopped responding. And I was feeling the pain, but I didn't even have the energy to scream.

They kept me basically for five, six days. I spent 10 days in bed basically just recovering. I remember my mom walking into the room and say like, hey; you know, your uncle just got arrested - her brother. And it turns out that my uncle's detention was all about me. It was only a week before the military intelligence came after me. I knew through the interrogation that they actually had spoken to him, and he never mentioned anything to me. You know, I don't hold it against him, but like, this is the manifestation of the fear that people had - detention, torture, detention, torture, detention, torture, detention, torture.

The third time the government tried to arrest me, I basically escaped. So when they came to me and they couldn't arrest me, they tried to actually arrest my little brother. And that was kind of the breaking point for me and kind of I cannot let anyone be in the same position I was. And so I took my brother, and we left to Lebanon. And I thought maybe it's going to be - I don't know - like Egypt or even Libya, like a matter of a few months, and then we'd be back. But yeah, months turned into years, and now it's been a decade.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHVIED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #29: The decade of war that has left hundreds of thousands dead and no change in Syrian leadership.

IDLBI: In a way, I don't know if we can talk about something called Syria today. For many Syrians, they feel flagless. They feel countryless. Assad's Syria is not the Syria they want.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: That feeling of disappointment, even despair, is shared by people throughout the Arab world today. In the 10 years since the Arab Spring began, each country has grappled with varying degrees of oppression, turmoil and violence. Revolution led to change, but not necessarily for the better.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #30: An extraordinary, tumultuous few years in Egypt, the Arab Spring, the coming to power of a Muslim Brotherhood president, a coup and the emergence of a new soldier strongman, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, who clamped down on all aspects of Egyptian society.

ATTALAH: Our office has been raided. I was arrested again last year. A lot of the group, the media that have been around us have closed shop. A lot of friends happen to be in jail. I feel that we are slowly going back into something that might resemble the 1990s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #31: Democratic reforms were implemented in Tunisia, and the country did set itself apart from other nations. Observers went as far as saying Tunisia was the only success story of the Arab Spring. But was it?

ARGEBI: You know, this is the question that Tunisians don't like to ask each other nowadays, because when people ask each other this question, they basically fight about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: (Through interpreter) What changed during those 10 years is that one minister or one president replaced another, but the system remained the same.

ARGEBI: I would describe Tunisia today as this place who just keeps disappointing you just to give you one very good news that makes you not give up on it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ATTALAH: What continues to be the case is that the revolution presented the notion of possibility, even if its outcomes right now are far from the best for anyone really.

IDLBI: We are all born in places that we don't really choose. But in 2011, that was the moment where, for me, I chose to be part of this great noble movement, stood out with the people, was part of the people.

ARGEBI: Nowadays, I think I believe any place in the world could experience a revolution. You know, when you're - when you live in a dictatorship, you think a democracy is, you know, like, is ideal. And then when you live in a democracy, you start to - aspiring for a better economy, and you start aspiring for more individual rights. So I think, yeah, it can happen anywhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: That's it for this week's show. I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: And I'm Ramtin Arablouei. You've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ABDELFATAH: This episode was produced by me.

ARABLOUEI: And me and...

JAMIE YORK, BYLINE: Jamie York.

LAWRENCE WU, BYLINE: Lawrence Wu.

LAINE KAPLAN-LEVENSON, BYLINE: Laine Kaplan-Levenson.

JULIE CAINE, BYLINE: Julie Caine.

VICTOR YVELLEZ, BYLINE: Victor Yvellez.

PARTH SHAH, BYLINE: Parth Shah.

YOLANDA SANGWENI, BYLINE: Yolanda Sangweni.

ABDELFATAH: Fact-checking for this episode was done by Kevin Volkl.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks also to Leila Fadel, Ahmad Soleiman and Anya Grundmann.

ABDELFATAH: And a special shout-out to our amazing producer Parth Shah, who joined our team last fall to help launch THROUGHLINE on the radio. He's moving on to an amazing new opportunity, pursuing his dream of writing fiction. And we're really, really going to miss him.

ARABLOUEI: Parth, you are the absolute best. Thank you so much for bringing your thoughtfulness, your heart, creativity and your good humor to our team. We're so excited to see what you'll do next.

ABDELFATAH: Our music was composed by Ramtin and his band Drop Electric, which includes...

SHO FUJIWARA: Sho Fujiwara.

ANYA MIZANI: Anya Mizani.

NAVID MARVI: Navid Marvi.

ARABLOUEI: We're working on a series about capitalism. And we'd like to know, do you have questions about what capitalism is and how it works? If we can help answer something you've always wondered about, please leave us a voicemail at 872-588-8805, or email us at throughline@npr.org.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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