Mohamed Bouazizi, bandaged and tubed, was photographed with the the dictator Ben Ali on December 28, days after his suicidal gesture in front of the town hall of Sidi Bouzid, in protest at the police confiscation of his fruit vending cart. This was the spark that set Tunisia on fire, and then the rest of the Arab region.
That was just two years ago. Four dictators gone: Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen. A long and bloody war in Syria with no outcome in sight. A transformation of the region's political map, from the iron gray of dictatorship to Islamist green. A geopolitical displacement: unlike what happened after 1989 with the fall of communism, now Europe counts for little; the US is losing steam and trying remote control; Russia and China are making their presence felt; and the oil regimes of the Gulf are walking tall thanks to their money and alliances with Washington. The dynamic of change has also intensified the cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which stems from the sectarian division between Sunni and Shiite, and rivalry for regional hegemony. Only one variable remains unaltered, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, neither party being capable of a move toward peace.
Such is the balance of the two years gone by since the Arab tsunami began. Though much has changed, some observers are disinclined to admit its importance. The so-called Arab Spring has turned to Islamist winter. The globalized, secular youth of the first revolts have given way to experienced Islamist militants, organized and obstinately set in their fundamentalist ideas. It is they who are taking power, with the aim of creating a state built upon Islamic law.
The center of the Arab world is still conditioned by the agreements that tie the Egyptian army to the United States and Israel
The revolution (if it is one) that began on the outskirts of Tunis is now, once again, focused on the center of the Islamic world: in Cairo, in Tahrir Square, where so many fights for liberty have been, and are still being waged. Instead of Mubarak, the Muslim Big Brother Mohamed Morsi is now in power, cunningly seized in a series of chess moves since he narrowly won the presidency half a year ago. He has shown a desire to play an international role, in the Syrian civil war, in the tense relations between Riyadh and Tehran, and as an intermediary between Palestinians and Israelis.
He has also managed the hurried approval of a new Constitution, despite abstention and protests in the street by non-Islamist forces. But the final result is worrying, and augurs a period of instability; with a poor turnout for the referendum (a third of the voters) and the adverse result in Cairo (almost 60 percent "no" votes), he does not enjoy the minimum of consensus proper to a democracy, so that he must seek new moral authority in legislative elections within two months, and in a flexible interpretation of the Constitution.
So stands the center of the Arab world, still conditioned by the agreements that tie the Egyptian army to the United States and Israel since the Camp David peace in 1978. This alliance gave an aura of invulnerability to Mubarak, but two years after his fall the alliance is what still remains. The Egyptian military have got what they wanted. The new Constitution recognizes the autonomy they claimed from the first moment, in both budgetary and defense policy.
Where the revolution (if it is one) is taking the highest toll, is in Syria, the question now being what will come after Bashar Al-Assad. At lower temperatures, the flame is still alive in Bahrain where, in the shadow of the Saudi monarchy, the family regime of Al Khalifa is containing the democratic demands of the Shiite majority. It has sprung up, too, in Jordan.
Two years later, the balance is necessarily provisional. The tempo today bears no comparison to the initial brio. If it is indeed a revolution, it has only just begun.