Saffar, 49, is a petite nurse who spent 18 years working at a Dallas hospital and came home to Bahrain with more than a little Texas twang to her English. She wears a brave smile with her jeans and favorite Christmas shirt from Dallas, but any day now, the security police could show up to take her away. Her crimes, best she can tell, were to join multitudes of Bahrainis who demonstrated for democracy early this year and then to treat protesters injured by police and military forces.
The Arab Spring arrived in this island nation with picnics and parades. Saffar, who works at the country’s biggest hospital, reveled in “the beauty of the Pearl Roundabout,” a reference to those days in February and March when tens of thousands — young and old; rich, poor and in between — gathered at the vast traffic circle in the center of the capital, Manama, encouraged by their own crown prince, who had declared protests a worthy expression of democracy.
Nine months later, in a country only slightly bigger than the District of Columbia, hopes are dashed, the uprising is crushed, and the royal family is still in charge — though deeply damaged by its own crackdown. Trust has been vaporized.
In the Arab world this year, starting in Tunisia and flowering in Egypt, a movement of people frustrated by oppressive government, corrupt leaders and a lack of jobs suddenly felt safe to take to the streets. As with all revolutions, they would live days of euphoria followed by more sober times, when the burdens of history and reality weigh heavily against the prospect of change.
A journey to three countries where ordinary people risked everything to reach for a better future reveals three very different outcomes. In Libya, perhaps the least likely of uprisings has led not only to the ousting and killing of longtime ruler Moammar Gaddafi, but also to a fast-moving, well-organized push toward elective democracy. The fall of the government has kicked up tribal rivalries and exposed a vein of religious extremism, but there is a powerful sense of optimism on the streets of Tripoli, the whitewashed capital on the Mediterranean.
In Egypt, by far the largest of the Arab nations to experience a revolt, the despised Hosni Mubarak finds himself deposed and on trial. But despite a swift move to elections, power remains in the hands of the military and the oligarchs whose economic domination was one of the protesters’ chief grievances.