Still fighting for change

Hosam Katan was 17 when he joined the revolution in his country, Syria. He wanted to study to be a judge and was still attending school, but his plans got interrupted when the Arab Spring started in 2011. Like him, millions of young people from over 20 countries in the Arab world came together to demand rights from their respective governments. Different outcomes emerged in different places. In some of them, more than six years later, the revolution is still happening.

For its part, Syria is still in the middle of a civil war between the government of Bashar Al-Assad and the rebels. “There is no doubt that we need and needed a disruptive movement, but when the revolution started I was only expecting to demonstrate for a few days and end the regime quickly,” Katan says. The 23-year- old Syrian is now studying photojournalism in Germany. He started taking photos in Aleppo when the conflict started. “I want people to realise that Syrians are human beings as well, and that war can happen anywhere,” he says. Although he feels guilty for leaving his country, Katan thinks that he can help his people “by telling their stories and showing their emotions” with his images.

“I want people to realise that Syrians are human beings as well, and that war can happen anywhere.” - Hosam Katan
Hosam Katan at the 47th St. Gallen Symposium

Storytelling and access to international and social media made it possible for young people to start the revolution. As an activist and blogger from MoroccoKacem El Ghazzali (26) knows the power the internet holds: He left Morocco two days before the Arab Spring started because he was threatened with death for writing blog posts about atheism. He’s lived in Switzerland as a refugee ever since. Today he’s an advocate for freedom of thought and works as an international representative at the UN Human Rights Council. “In Switzerland, I have more rights and ways to bring the people’s voices off the internet world and into real life where diplomats and ambassadors can listen to them,” he says.

According to El Ghazzali, the internet is a more important disruption than the Arab Spring. “Social media made people inspired about other societies and made them ask themselves if what they have is what they want,” he says. However, he thinks that the Arab Spring was a failure. “So little has changed in Morocco since the Arab Spring,” El Ghazzali says. “King Mohamed VI still holds all the power.” El Ghazzali believes that the revolution failed in his country because they tried to replicate the original movement from Tunisia. “We have to prepare the people first, because copying it is not going to work,” he says. “Revolutions are social and individual experiences.”

“Social media made people ask themselves if what they have is what they want.” – Kacem El Ghazzali
Kacem El Ghazzali at the 47th St. Gallen Symposium

Even though in Tunisia the movement was a qualified success and they have free elections, Tunisian writer Samar Samir Mezghanni believes that “the Arab Spring is arguably still happening” in her country. “We are still facing threats to progress we have made because the ideas of democracy and tolerance are not been embedded in our beliefs,” she says. Mezghanni helped establish the first debate clubs in Tunisia and the region during the protests. “With the Arab Spring we learned how to express ourselves freely and respectfully,” she says. “Before that there was a lot of censorship.”

The 28-year-old writer also believes that change starts with young people. That is why she uses her books to bring universal values of tolerance and empowerment to children. “My stories are told through symbols. I express reality, but I also leave the door open for them to use their imagination,” Mezghanni says. This is important, she argues, because frustration can lead young people to express themselves in a very aggressive and violent way. “It is for the benefit of everybody for young people to speak with strong voices and not shy away from shaming older leaders today,” she says.

“With the Arab Spring we learned how to express ourselves freely and respectfully.” – Samar Samir Mezghanni, Tunisia
Samar Samir Mezghanni at the 47th St. Gallen Symposium