World

Ten Years Later – How the Arab Spring changed the world

BY Jack Dickens | tweet jackfdickens   /  17 December 2020

On this day ten years ago, at approximately 11:30 am on the morning of 17 December 2010, a twenty-six year-old Tunisian man, a street vendor from a village nearby the town of Sidi Bouzid, did something extraordinary. After acquiring a can of petrol, he took himself before the local governor’s office, doused his body, and set himself on fire. That man was Mohamed Bouazizi and his dramatic act of self-immolation was the spark that ignited the Arab Spring – the wave of protests and uprisings that shook rulers and rocked regimes across the Arab World from the winter of 2010-11 and onwards.

After being subjected to a public humiliation at the hands of heavy-handed officials who had confiscated his fruit and vegetable cart, Bouazizi tried to voice his grievances to the governor in Sidi Bouzid, who refused to give him a hearing. With his livelihood arbitrarily confiscated and without recourse to justice, that was when he took his ultimate action. In an interview with TIME Magazine in January 2011, not long after her son had died of his wounds in hospital, Bouazizi’s mother said that “Mohamed did what he did for the sake of his dignity.”

This demand for dignity captures why this moment was at once so significant and so powerful. Bouazizi’s experience resonated because it was symptomatic of wider problems and injustices experienced throughout the Middle East and North Africa. His desperation channelled popular anger at a world of paternalistic petrodollar states, self-serving security apparatuses, and kleptocratic strongmen, where economic opportunities were scarce and political rights were firmly restricted.

In Tunisia itself, Bouazizi’s act of protest quickly became a symbol of defiance that inspired an upsurge of opposition to the regime of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Within a month, on 14 January 2011, Ben Ali had fled the country for Saudi Arabia, relinquishing twenty-three years of personal rule and leaving Tunisia to begin its transition to a constitutional, civilian-led democracy.

The initial phase of Tunisia’s remarkable revolution was over, but the Arab Spring was just getting started. As the winter of 2010-11 progressed, the tide of revolt spread further – on 25 January 2011, Egypt witnessed its “Day of Wrath”, as protestors coordinated street demonstrations and converged on Cairo’s Tahrir Square. By 11 February, the country’s dictator, Hosni Mubarak, had resigned as president after it became clear that the army, long hostile to his plans to pass on his office to his son Gamal in hereditary succession, considered him to be a liability and refused to crack down on protestors.

Further uprisings then followed in what appeared to be a cascading, irresistible wave – protest movements mobilised in Yemen on 15 January 2011, setting in train a series of events that would eventually force President Ali Abdullah Saleh to agree to a Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered transfer of power in November. In quick succession, on 14 and 15 February, intense mass demonstrations sprang up in Bahrain and Libya respectively. In March, a brutal confrontation between the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and protestors in Syria had got underway.

Across the region, from Tahrir Square in Cairo to Taghir Square in Sana’a, the refrain of the Arab Spring, “The people want the fall of the regime”, could be heard. These sonorous words were painted on banners in Egypt, chanted at Bahrain’s Pearl Roundabout, and graffitied on city walls in Syria – a powerful call for change that echoed throughout the Arab World.

Alongside these uprisings, further protests – with a variety of different demands – also took place in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Iran’s Khuzestan province, which is home to a large number of Iranian Arabs. Some of these were placated with swift concessions from rulers, others were met with crackdowns and the strong arm of state security forces.

Despite the early hope and promise of these protests and revolts, the Arab Spring quickly evolved into a harsher winter, leaving complex legacies, civil wars and dashed dreams in its wake. Only in Tunisia, it seems, has a relatively stable, if imperfect, post-authoritarian order emerged. As Tarek Masoud, Jason Brownlee, and Andrew Reynolds write in their 2015 book on the Arab Spring, the very use of the word “spring” carries a tragic “dual connotation of tremendous political potential and inevitable setback.”

And yet, after all the high hopes and bitter disappointments of the last ten years, the tremors and aftershocks of Mohamed Bouazizi’s act and the events that followed it are still having a profound impact on the world today. There is much to reflect upon. This is why I have gathered together voices to shed light on the significance of this ten-year anniversary. The contributors here are civilians, activists, journalists, writers, and academics from the Middle East and North Africa, and from outside – some of them participated in the uprisings that took place across the Arab World a decade ago; others are expert observers. All of them have experienced and examined the forces unleashed by the Arab Spring in one way or another.

It is a privilege to present their views on this momentous date. Their reflections will help to ensure that the brave protestors who took to the streets and squares in the winter of 2010-11 to demand their dignity, fight for freedoms, and express their hopes for a better future are not forgotten. They write for those who cannot.

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The Arab Spring is not a closed episode; it is an era of the Middle East and North Africa’s history that is still ongoing

İyad el-Baghdadi is an internationally-renowned Arab Spring activist and an expert on authoritarianism in the Middle East and North Africa. He is the President of the Kawaakibi Foundation and Editor-in-Chief of the Arab Tyrant Manual.

The 2010-11 uprisings were a culmination of a prolonged legitimacy crisis that precedes 2010-11 and has only intensified since. The start of an uprising is not mobilisation, it’s a broken social contract. The chant “the people demand the downfall of the regime” is, if you give it a second look, very radical. The protesters in 2010-11 and more recently, in 2019, are no longer asking their governments for solutions. They no longer believe they can be reformed; they want them gone.

The Arab ancien régime still refuses to acknowledge the need for reform while failing to fix the structural problems that led to the uprisings – problems such as corruption, unemployment, inequality, state violence, poor services, and the marginalisation of most citizens from decisions about their future. Their response is still, tragically, to lie, repress, and stall.

Across the region you see democratic transitions, popular uprisings, authoritarian consolidation, proxy wars, civil wars, refugee waves, and terror waves coexisting within the same ecosystem. So many see only chaos, but I see an intergenerational transition that will play out over 30 years or so. Such transitions are not linear and many of the parties that seem to have “won” after 10 years may have already succumbed to their tragic, unsustainable contradictions 20 years from now.

What most observers fail to see is that the Arab Spring is not an event that took place in 2010-11; it is an era of the Middle East and North Africa’s history that began in 2010-11. I’m not writing these words ten years after the Arab Spring but ten years into the Arab Spring. European observers in particular seem to forget what Europe’s own transition to democracy looked like – it took thirty-one years, involved two world wars and caused 100 million deaths.

What does the future look like? The 2019/2020 Arab Public Opinion poll can give us some clues. An emphatic 76% of Arabs polled said they prefer a democratic form of governance; those who supported Islamist rule or military rule were in the minority. A full 58% said the 2011 uprisings were positive despite their aftermath and only 30% said that the Arab Spring is over and the regimes had won.

Egyptian anti-government protesters read newspapers in Tahrir Square, Cairo, on February 5, 2011. The banner in the background states: “The people want the fall of the regime”. PATRICK BAZ/AFP via Getty Images.

The Arab World’s dictators are on notice – they know that their populations desire and demand government of decency

Charles Kurzman is Professor of Sociology and co-director of the Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of several essays, articles, chapters and books on the Arab Spring and the Iranian Revolution.

On the morning of December 17, 2010, La Presse de Tunisie, Tunisia’s oldest newspaper, led with a story about President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s meeting with the foreign minister of Qatar, at which the two men shared salutations and fraternal sentiments. Another article covered the Prime Minister’s speech to the upper house of parliament about Ben Ali’s initiatives to “promote political life” – not all at once, the prime minister cautioned, but through a series of phases in conformity with “well-defined contours and objectives that take into consideration the evolution of society.”

In related news, the head of the chamber expressed his “esteem and loyalty” to Ben Ali for “the achievements accumulated by Tunisia under his wise leadership,” and consecrated the parliamentary session with the slogan: “With Ben Ali, we have succeeded, and with him we shall continue.”

The newspaper could not have known that a young man in central Tunisia would set himself on fire in protest later that day, or that mass protests would follow, sweeping Ben Ali and his coterie from power less than a month later, after twenty-three years of dictatorial rule. Nobody imagined that mass protests would soon topple Hosni Mubarak after twenty-nine years of dictatorial rule in Egypt and Muammar al-Qaddafi after forty-one years of dictatorial rule in Libya and Ali Abdullah Saleh after thirty-one years of dictatorial rule in Yemen; and later Abdelaziz Bouteflika after twenty years of dictatorial rule in Algeria and Omar al-Bashir after twenty-nine years of dictatorial rule in Sudan.

Since that day ten years ago, all but one of the Arab presidents-for-life – all but Bashar al-Assad, now in his 21st year of dictatorial rule in Syria – were forced out of office, not by coups or foreign conquest as in previous decades, but by mass protest. Prime ministers in the corruption-ridden semi-democracies, Iraq and Lebanon, have also been forced out by mass protest. Only the monarchies have, thus far, withstood the storm.

Over the past decade, the hopeful aspirations of the Arab uprisings have been violently suppressed by militaries and militias. To date, Tunisia alone has managed to build new political institutions, and even these institutions suffer under a longstanding state of emergency.

But the memory of the uprisings haunts the region. Dictatorial rulers know that their populations desire and demand government of decency and respect for rights, even if these demands cannot be safely expressed. The populations know this as well. So does the rest of the world, even as governments and corporate leaders cynically cater to the current regimes’ pretensions to legitimacy.

The uprisings that began ten years ago today have indelibly marked the history of the Arab World. A generation of tyrants has fallen, and the next generation of tyrants is on notice.

Protesters scale government buildings outside the Tunisian Prime Minister’s office in Tunis on January 23, 2011. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images.

Lessons from the Arab Spring have been internalised – evolutionary rather than revolutionary change is now seen as the path to progress and support for political Islam is in retreat

Emma Sky is Director, Yale World Fellows, and a Senior Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute. She is the author of In a Time of Monsters: Travels Through a Middle East in Revolt.

A decade ago, I was swept up in the excitement of events in the Middle East, as young people came out on to the streets and squares across the Arab World to demand dignity and justice and dictators were toppled. I travelled the region, experiencing the energy and camaraderie of the revolutions.

But visions of utopia were replaced by dystopia. Sclerotic regimes proved incapable of reform. They either clung on or collapsed. Dreams of new orders based on rights and justice were shattered in civil wars – and in among the chaos, ISIS – the son of al-Qaeda in Iraq – spread like a poisonous weed.

People fled the region, crossing the Mediterranean Sea on flimsy boats to seek refuge in Europe. ISIS conducted horrific terrorist attacks in Europe, seeking to provoke a backlash against Muslims – and to recruit more Muslims to their cause. All of this aroused populist, nativist and anti-immigration sentiments, profoundly impacting Western politics, not least the UK, where limiting immigration was a key driver of the British decision to leave the EU.

In Syria, Libya, and Yemen, hundreds of thousands have been killed and millions displaced from their homes. Egypt has reverted back to dictatorship. And police states have tightened their grip even further under the guise of Covid-19. Pax Americana is ending – but a new regional order still struggles to be born.

And yet the region is not without hope. Lessons have been internalised from the experiences of 2011. Evolutionary rather than revolutionary change is seen as the path to progress. There is widespread rejection of extremism and the instrumentalisation of religion. Support for political Islam is in retreat.

In Iraq and Lebanon, new generations are displaying nationalist solidarity with their demands for an end to their sectarian systems of government and the corruption integral to them, leading to the resignation of their governments and building pressure for meaningful reforms.

With the US signaling its retreat from the region, Gulf countries have begun pushing back on Iranian aggression by allying with Israel, normalising relations with the Jewish state, and opening up to further diversify their economies and provide new opportunities for their citizens.

Protestors pack out Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square in a mass demonstration against the government, on 28 October 2019. Image via diplomedia/Shutterstock.

The Arab uprisings were inevitable and at the root of the reasons behind them were reactions to systems of injustice

Dr H.A. Hellyer is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in London. He is the author of A Revolution Undone: Egypt’s Road Beyond Revolt.

As the 10th anniversary of the Arab revolutionary uprisings comes around, I struggle a bit to say what it means to me. I was in Egypt when they began, having just left England, and I remained in Egypt for much of the decade thereafter. I often say that I lived in two years of the Arab Spring what I had lived in more than five years before it.

As a writer and commentator, I probably wrote more in that period than in any period prior to it, or since it – such was the richness of the experience. As an Englishman on my father’s side, attached to institutions in the UK and the US, I felt a keen sense of responsibility to explain the events to those outside of the region. But as an Arab of Egyptian, Sudanese, and Moroccan heritage on my mother’s side, it was a deeply impactful period upon me as a person – a time of hopes and dreams, and disappointments and pain. I will forever be grateful for having been given the opportunity to witness that time, nevertheless.

My analysis remains today what it was then: that the Arab uprisings were inevitable, and that at the root of the reasons behind them were reactions to systems of injustice. Those systems have not disappeared, and if anything, the factors that spurred such reactions continue to this day. The structural reasons are to be found in the post-colonial realities of these states; indeed, I see the uprisings as a way that “unfinished business” was attempted.

I do think we’ve pre-emptively concluded that most of the uprisings came to nothing – the effects of those uprisings remain important in understanding the region, and it will be decades before we are truly in a position to fully understand their consequences.

Egyptians gathering in Tahrir Square, Cairo, on 4 February 2011. Tarek Ezza/Shutterstock.

I believed in our ability to change Syria’s destiny; freedom, democracy, tolerance, and social justice finally seemed to be within reach

Zaina Erhaim is an award-winning journalist, writer, and communications director with IWPR. She is originally from Idlib, Syria, and was a participant in the Syrian uprising between 2011-16.

I closely followed the revolutions in Egypt and Libya while I was doing my master’s degree in London. I participated in the demonstrations in front of their embassies and so did my friends in Damascus, but unlike me, they were harshly beaten by the regime’s security forces and got arrested.

That for me was the actual start of the Syrian uprising, which I had been waiting for since 2008 when a close friend of mine got arrested for his political views. Then, I suddenly shook off the propaganda glorifying the Baath party and the House of Assad (father and son) that had been planted in my head at school and had been ever-present in the streets for all my life.

I cried passionately when I heard hundreds of people chanting “Syrian people won’t be humiliated” in Damascus’ Hamidiyeh Souq in early 2011. “Can this be real,” I asked my friends there, but they were already preparing slogans and posters for the coming protests.

In the first demonstration I participated in, I felt a sense of belonging despite the fear, and a sense of familiarity despite being in this part of the Damascus suburbs for the first time in my life. I felt loved and felt ownership of the streets like never before. I believed in our ability to change our home’s destiny; freedom, democracy, tolerance, and social justice finally seemed to be reachable. I left my stable job with the BBC and residency in the UK to go back and be part of that change.

Five years later, I ran away from what has become a fierce war zone back to London, this time as a refugee, starting over with no hope to change anything but my own life. I’m back to where I started, except I’m now packed with lots of painful memories as well as constant pain in my stomach caused by fear and trauma from my experiences.

You can read more about Zaina’s experience of the Syrian uprising in her recent article for NewLines Magazine here.

The day that protests broke out in Damascus was one of the happiest of my life  

Asser Khattab is a Syrian writer and freelance journalist who has reported on events in the Middle East for the Financial Times and the Washington post, among other publications.

The two happiest moments of my life were when the first chants of the Syrian revolution began to echo in Damascus on 15 March 2011 and when I learned that France had given me refugee status on 25 November 2020. The contrast between those two occasions, I feel, explains why part of me had been hoping that the tenth anniversary of the Arab Spring may somehow pass unnoticed.

Looking back at the early days of the Syrian revolution still stirs my blood. I can still remember that spring day in 2011 when I walked alongside the Queiq river of Aleppo and quietly discussed what had been transpiring in Egypt and Tunisia with a friend. It was the moment that changed my country forever. It had been a normal day, or seemed as such, until I began to notice a peculiar expression worn by people on the street, most of whom were speaking on the phone, and by those in shops, who seemed as if they had been watching the news. Everyone appeared to be shocked, happy, terrified, angry, and bewildered, all at the same time.

Momentarily thereafter, my own phone started to ring. “Have you heard the news?” a trembling voice asked from the other end; I barely managed to recognise it as that of one of my closest friends. “Protest. Damascus,” he said.

We stormed into the nearest open shop as policemen were raiding a suspect’s hideout; yet that did not seem to leave any impression on the shopkeeper. Instead, the tall, bald man looked petrified, his head fixed in the direction of the TV and his eyes wide open. “God, Syria, Freedom, and that’s all!” people were chanting in Damascus’ historic Hamidiyeh Souq, leaving out “Bashar,” the usual third element in the slogan.

I had been following the news of the other Arab revolutions for three months and regretting what I thought was the impossibility of us witnessing anything of the sort in Syria. Out of all the other dictatorships in the Middle East and North Africa, the Syrian regime was by far the most terrifying. It was the one that succeeded most in making one fear speaking freely to one’s own brother, persuading many Syrians that politics had better not be discussed at all.

It was a historic day, I thought to myself, and I believed that the ensuing victory would make it even more historic.

But we know that this victory never came. The Syrian revolution turned shortly thereafter into one of the most tragic human disasters since the First World War. The Syrian Civil War saw hundreds of thousands of people killed with millions more becoming refugees or being internally displaced. Hope dissipated as the world watched in silent horror how Bashar Al-Assad and his allies massacred their way to what they dubbed as “victory”, even though they currently fail to provide the population with bread to eat and fuel to keep their houses warm.

Syrians who saw a brilliant future for their country were forced to seek refuge in other lands; entire families were uprooted and now risk losing their property forever. Some now ask whether it was all worth it. But many believe that what came to pass was inevitable.

Every now and then, however, a glimmer of hope presents itself. When dozens of women and men in Sweida, in southern Syria, gave us the first anti-Assad protests in a government-controlled area in many years during June 2020, a flame akin to that which our hearts knew in 2011 lit up and invigorated me and many others. There is hope in the power of people, in their fury against injustice; at this point, this hope is all we have left.

A demonstration against the Assad regime in in Douma, a Damascus suburb, on 8 April 2011 – shamsnn via Wikimedia, CC BY 2.0.

The war in Syria may be mostly over, but the revolution is not

Rime Allaf is a writer, researcher, international political analyst, and Syria specialist. Her work brings together geopolitics, history, socio-economics, and culture to shed light on the Middle East and the challenges faced by the region.

Hope still springs eternal for many young people in the Arab world today. The electrifying chants of thousands suddenly demanding the fall of their regimes had sent chills down everyone’s spines in the region, filling some with awe and excitement, others with apprehension. There were no precedents for this collective cry of rage as protesters followed their instincts and took to the streets; in response, regimes resorted to their tried and tested campaigns of intimidation, violence, and mass murder.

On the cusp of the tenth anniversary of the Syrian revolution, itself only a few months younger than similar revolts in the region, mainstream analysis seems to suggest that the Arab Spring has been a failure everywhere it manifested itself, with the exception of Tunisia. Given the immense magnitude of the death and devastation which rained upon Syrians, it may seem inappropriate to claim not only that the uprising cannot be considered a complete failure, but also that it is not over. Indeed, well over half a million people were killed and over half the population became homeless and displaced; mass torture, disappearances, and numerous crimes against humanity were committed. Yet it is precisely because Syrians have lost so much that many feel they have no choice but to continue.

Despite the hardship they face in the region, the millions of Syrian refugees will not go back to Syria while the Assad clan remains in power. Nor will many Syrians within the country hide again behind the walls of fear that had silenced them for decades. The revolution gave them a voice which they will not relinquish, and it brought them the civic governance systems and civil society networks (such as with the early Local Coordination Committees) which allowed them to organise themselves in the service of their communities.

Stunned by the international community’s apathy, Syrians have shown initiative, creativity, and great courage in standing up to the regime in the worst possible circumstances – and, years later, in standing up to extremist religious groups. They have shown resilience, grabbing freedom with both hands and painstakingly documenting their history, to bear witness to the regime’s crimes and to prepare for the day after, when they can rebuild a new Syria devoid of the remnants of the past. None of this would have been possible without the Syrian Revolution of Dignity, a revolution of the mind in every sense of the word, in political, social, cultural and even religious terms.

It would be a grave mistake to imagine that the Arab Spring is on its deathbed; it may be in remission as it attempts to gather its forces again, and it may come through different iterations of the revolutionary spirit, but despite everything they have lost, Syrians still demand dignity and freedom, as do many around the region. Dictatorships would have to maintain a costly, high level of repression to kill that spirit in the next generation, a generation already born free-minded and strong-willed as it watched the world disintegrate around it.

The uprising revealed to us the Syria we didn’t know – it was an explosion of a profound and entrenched desire for change

Assaad Al Achi is Executive Director of Baytna, an organisation founded in 2013 with the main objective of empowering and strengthening civil societies and democracy across the Middle East and North Africa. It strives to promote human rights, accountability, and civil liberties – the core values of the 2011 Syrian uprising.

An uprising in Syria? People defying the fifty-year rule of one of the most totalitarian regimes in the Middle East? If you had asked me in early March 2011 whether this could be possible, I would have said, “No way”. How wrong I was.

The March 2011 uprising revealed to us the Syria we didn’t know. It was an explosion of a profound and entrenched desire for change. The cries of our burgeoning youth were loud and clear: the fifty-year status quo is not acceptable anymore. Change is inevitable. Or so we thought as we hoped and worked hard for our country’s future.

The first two years of the uprising were full of hope and dreams for a better Syria – a Syria for all Syrians, where democracy, rule of law, and respect for basic rights would be the norm. The protesters on the street, the media activists, the citizen-journalists all did their best to highlight the creativity and ingenuity of the protest movement. Initially calling for reforms and the end of a fifty-year state of emergency, the demands of the movement expanded as the regime’s response got more violent, until the protestors eventually called for the full dismantling of the system. Instead of deterring and quelling opposition, the regime’s violence only enflamed passions and pushed more and more people to join in and demand radical change.

Alas, the regime’s prolonged, sustained, and intense use of violence pushed the revolutionary movement to gradually militarise itself in self-defence. This led to the appearance and infiltration of extremist organisations and over time the narrative shifted away from a young dynamic movement for freedom, dignity, democracy, and equal citizenship and towards a fight against terrorism.

Does that mean that the hope for change is over? Absolutely not! The nascent Syrian civil society movement remains the torchbearer of the original ideals of the uprising and the real anchor for peace, justice, and change. Indeed, it has been a strong actor on the ground throughout the years of the conflict, responding to the humanitarian crisis, documenting the horrific human rights violations from all sides in preparation for an accountability process, and investing in society to further civic ideals and protect the social fabric of our country from completely shattering. 

Destroyed buildings next to a mosque in the city of Aleppo, Syria. Image via AdobeStock.

The uprisings opened a new chapter in the history of popular revolutions

Asef Bayat is Professor of Sociology at the University of Illinois and the author of Revolution without Revolutionaries: Making Sense of the Arab Spring.

Many would remember the Arab uprisings with the images of the horrific civil wars in Syria, Libya, and Yemen that altogether left millions of lives lost, cities destroyed, and waves of refugees crossing borders in a desperate struggle to find a safe place to live. Some will associate the Arab Spring with the counter-revolutionary intrigues, regional proxy wars, and the intrusion of foreign powers to settle geopolitical accounts. And others might conjure the brutality of ISIS in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, the military coup in Egypt, and a new spate of repression enforced by wounded autocrats to silence dissent.

These are certainly parts of the story. But one also cannot help remembering the epochal eruption into protest – unprecedented in its scale, speed, and mode of mobilisation – by ordinary Arabs against the tyranny, inequality, and injustice sponsored by corrupt elites and their international allies. These uprisings opened a new chapter in the history of popular revolutions.

Mass protests were unleashed in some twenty Arab states; since December 2010, six dictators (in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Algeria and Sudan) have been toppled and one, Bashar al-Assad in Syria, has been brought to the edge. The shockwaves of the revolutions also rang through the monarchies and sheikhdoms, who moved to appease their citizens through handouts or reforms while attempting to sabotage the revolutions elsewhere in the region.

In the process, the Arab uprisings also developed a new form of mass mobilisation that was unprecedented. They instigated spectacular demonstrations and vast revolts in the key urban streets and squares (maidans) in a manner that became a global meme, a model for the Occupy Movements that spread through some 500 cities around the world in the early 2010s.

We cannot avoid remembering the Arab Spring. For it represents a new generation of twenty-first century revolutions that have set the pattern for what is likely to re-emerge sooner rather than later. Their peculiarities and paradoxes are bound to make us wonder about how to make sense of them. These revolutions are remarkably rich in their mode of mobilisation but depressingly poor in their capacity to cause meaningful change; they are extraordinarily popular, peaceful, and relatively easy to marshal but they cry out for representation, leadership, and organisation; they are more conducive to establishing pluralist democracy than their twentieth-century counterparts, but they remain woefully susceptible to counter-revolutionary manipulation and restoration.

These revolutions are the product of our current global times. These have occasioned the coincidence of staggering inequality and exclusion, a large constituency of aware and educated citizens who feel deeply deprived and devalued, and the new communication technologies that have enabled these people to connect and build loose coalitions of “non-movements” and dissenting publics.

Add to all of this the repression of corrupt autocratic regimes and the result is likely to be the recurrence of revolutions of the type we have witnessed in the past decade. The Arab uprisings have not been able to alter these socio-economic and political conditions. Yet, so long as these very conditions persist, the spectre of revolution will continue to haunt the region’s autocracies.

Sudan’s peaceful uprising provides hope after the disappointments of the Arab Spring

Isma’il Kushkush is a journalist who was based in Khartoum, Sudan, for eight years and a former acting bureau chief for the New York Times in East Africa. He has written for The New Yorker and The Atlantic and reported for the Associated Press and Reuters.

On January 30, 2011, student protesters in Khartoum, inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, took to the streets calling for the fall of Omar al-Bashir’s regime. They were met violently by the police and crushed.

Sudan’s protests in 2011, the year of the “Arab Spring,” failed because it was not quite the right historical moment. The protests were limited to a small number of cyber-savvy college students. Life for many of Khartoum’s middle class was still manageable given an oil boom and Bashir was ready with well-trained riot-police for possible violence accompanying the South Sudan Referendum, which had taken place only weeks earlier.

Just as Ben Ali fled Tunisia and Tahrir Square became the epicentre of revolution in Egypt, South Sudanese decisively voted to secede and become independent. For many northern Sudanese it was a low point in the country’s modern political history as a sense of failure and reckoning weighed in upon the political elite: the consequences of failing to govern with the values of freedom, equality, and justice.

In 2012, and 2013, protesters took to the streets again, better organized and as economic and political circumstances changed, but still not able to achieve their goal. It was in December 2018, however, when young Sudanese protesters began a four-month uprising that succeeded in bringing down the 30-year-old regime. Andrew Gilmore, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights commented, “the Sudanese revolution will go down in history as one of the greatest non-violence mass movements of our generation,” setting Sudan on a road of transition.

It is not the case that Sudan “is the slowest country in the region to catch on to hot trends,” as one writer commented. If anything, Sudanese are quick to remind observers that it was their 1964 October Revolution and 1985 April Uprising that were the first non-violent uprisings in the region. But timing matters.

Some have dubbed the 2019 protests in Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon, and Iraq as a “second wave” of the Arab Spring, and there might be elements of truth to that. Sudan is not immune from all the factors that may have put a dent in the hopes of 2011, but next to Tunisia, it may still be a candidate for success.

Sudanese protesters on a train from Atbara to Khartoum in 2019 – Essama Elfaki via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 4.0.

The aftermath of the uprisings revealed a disconnect between the hopes of Western observers and the complex realities on the ground

Dr Elisabeth Kendall is Senior Research Fellow in Arabic at Pembroke College, Oxford. She is the co-author of Twenty-First Century Jihad: Law, Society and Military Action.

The single most striking lesson of the Arab uprisings for me lies in the glaring disconnect between our own hopeful perceptions of what was unfolding (encapsulated in the idea of an “Arab spring”) and the harsh realities of what has materialised.

I was in Egypt’s Liberation Square and, some months later, also in Yemen’s Change Square as protestors thronged to demand the fall of their respective regimes. It was impossible not to be swept up in the bold enthusiasm of the chanting crowds. How tempting it was to imagine that whole countries were united in their goals, sure of what they wanted and not just of what they didn’t want.

Journalists descended, eagerly seeking interviews, which naturally favoured those who could speak English (easy to communicate) and were present in the Square (easy to find). This meant that the resultant press stories were more likely to reflect the types of cosmopolitan youthful aspirations to which we in the West could readily relate.

Western politicians, analysts and commentators rushed to welcome what they saw as an overwhelming popular desire finally to install western-style liberal democracies. Of course, many citizens wanted precisely this, but the broader reality turned out to be far more complex. If one million Egyptians were present in Cairo’s Liberation Square, a further 83 million were not, including over 50 million registered voters. Revolutions can take years. As the waves of change continue to roll, perhaps we should listen harder, think more and presume less.

You can read Elisabeth Kendall’s recent essay, “Making Sense of the Yemen War”, on Engelsberg Ideas.

A Yemeni boy protests in Sana’a in October 2011. Image from ymphotos via Shutterstock

The dream of the Arab Spring is an illusion while Western governments keep propping up authoritarian regimes

The writer is a former government minister who remains anonymous for reasons of personal security.

The idea of the Arab Spring was always more of a Western concept than a North African one. To those of us living in the area, it was an illusion. In most cases, Western governments continued to more or less support the elites and regimes in the countries in question.

Take France for example. It has continued to support the authoritarian regime in Algeria despite one of the biggest mass resistance movements – the Hirak – for many years, which emerged there in 2019. The French – and the EU – have done nothing to help support democracy in any of the North African or Middle Eastern countries. They want to continue doing business and trading with them so they are not prepared to upset the governments in question.

This is short-sighted because they cannot keep their grip on power forever. These countries have young populations, many of them well-educated, and they will not put up with their governments forever.

The last ten years have revealed a deep crisis of contemporary Arab political culture

Hussein Ibish is a Senior Resident Scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington and a weekly columnist for Bloomberg and The National (UAE).

The Arab Spring uprisings exposed chronic shortcomings in Arab republics that remain almost entirely unresolved and reflected a desperate crisis in contemporary Arab political culture, especially at the level of national consciousness. The sources of the rebellions were never mysterious: persistent economic malaise; misrule by patronage-system elites; an absence of accountability, recourse and rule of law; and myriad discontents created by governments that regard their citizenry as problems to be managed.

The Arab Spring was essentially a collective cry for dignity from citizens to their states. Perhaps the reason why the Arab monarchies were largely spared from the unrest – except Bahrain which has experienced numerous uprisings dating back to the 1950s – is that citizens in republics are promised empowerment in a way that subjects of monarchs are not (in addition to the relative wealth of some Arab monarchies).

None of the underlying issues are resolved. Economic malaise and unemployment remain chronic. Except Tunisia, progress towards democratisation has not resulted. Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya are fragment and war-ravaged. Egypt and Syria are more repressive than ever. Meanwhile, transnational religious and/or ideological affiliations and sub-state – local, communal, sectarian or ethnic – identities trump national sentiments. With no shortage of organisations, often backed by regional powers like Iran and Turkey or other Arab countries, offering to champion transnational or sub-national alternatives, these sentiments are all-too easily mobilised to destabilise and undermine Arab states.

Most Arab republics are as hollow and dysfunctional as they were before the rebellions, and many monarchies look brittle. The dignity of Arab citizenship remains elusive. And with traditional power-centers such as Egypt, Syria and Iraq unable to provide regional leadership, the Arab state system is incapable of defending Arab interests in the Middle East. Such leadership now falls to Gulf countries, most notably Saudi Arabia, that are unsuited to, and unenthusiastic about inheriting, this role.

The uprisings were a largely failed experiment, in some cases disastrously so. But the urgent need for Arab reform, growth and change is every bit as desperate as it was ten years ago. And the Saudi experiment in controlled, top-down transformation has yet to prove an effective, let alone transferable, alternative. The peoples of the Arab republics continue to seethe in states that do not meet their basic needs or respect their fundamental rights, and where national consciousness is under effective and sustained attack from sub- and trans-national orientations.

Almost everyone agrees that change must come. But no one has a practicable formula for implementing a such transformation, especially given that it would perforce disempower those who currently control the guns, money, patronage and internal and external support upholding the status quo. Arab political culture seems stuck in deeply engrained patterns of thought that bedevil opposition groups as much as they cripple governments. Yet the unresolved and chronic failures of Arab states and societies almost certainly ensure that if a path to orderly transformation is not discovered, then another set of rebellions is all-but inevitable.

Ten years ago, the marker was set down as a demand for the dignity of citizenship and the actual consent of the governed. That demand will not expire. The imperative will resurrect itself, sooner rather than later. Until then the ghosts of the Arab Spring will haunt the Middle East.

This article is dedicated to all those who have lost their homes, homelands, lives, and loved ones during the Arab Spring and its aftermath.

 الشعب يريد إسقاط النظام

“The people want the fall of the regime.”


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