The Arab Spring

Tahrir_Square_-_February_10,_2011, Jonathan Rashad, CC 2.0

Tahrir_Square_-_February_10,_2011, Jonathan Rashad, CC 2.0

The Arab Spring

In this article, we will discuss the Arab Spring, or the Arab Uprisings of 2010-2011 that transpired throughout much of the Middle East and North Africa. We will examine the root causes of the democratic Arab uprisings for each country, the events that took place in the months during this time period, as well as that after-effects of the protests in the Middle East/North Africa. We will also examine international relations between leaders in the Middle East and throughout the world, and specifically what positions the Western state leaders took during the uprisings.

What is the Arab Spring

The Arab Spring, or the Arab Uprisings are often defined as a set of protests in North Africa and the Middle East that began in December of 2010, until the early months of 2011. These sets of protests are often described together as encompassing the “Arab Spring” the “Arab Uprisings” the “Middle East Uprisings”, or the “Arab Revolts” or the “Arab Revolutions” (New York Times, 2011). The protests took place in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, and Yemen, as well as in smaller numbers in countries such as Morocco and Saudi Arabia.

How Did the Arab Spring Start

When looking at the more immediate events that lead to the Arab Spring or Arab Uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, one has to look at what transpired in Tunisia in December of 2010. On December 17th, 2010, a Tunisian named Muhammad Bouazizi got into an altercation with a Tunisian officer. It was reported that Bouazizi was selling fruit out of a fruit cart within the city when the officer approached him and demanded that he stop doing so, because he did not have a permit. Then, the two got into an argument, and then, shortly after, the officer took his fruit cart. As it was reported, “It wasn’t the first time it had happened, but it would be the last. Not satisfied with accepting the 10-dinar fine that Bouazizi tried to pay ($7, the equivalent of a good day’s earnings), the policewoman allegedly slapped the scrawny young man, spat in his face and insulted his dead father” (Abouzeid, 2011). And as Abouzeid (2011) writes for Time Magazine, what happened afterwards was the defining moment in what would be one of the largest protest movements the region has seen. Abouzeid writes:

“Humiliated and dejected, Bouazizi, the breadwinner for his family of eight, went to the provincial headquarters, hoping to complain to local municipality officials, but they refused to see him. At 11:30 a.m., less than an hour after the confrontation with the policewoman and without telling his family, Bouazizi returned to the elegant double-storey white building with arched azure shutters, poured fuel over himself and set himself on fire. He did not die right away but lingered in the hospital till Jan. 4. There was so much outrage over his ordeal that even President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, the dictator, visited Bouazizi on Dec. 28 to try to blunt the anger. But the outcry could not be suppressed and, on Jan. 14, just 10 days after Bouazizi died, Ben Ali’s 23-year rule of Tunisia was over.”

Thus, following the act of Bouazizi setting himself on fire, Tunisians rallied to the streets to protest the policies of Tunisian President Zine el-Abedine Ben-Ali. Although much of this happened almost immediately and without a coordinated effort, the unions in the country, along with professional associations did have a role in organizing protests (Dalacoura, 2011). Thus, as thousands upon thousands were protesting against the government, Ben Ali attempted to placate the protesters by putting in place a new government, along with a new Prime Minister, Muhammad Ghannouchi (However, due to ties to Ben Ali, he himself resigned on February 27th, 2011 (Dalacoura, 2011)). However, while Ben Ali rearranged the government, he himself was initially unwilling to step down. However, in the weeks ahead, as the protests mounted, realizing that he had lost his power and authority, resigned from his political position on January 14th, 2011.

Where did the Arab Spring Spread?

The protests in Tunisia, and the successful revolution against Ben Ali sparked protests elsewhere in the region. For example, Egyptian citizens were preparing their own protests against authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak, who was in office since 1981. Egyptians took to the streets beginning on January 25th, 2011. These protests intensified, with a “Day of Rage” organized on January 28th, 2011 in Cairo and other parts of Egypt (Dalacoura, 2011). Similar to many other political leaders in the Middle East who faced massive protests at the time, when they were confronted with calls of resignation, decided to attempt to remedy the situation by installing a new government, changing various political positions, except that of their own. However, the citizens, seeing that leaders such as Hosni Mubarak were unwilling to make true reforms (by themselves stepping down), continued to march in the streets. Seeing little reprise from the protesters, Mubarak did then say that he would not run in upcoming 2011 elections (Dalacoura, 2011). However, protests continued, and shortly after, Hosni Mubarak also resigned his position as the leader of Egypt, thus leading to a second successful uprising in North Africa.

However, many have argued that while the “tipping point” was the confrontation between Muhammad Bouazizi and the security officer in Tunisia, and while many point to January 25th in Egypt as a key date in the uprisings against Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, there were many events that occurred in the years before that may have had a part in moving civil society in Tunisia, Egypt, etc… towards additional frustration with their respective governments. For example, in the case of Egypt, scholars point to a number of prior political events, that while might not have had a direct, immediate role in the Arab Spring/Arab Uprisings, did nonetheless help build the role of civil society in Egypt, and more specifically, aided in increasing the public perception that civil society could indeed publicly advocate political messages against Hosni Mubarak and the state. Interestingly, one of the earliest events that some scholars point to are protests that occurred in Cairo in the year 2000. Here, Egyptians came to the streets, but not to challenge Hosni Mubarak, but rather, to protest Israeli military actions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. As Hossam el-Hamalaway (2011) wrote on March 2nd, 2011 in The Guardian, “Only after the Palestinian intifada broke out in September 2000 did tens of thousands of Egyptians take to the streets in protest — probably for the first time since 1977. Although these demonstrations were in solidarity with the Palestinians, they soon gained an anti-regime dimension, and police showed up to quell the peaceful protests.” However, similar protests arose in Egypt in 2003, as Egyptians took to the streets, this time to speak out against the Bush Administration’s plans to invade Iraq. And it was here that “[m]ore than 30,000 Egyptians fought the police in downtown Cairo, briefly taking over Tahrir Square, and burning down Mubarak’s billboard.” Shortly following the Iraq protests in Egypt, the Egyptian human rights organization Kefaya attempted to build on this momentum and organize public protests agains the Mubarak regime. For example, many members of Kefaya organized in from of the Attorney General’s office, protesting the possibility the Hosni Mubarak would pass power to his son Gamal Mubarak, as well as calling for Hosni Mubarak to step down. At this time, such protests against Mubarak were far from common. But what they did do is bring international attention to their calls for the human rights within Egypt (Egypt Independent, 2011). However, Kefaya protests continued into the next year.

What these protests did is initiate the public expression of anti-Mubarak sentiment in Egypt. For example, as el-Hamalaway writes regarding the Kefaya activities: “Though it failed to create a mass following among the working class and the urban poor, Kefaya’s use of both social and mainstream media helped shift the political culture in the country. Millions of Egyptians, while sitting at home, could watch those daring youth activists in downtown Cairo mocking the president, raising banners with slogans that were unimaginable a decade before.”

Furthermore, others such as Bruce K. Rutherford, in the book The Arab Spring: Change and Resistance in the Middle East (edited by Mark L. Haas and David W. Lesch) argues that while some think the conditions that led to the revolution are recent, “the foundations of the Mubarak regime had been eroding for decades” (35). He argues that the rise in population led to more expectations of state subsidies that were initiated under Gamal And al-Nasser. Furthermore, the state could not continue to provide employment at levels seen decades earlier. Thus, these subsidies “became an enormous drain on the state budge, which, in turn, made the subsidies that were essential to the Nasserist social contract unaffordable” (36). However, as Egypt got into more debt, the state borrowed money from other countries, and those states were focused on advancing neoliberal economic policies. Thus, the adoption of these neo-liberal principles in Egypt eventually led to layoffs, and in turn reduced the standard of living (Rutherford, 2012: 37).  However, it was at this time that the state started to see the rise of corruption, which then led to the rise of opposition movements to Mubarak’s policies (Rutherford, 2012: 38). In fact, the Muslim Brotherhood continued to not only provide social services that the state was unable or inefficient at providing, but they also began growing in electoral power. However, Mubarak quickly stopped their influence electorally (Rutherford, 2012), often carrying out mass arrests against Muslim Brotherhood candidates and members. In fact, it was his crackdown of the Muslim Brotherhood in late 2010 that led many, even those opposed to Muslim Brotherhood positions, to speak out against Hosni Mubarak’s repressive political control.

What Caused the Arab Spring

As mentioned, the events that led to the Arab Spring/Arab Uprisings can be explained in full detail only when looking at particular conditions in every single country. However, as alluded to earlier, there are some common themes that connect the different countries where protests transpired.

Economic Factors: Poverty and Unemployment

One of the key threads throughout the protests in the Middle East and North Africa is the issue of economic frustrations by citizens in the region. For years, many have criticized their governments for doing little to help alleviate high poverty and unemployment. Many of these countries were facing high unemployment rates, and particularly among educated youth populations. These conditions of poverty and unemployment were one factor that led to frustrations with the ruling regimes, and ultimately the protests against those governments. 

Authoritarian Regimes in the Middle East

One common factor in all of the cases is the repressive authoritarian regimes of all of the countries discussed: Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt, Gaddhafi in Libya, Al Assad in Syria, and Abdullah Saleh in Yemen had all consolidated their political power, limited any opposition voices, and their regimes carried out numerous human rights abuses against their citizens. When looking at each leader, one finds scores of rights violations throughout their political tenures. For example, in the case of Tunisian Prime Minister Zine el Abedine Ben Ali, his regime was one of the most restrictive when it came to human rights in Tunisia. For example, authorities would often spy on Tunisian citizens, they would ban the formations of political organizations, and would stop any political behavior or activity when it was taking place. Furthermore, under Ben Ali, media and internet usage was monitored (and often controlled), and elections were often unfair, in favor of Ben Ali and his political party in Tunisia. These authoritarian regimes brought about conditions that frustrated citizens, which again, was another factor in the Arab Spring in 2010 and 2011. 

Frustration With Corruption

Many of the regimes were said to be highly corrupt, either in their political  and business deals, or in their acquiring of family wealth. This could be seen in Tunisia, or Libya, for example. It was believed by many that these regimes were operating businesses in large part through corruption, but following the overthrow of Ben Ali, and the overthrow of Gaddafi, it came to light that these regimes took billions from their country to fund their own businesses, buy properties, expensive material items, etc…

As Gelvin (2012) writes: “In both Tunisia and Egypt, tales of corruption took on almost mythic proportions. The inhabitants of both are used to dealing with policeman and civil servants with their hands out (because salaries are low, bribery is effectively written into the economic system). But during the uprisings, protesters vented their rage on corruption at the top…In both Tunisia and Egypt, privatization of government owned assets fed the corruption; those who had connections with, for example, the ruling party, or more important the president’s family, were most successful in acquiring public enterprises, usually at bargain-basement rates” (40).

Social Media

Social media has been argued to have played a role in the Arab Spring. Just how big of a role has been a point of disagreement amongst scholars (which is discussed below). Many have argued that social media platforms allowed individuals to promote their content (such as political messages), as well as logistics of protests (where they will be held, what time, etc…). Furthermore, some have suggested that social media also “played an important role in building a shared identity and purpose among critics of the regime. Dissidents often feel alone and powerless. Social media helped to overcome these feelings of isolation and provided many thousands of Egyptians with a sense of connection  to the noble cause of transforming their country” (Rutherford, 2012: 40). (We have discuss the role of social media with regards to the Arab Uprisings in more detail here).

Traditional Media

While there has been a great deal of attention to the role of social media in the Arab Uprisings, it important that one doesn’t forget the role of traditional media with regards to the Arab Spring. While traditional media–like social media–was limited or restricted, there were also publications, through print media or other more “traditional” forms of media that would challenge the governments of their behaviors. 

Organizational Success of Civil Society

Civil society–and specifically those in organizations–were also very active in these protests. For example the Youth April 6 movement worked to announce protests, increase turnout at events, and were effective with media (Rutherford, 2012). For example, one can look to labor movements in both Tunisia and Egypt as key actors in shaping the progression of protest in the respective states. As Gelvin (2012) writes: “Labor thus came to play a key–and some would say pivotal–role in the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. In Tunisia, union activists exploited their talent for organizing early on to broaden the base of the protests, particularly among unemployed and underemployed youths” (56). Gelvin goes on to say that “Professional associations (syndicates), such s those that represented lawyers and doctors, also joined the protests and were among the first to link economic grievances with political demands. Under mounting pressure from its rank and file, and with wildcat strikes breaking out throughout the country, the UGTT [(the main labor union in Tunisia)] broke with the regime and threw its weight behind the uprising” (56). There were similar civil society movements in Egypt as well. Here, various groups within civil society (labor, students, other professional associations) came together through work walkouts to protest Mubarak’s regime (Gelvin, 2012).

The Military’s Relationship with Civil Society

Another factor in the occurrence of the Arab Spring has to do with the role that each state’s military had with the respective regimes. In places where the military leaders’ interests lined up with supporting the current regime, overthrowing the government did not happen without a fight (Libya, and currently in Syria). However, in places where the military had their own agenda, and their own business interests outside of the state, then they were more willing to allow the protests to transpire without intervening on behalf of the ruling regime. 

In Tunisia, leaders since the independence of the country attempted to reduce the role of the military, and instead, shift more power towards domestic police forces. Part of this was because of the lack of need for a large military–given few external concerns to the country (Gelvin), and also, Habib Bourguiba, or Ben Ali recognized that the military could have been a threat to their rule. So, they purposely kept the military weak in order to not only consolidate their power, but to better check any potential revolt from military elites.

Egypt was different in that the military, unlike Tunisia’s military, was highly connected and involved in the politics of the state. It must be remembered that Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak all came from the military. The military elites were said to have high control over various aspects of the economy, and thus, had a stake to ensure that their interests were maintained. Mubarak, while in office, kept them economically and politically well off. However, when Mubarak was being threatened by the protests, the military had to make a decision as to whether they would risk going against the protesters, or allow Mubarak to leave. By taking this option, they could be viewed as siding with civil society, all the while still ensuring their economic interests were in place.

Limited Explanations of What Caused the Arab Spring

However, even though these are partially the conditions that helped lead to civil unrest in the region, it does not help explain why these factors, at this time, led to the protests, for there are many state leaders who continue to repress civil and human rights, have poor socio-economic programs for their citizens, and continue to rule with an iron fist. And yet, we do not see successful revolutions in these states. As Katerina Dalacoura, writing in 2011 explains, “two possible explanations can be suggested, although neither of them is fully convincing. The first is that pre-existing civil society and political opposition groups have prepared the ground for the rebellions and were able, when the time came, to coordinate them. The second is that the unprecedentedly widespread use of social media and other means of communication made the rebellions possible and increased their strength and inclusiveness” (67). There has been critics of both of these arguments.

Regarding the issue of opposition groups were more prepared, while this might be true in certain smaller cases, the protests in the Arab Spring were rather spontaneous; there was little planned action until days before the protests. There is little evidence to suggest that protesters were much more prepared and organized than in the years past, which, while receiving attention, did not lead to regime change. Secondly, regarding the issue of social media, clearly platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, etc… were used by protesters in their coordination efforts. However, others have suggested that its contribution to the overall protests were actually overblown by media and others. James Gelvin (2012), in his book The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know, wrote on this disagreement regarding the role of social media, saying that: “The debate about the importance of social media in the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings has involved two opposing camps, one made up of cyberphiles and the other cyberskeptics. The cyberphile arguments underscore the essential role technology played in creating a community of protest in cyberspace…; the rapid spread of social media in the region,…Facebook memberships increased in the broader Middle East 360 percent…; and the calls made by Egyptian Facebook pages for the January 25 protests that initiated the uprising…” (51). However, critics have argued that social media has been used in protests before, to little or no avail; this might thus be a selection on the dependent variable, instead of looking at all cases where social media presence was high, and whether that in turn led to a revolution or not. In addition, many Egyptians still do not have access to the internet (Gelvin, 2012). Moreover, as Gelvin (2012) argues, “[t]he most convincing argument made by cyberskeptics…is that attributing the uprisings to social media transforms the true heroes of the uprisings–the participants–from protagonists to patsies who act not because they choose to but because they are somehow technologically compelled to” (51). And it seems that most were not using the internet for anti-government activities before the revolutions began (Egypt Human Development Report: 2010, in Gelvin, 2012: 51).

Others have taken what seems to be a position that while social media did of course matter, it would not be useful if it was not coupled with what was happening in the streets (Khondker, 2011: 678). For example, the conditions that have been discussed above clearly were on the minds of those who protests publicly against the regimes. And while some believed that it was a matter of time before large-scale protests would have happened, it was social media that helped facilitate the protests much quicker (Stepanova, 2011).

Why Didn’t the Arab Spring Happen Everywhere?

Like every other region in the world, the policies of the Middle East and North Africa differ depending on the country that one is examining. Because while there were indeed some  similarities within the different uprisings of the Middle Eastern states, as Katerina Dalacoura (2011) states, “thinking in terms of ‘Arab’ events–or even an Arab event–may also constitute a set of blinkers. First, by compelling us to search for common trends and characteristics, it prevents us from seeing the profoundly different causes, contexts and outcomes of the developments of 2011–from seeing that each uprising was different, focused on domestic, national issues and comprehensible in its own light. Second, it stops us from placing these developments in other, possibly, equally relevant, contexts of crisis and contestation” (63). Thus, in order to understand why every country in the Middle East did not lead to a revolution against their respective leaders, it is important to look at specific and individual conditions within each state.

What Was the Role of the West in the Arab Spring?

The Western states’ approach towards the democratic movements during the Arab Spring were far from unified, and far from openly supportive of the protesters against the various authoritarian regimes. Much of this stems from the fact that different western states had (and continue to have) a host of economic and political interests in the region, and for many, these leaders would continue to support such goals and interests. For some, they wanted these leaders to stay in power because they provided economic deals that were beneficial to the European state. In other cases, these leaders were willing to allow US military to establish bases in their country. For others, they were willing to overlook human rights aggressions because these leaders were willing to support them in the “War Against Terror” (Ramadan, 2012).

As Tariq Ramadan states in his book Islam and the Arab Awakening, “[f]or the West the democratization of the Arab world has never been an end in itself. What matters above all else is regional stability and securing Western economic interests. For decades Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, and–crucially–Egypt stood guard over the geopolitical and economic interests of Europe and the United States” (53).

And when one looks at what Western leaders said and did during the initial protests, it becomes evident that they did not have in mind democratization, but rather, political interests. Three examples that help illustrate outside positions are the cases of protests in Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria. In the case of Tunisia, Ben Ali had one of the most repressive rights regimes in the world. Yet, organizations such as the World Bank viewed Tunsia has being “far ahead in terms of government, effectiveness, rule of law, control of corruption and regulatory quality” (Khalaf, Daneshku, & Thompson, 2011, quoted again in Muedini, 2012). In addition, in a Guardian report (Traynor & Willsher, 2011) is was written that “days before the Tunisian dictator fled to Saudi Arabia…, the French foreign minister, Michele Alliot-Marie, outraged liberals and human rights activists by proposing to dispatch French security forces to Tunis to shore up the unpopular regime.” However, this was not just one statement of support for Ben Ali’s regime from one politician; other such as Nicholas Sarkoszy a few years before the uprisings, supported Ben Ali and his role in increasing civil liberties in the country (Traynor & Willsher, 2011).

Arab Spring Books

James Gelvin: The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know

Marc Lynch: The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East

Marc Lynch (Editor): The Arab Uprisings Explained: New Contentious Politics in the Middle East

David W. Lesch & Mark L. Haas (Editors): The Arab Spring: Change and Resistance in the Middle East



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Gelvin, J. L. (2012). The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford, England. Oxford University Press.

el-Hamalaway, H. (2011). Egypt’s Revolution Has Been 10 Years in the Making. The Guardian. March 2nd, 2011. Available Online:

Khalaf, R., Daneshkhu, S. & Thompson, J. (2011). France Regrets Misjudgment Over Ben Ali. The Financial Times.  January 18th, 2011. Available Online: 

Khondker, H. H. (2011). Role of the New Media in the Arab Spring. Globalizations, Vol. 8, No. 5, pages 675-679.

Muedini, F. (2012). Islam and Democracy in the Context of the Arab Spring. Islam and Muslim Societies: A Social Science Journal, Vol. 5, No. 1.

Ramadan, T. (2012). Islam and the Arab Awakening. Oxford, England. Oxford University Press.

Rutherford, B. K. (2012). Chapter 2: Egypt: The Origins and Consequences of the January 25 Uprising, pages 35-63. In The Arab Spring: Change and Resistance in the Middle East, Edited by Mark L. Haas and David W. Lesch. Westview Press.

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Stepanova, E. (2011). The Role of Information Technology Communications in the “Arab Spring.” PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo No. 159, May 2011, pages 1-6. Available Online:

Traynor, I. & Willsher, K. (2011). Tunisian Protests Have Caught Nicholas Sarkozy Off Guard, Says Opposition. The Guardian. Monday January 17th, 2011. Available Online:

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