The Arab Spring was a series of anti-government protests, uprisings and armed rebellions that spread across the Middle East in early 2011. But their purpose, relative success and outcome remain hotly disputed in Arab countries, among foreign observers, and between world powers looking to cash in on the changing map of the Middle East. The term “Arab Spring” was popularized by the Western media in early 2011, when the successful uprising in Tunisia against former leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali emboldened similar anti-government protests in most Arab countries. The term was a reference to the turmoil in Eastern Europe in 1989, when seemingly impregnable Communist regimes began falling down under pressure from mass popular protests in a domino effect. In a short period of time, most countries in the former Communist bloc adopted democratic political systems with a market economy. But the events in the Middle East went in a less straightforward direction. Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen entered an uncertain transition period, Syria and Libya were drawn into a civil conflict, while the wealthy monarchies in the Persian Gulf remained largely unshaken by the events. The use of the term the “Arab Spring” has since been criticized for being inaccurate and simplistic.
Aim of Arab Spring
The protest movement of 2011 was at its core an expression of deep-seated resentment at the ageing Arab dictatorships (some glossed over with rigged elections), anger at the brutality of the security apparatus, unemployment, rising prices, and corruption that followed the privatization of state assets in some countries. But unlike the Communist Eastern Europe in 1989, there was no consensus on the political and economic model that existing systems should be replaced with. Protesters in monarchies like Jordan and Morocco wanted to reform the system under the current rulers, some calling for an immediate transition to constitutional monarchy, others content with gradual reform. People in republican regimes like Egypt and Tunisia wanted to overthrow the president, but other than free elections they had little idea on what to do next. And, beyond calls for greater social justice there was no magic wand for the economy. Leftist groups and unions wanted higher wages and a reversal of dodgy privatization deals, others wanted liberal reforms to make more room for the private sector. Some hardline Islamists were more concerned with enforcing strict religious norms. All political parties promised more jobs but none came close to developing a program with concrete economic policies.
Success or Failure
Arab Spring was a failure only if one expected that decades of authoritarian regimes could be easily reversed and replaced with stable democratic systems across the region. It has also disappointed those hoping that the removal of corrupt rulers would translate into an instant improvement in living standards. Chronic instability in countries undergoing political transitions have put additional strain on struggling local economies, and deep divisions have emerged between the Islamists and secular Arabs. But rather than a single event, it’s probably more useful to define the 2011 uprisings as a catalyst for long-term change whose final outcome is yet to be seen. The main legacy of the Arab Spring is in smashing the myth of Arabs’ political passivity and the perceived invincibility of arrogant ruling elites. Even in countries that avoided mass unrest, the governments take the quiescence of the people at their own peril.
The Root Causes of the Arab Awakening in 2011
1. Arab Youth: Demographic Time Bomb
Arab regimes have been sitting on a demographic time bomb for decades. According to the UN Development Programme, the population in Arab countries more than doubled between 1975 and 2005 to 314 million. In Egypt, two-thirds of the population is under 30. Political and economic development in most Arab states simply could not keep up with the staggering increase in the population, as the ruling elites’ incompetence helped lay the seeds for their own demise.
The Arab world has a long history of struggle for political change, from leftist groups to Islamist radicals. But the protests that started in 2011 could not have evolved into a mass phenomenon had it not been for the widespread discontent over unemployment and low living standards. The anger of university graduates forced to drive taxis to survive, and families struggling to provide for their children transcended ideological divisions.
3. Ageing Dictatorships
The economic situation could stabilize over time under a competent and credible government, but by the end of the 20th century most Arab dictatorships were utterly bankrupt both ideologically and morally. When the Arab Spring happened in 2011, Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak had been in power since 1980, Tunisia’s Ben Ali since 1987, while Muammar al-Qaddafi ruled over Libya for 42 years. Most of the population was deeply cynical about the legitimacy of these ageing regimes, although until 2011 most remained passive out of fear of the security services, and due to an apparent lack of better alternatives or fear of an Islamist takeover).
Economic hardships can be tolerated if the people believe there is a better future ahead, or feel that the pain is at least somewhat equally distributed. Neither was the case in the Arab world, where the state-led development gave place to crony capitalism that benefited only a small minority. In Egypt, new business elites collaborated with the regime to amass fortunes unimaginable to the majority of the population surviving on $2 a day. In Tunisia, no investment deal was closed without a kick-back to the ruling family.
5. National Appeal of the Arab Spring
The key to the mass appeal of the Arab Spring was its universal message. It called on the Arabs to take back their country away from the corrupt elites, a perfect mixture of patriotism and social message. Instead of ideological slogans, the protesters wielded national flags, along with the iconic rallying call that became the symbol of the uprising across the region: “The People Want the Fall of the Regime!”. The Arab Spring united, for a brief time, both secularists and Islamists, left wing groups and advocates of liberal economic reform, middle classes and the poor.
6. Leaderless Revolt
Although backed in some countries by youth activist groups and unions, the protests were initially largely spontaneous, not linked to a particular political party or an ideological current. That made it difficult for the regime to decapitate the movement by simply arresting a few troublemakers, a situation that the security forces were completely unprepared for.
7. Social Media
The first mass protest in Egypt was announced on Facebook by an anonymous group of activists, who in a few days managed to attract tens of thousands of people. The social media proved a powerful mobilization tool that helped the activists to outwit the police.
8. Rallying Call of the Mosque
The most iconic and best-attended protests took place on Fridays, when Muslim believers head to the mosque for the weekly sermon and prayers. Although the protests were not religiously inspired, the mosques became the perfect starting point for mass gatherings. The authorities could cordon off the main squares and target universities, but they could not close down all mosques.