10 years on from the Arab Spring, we must look back on what happened and why. The Arab Spring was a pro-democracy uprising that spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). By mid-2012 most of the actions against governments had faded, many achieved little and were met by severe violence and curbs on free speech – social media platforms like FaceBook were shut down by governments in an attempt to prevent the spread of revolutionary rhetoric.
Before considering the event itself, the term ‘Arab Spring’ must be analysed. The term was coined by Alan Lynch, an American political scientist, reporting on the events in the MENA for Foreign Policy. The term is limited in its scope because it does not fully encapsulate all the countries and peoples involved in the movement. It embodies the orientalist perception of the MENA, as theorised by Edward Said. Orientalists perceive the MENA as backward and dangerous, something that has always been in control of the Occident, the West. Lynch’s coining of the term ‘Arab Spring’ plays perfectly into this narrative, homogenising the MENA.
For example, Iran’s population is only 2% Arab, with most people identifying as Persian, Azeri or Kurdish. The country is not defined as an Arab country by the ILO Regional Office and is not part of the Arab League. Yet, it participated fully in the so-called ‘Arab Spring’. Thus, we must recognise the limitations of this term, as an orientalist perception of the events that occurred.
The ‘Arab Spring’ was started in 2011 by Mohammad Bouazizi, a Tunisian fruit trader. Bouazizi set himself on fire after the police arbitrarily confiscated his fruit leaving him penniless and unemployed. Enraged by blatant displays of corruption and kleptocracy, revolutionary spirit quickly spread across Tunisia. The state dealt with the protests violently. In the initial uprising, three hundred people were killed by the police.
This response did not seem to work because following the atrocities in January 2011, Ben Ali, the autocratic leader of Tunisia stepped down after twenty three years in power. He fled to Saudi Arabia where he was given diplomatic protection but was imprisoned in absentia (‘in their absence’) in Tunisia.
These events prompted the spread of revolutionary ideology across the MENA leading to other insurgencies – the most famous being the ‘Roundabout Revolution’ in Egypt. The trend followed that of Tunisia, with all unrest put down violently by police and other state actors. The goals of these protests were to secure democracy, economic freedom, human rights, regime change and the end of foreign intervention in MENA. These goals were achieved to varying degrees of success over the MENA.
Islamism, a political ideology based upon the teachings of the Quran influenced by Sharia Law and the Hadith, was also another undercurrent for the uprisings, especially for older protestors, who saw nationalism and secularism promoted by governments as a threat to the traditional way of life.
As initial protests faded by mid-2012, large-scale conflicts resulted. For example, the Syrian Civil War, which was instigated by the harsh treatment of civilians by Bashar al-Assad, the president, during the ‘Arab Spring’. Other conflicts that can be cited as a direct result of the ‘Arab Spring’ include, the Libyan Civil War, the Egyptian coup and subsequent crisis, the Iraqi Civil War, and the Yemeni Civil War. Furthermore, the political chaos created by some of the unrest has also allowed fringe groups of religious radicals, such as ISIS, to penetrate larger bases of power in certain countries.
Tunisia is the only place that has seen actual regime change. Sudan arguably also experienced a regime change but from one dictatorial style of government to another. Even now Sudanese people are marching for the right to vote. Analysts have argued that only the countries that have little to no oil wealth and no hereditary line of succession have experienced any change, however minuscule, in government. Royal families and other regimes based upon primogeniture, like Saudi Arabia and Libya, have too much of a familial/tribal hold over bases of power for the regimes to have any effect without complete insurgency and deposition.
Some people have argued that the ‘Arab Winter’ followed the ‘Arab Spring’’. With the slight thawing after the protests, authoritarianism has resurgence in many areas of the MENA. However, recent protests in Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt and Sudan have demonstrated that the spirit of the ‘Arab Spring’ has lived on.
The question of whether the ‘Arab Spring’ succeeded still remains. The standard answer is no. In the majority of the countries that participated there was little progressive change in the political makeup. Tunisia being the only success story.
As well as this, the anti-European imperialist feeling of the unrest has prompted Russia and China to move in on MENA, hoping to exploit its oil wealth and turn countries further against the West. However, though the objectives of the revolutionaries have not been achieved, the fact that there is a desire for regime change within MENA is arguably a success for democracy. Many experts predict that within the next decade another ‘Arab Spring’ like event will occur that will change the political landscape of MENA.