Young lives amid Arab upheaval
EDITOR'S NOTE: It's been more than a year since the early, heady days of what some have called the "Arab Spring" protest movements led primarily by Arab young people yearning for greater personal and political freedoms. In the months since, governments and dictators have fallen or fled in multiple countries (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen). In other places, regimes are struggling through change -- or hanging on through violent suppression of revolt (Syria, Bahrain).
See an overview story in Baptist Press today, “Whatever happened to the ‘Arab Spring’?” Meanwhile, however, what's happening behind the scenes? How is God working in the lives of young Arabs who will lead the next generation? The following stories take a glimpse into the lives of six men and women coping with radical change.
TUNISIA (BP) -- Abdel* says what he thinks and backs it up even when it gets him into trouble.
Once a hard drinker, soldier and martial artist, Abdel found trouble on a regular basis in Tunisia, birthplace of the "Arab Spring." He still does from time to time. The difference: When he gets in trouble nowadays, it's usually for telling people about Jesus, not for picking fights.
"I'm not smart like these people who can play with words," he says. "If you are wrong I say you are wrong. If you're right, OK."
The "old Abdel" surfaces occasionally, the wiry 27-year-old admits with a sheepish grin. Like the time he was caught in one of the biggest demonstrations of last year's "Jasmine Revolution," which toppled the long-ruling dictatorship of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia. That revolution, sparked by a young Tunisian who set himself on fire to protest a long string of humiliations at the hands of authorities, launched a social and political tidal wave that soon would sweep much of the Arab world.
Abdel was heading home after work one day during the height of the unrest and found himself amid thousands of protestors and police and clouds of teargas in Tunis, the North African nation's capital.
"I just wanted to go home," he insists. "So I asked the policeman who was guarding the Metro station, 'Please, can I use the Metro? It's the last train.' He said some bad words about my family and told me to get out. To me it was a question of honor. Kill me, that's OK, but don't say something bad about my mom, my dad, my family. So I put him on the ground."
Big mistake. Seven more policemen appeared and Abdel fell into a fetal position, expecting a beating he might not survive.
"I know karate, but I'm not Jackie Chan," he says. "I couldn't do anything against seven cops with weapons. So I just started to pray: 'God, I'm stuck, I'm cornered, nobody can help me except You. Help me, or I will be seeing You soon!'"
Suddenly he heard a voice yelling for the beating to stop. Out of the thousands of security personnel on the streets that day, one of the seven policemen surrounding him happened to be an old school friend. He grabbed Abdel and pulled him to safety.
"I just said, 'God, thank You.' If I spent the rest of my life thanking Him, it would be not enough."
REVOLUTION OF ONE
Abdel already was on close speaking terms with God by then. His own personal revolution had begun nearly three years before the national one.
Born into a Muslim family, he often prayed at the mosque as a young person, but argued with his father about his future. He wanted to seek higher education; his father wanted him to make money. He joined the army, but got kicked out of military school and spent a month in jail for getting into trouble. After finishing his army service, "I felt like I lost everything -- my school, my future job, my relationship with my family, everything."
Abdel found a survival job in Tunis, but drank every night. Like so many other frustrated, angry young men in the Arab world, he faced a bleak future. Then a young Muslim friend revealed to Abdel that he had decided to follow Christ. Abdel exploded at him: "What? No way! You cannot! It's wrong. We have Muhammad." His friend insisted he would not turn back, so Abdel demanded to meet with him and his other Christ-following companions to "change their minds."
Instead, Abdel found himself being challenged to change. He heard for the first time about God's passionate love for the world and plan of salvation through Jesus Christ. He talked for hours with the believers, peppered them with questions -- and went away thoroughly confused.
"I didn't know how to figure out it," he remembers. "Who was the right one? Who was the wrong one? Muhammad? Moses? Jesus? What am I going to do? I asked God, 'Give me a sign, give me something, because I'm going crazy. I want to have a special relationship with You but I don't know how. Tell me.'
"Two nights later, somebody came to me as I was dreaming. He said, 'Son, come to Me. I am the way.' I woke up in the morning and said He must be Jesus, but there was something in my heart that said, 'No, don't believe it.' But when I opened my Bible, I found [Christ's words]: 'I am the way. I am the truth. I am the life.'"
He immediately called his friends and declared, in classic Abdel style, "I want to believe. That's it. End of story."
"That was four years ago. It was the best decision I ever made. I still have some problems but they are not like before because whatever I do, I know that I have Him. When I'm tired, He will hold me. He can help me. He's the real meaning of hope. He is always with me."
Today, Abdel has a new philosophy straight out of Matthew 28, his favorite Bible passage. "Go, baptize, and teach them how to live and obey Me," he says, summarizing the last two verses of that chapter. "That's it. We really need to follow those words."
He follows them, even though the decision has cost him. He was expelled from his family for a time when he revealed he was following Jesus as Lord. They have since allowed him back but still treat him warily. He prays for them daily. He's been threatened by Islamists, but that's common for any Muslim who declares faith in Christ. For Abdel, there is no turning back.
"I'm going to follow Jesus until the end of my life -- that's it," he says. "God said they will persecute you. I'm happy with that. I figure if I don't have a hard time, something is wrong."
Besides, even some of the people who curse him want to know more about Jesus. He's ready 24/7 to tell his story and explain the Gospel. He gets calls from all kinds of people.
What do they want? Something the "Jasmine Revolution" apparently has yet to provide. Hopes soared after the Ben Ali regime fell in early 2011. But the economy has struggled, and prices have risen along with unemployment. Many Tunisians have left the country looking for work. Even Abdel almost left to find a job, but now he plans to open a small shop.
New freedoms hang in the balance as Islamists, moderates and secularists struggle for power in the new political order. But after generations of enforced silence, people are free to express their opinions and seek their own answers -- for now, at least. And they are seeking.
"Sometimes I even get calls from Salafists [militant Islamists]," Abdel reports. "They just want to know who is the right God. They want to figure out how to do this, but they don't know because they are afraid to read the Bible. So I think God is really working after the revolution."
That's why, on a clear spring day, Abdel and some of his young friends don't hesitate to sing praise songs to Jesus outside at a bustling street-corner coffee shop -- something that would have been unthinkable a few years ago, even in secularized, European-influenced Tunisia.
"They are absolutely fearless," observes an admiring friend. "They are going to speak."
As Abdel might say: That's it.
*Name changed. Erich Bridges is the International Mission Board's global correspondent.
To be free -- that’s what the “Arab Spring” protesters said they wanted last year. Have they found it? See how God is using historic change for His purposes in this video:
Take a visual tour of an Arab world in the midst of change via this photo gallery: