Arab Spring Washington DC

The Arab Spring: a Win or Loss for Democracy?

What is the Arab Spring?

The Arab Spring describes a series of protests against authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and Africa between 2010 to 2011. The name “Arab Spring” references the “People’s Spring” in Europe (Arab Spring). The purpose of the protests was to challenge the stronghold of authoritarian regimes in hopes of transitioning towards democracy. The protests oftentimes turned violent with crackdowns and retaliations. The Arab Spring started off in Tunisia and Egypt in which the toppling of the original regime inspired other countries to join the Arab Spring. It is important to note that the results of the Arab Spring fell within a wide spectrum of success and failures. Below is a quick summarization and analysis of the events in the Arab Spring (Arab Spring). 

Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution

The Tunisian Revolution started in December 2010 when Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire as a means of protesting his treatment by local officials (Arab Spring). The local officials threatened to confiscate Bouazizi’s merchandise if he refused to take their bribe (Jasmine Revolution). Bouazizi’s act of self-immolation was symbolic of the protest against economic oppression and inequality. His act literally and metaphorically sparked a revolution. After Bouazizi was hospitalized, protests quickly ensued, calling for Pres. Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to step down. The street protests were also an outcry from decades of high unemployment, poverty, and political repression (Jasmine Revolution). The protests did not bring forth immediate concession. Ben Ali employed military force in cracking down against protesters. In the face of the police force, the protests continued. Finally, on January 13th, Ben Ali made concessions to the opposition by promising not to seek another term as President. He also vowed to stop the use of violence, reduce food prices, and loosen media censorship (Jasmine Revolution). However, the concessions made by Ben Ali were not sufficient in satisfying the protesters; they demanded the immediate removal of Ben Ali as President. On January 14, a state of emergency was declared in Tunisia which immediately dissolved the government, forcing Ben Ali to step down as President (Jasmine Revolution). 

Tunisia's Jasmine revolution
Credit: The Guardian

The aftermath of the Jasmine Revolution

Even though Mohammed Ghannouchi assumed power, he was replaced by an interim President the very next day named Fouad Mebazaa. Fouad Mebazaa, in fear of the protesters, formed a government with opposition figures in the cabinet. However, the new government did not satisfy the protesters. The next day, new protests resumed when opposition leaders in the cabinet resigned as a gesture demanding complete reform. In the end, the interim announced a series of new reforms, involving the construction of a new constitution (Jasmine Revolution).

In 2014, Tunisia became the first country of the Arab Spring protest to undergo a peaceful transfer of power. The people elected Beji Caid Essebi as President who largely maintained stability after the Arab Spring protests(BBC 2019). 

Egypt’s Revolution

In Egypt, the revolution started with a group of young people who were inspired by the success in Tunisia. The protesters called for Mubarak’s removal from office. Similar to the events of the Jasmine Revolution, protesters were met with violent crackdowns by the police. Eventually, Mubarak stepped down from office, resulting in the 2012 election (Egyptian Uprising of 2011). This seemingly successful resignation proved to be more problematic. The 2012 election featured two parties: the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian military. The Muslim Brotherhood won the election but neglected the nuances of governance. In the end, the Muslim Brotherhood only served its original supporters and alienated the rest of Egypt. The military took advantage of the power vacuum and undermined the government. The military rule over Egypt meant that it sank even deeper into instability and violence (Bowen). When the armed forces consolidated their power, Field Marshal Abdul Fattah-al Sisi became the new President (Bowen). Learning from the previous dictator, Sisi threw tens of thousands of Egyptians into jail who were his political opposition. His regime has never been challenged since Sisi was supported by Saudi Arabia, UAE, and even the West (Browen). According to Amnesty International, Egypt’s domestic human rights conditions deteriorated as unfair trials and torture of prisoners run rampant under the new regime. 

Egypt's Revolution
Credit: BBC

Yemen revolution 

The Yemeni revolution followed those of Tunisia and Egypt. Similarly, members of the opposition and new pro-democracy members joined together in protesting President Ali Abd Allah Salih. The Yemeni people were unsatisfied with the prolonged economic stagnation and fractious society (Yemen Uprising of 2011-12). Unlike the other two protests, the Yemeni revolution was peaceful as President Salih conceded in his economic policies, calling for a reduction in taxes and augmentation in wages. He also agreed to step down in the next election, allowing other candidates to run for office. However, his concessions did not satisfy the protesters who pointed to other times when President Salih made similar promises but failed to fulfill them (Yemen Uprising of 2011-12). Later, clashes between protesters and the police ensued, resulting in several casualties. President Salih began losing support as protests became more and more violent (Yemen Uprising of 2011-12). The turning point of the revolution occurred when the military aligned with pro-democracy protesters, significantly weakening President Salih’s hard power. 

In the end, an internationally mediated agreement was signed which dictates that President Salih was to give his Presidency to his Vice President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. However, Hadi was unable to govern effectively which led to further instability and economic downfall. Hadi’s government then faced a similar fate where protesters and rebellion continued once again. 

The already terrible situation was exacerbated as jihadi attacks from the south attacked Yemen. In the other direction, Iran took control over the country’s northern border. Hadi in this situation decided to flee the country, leaving Yemen in a state of civil war (Yemen: 10 years after the Arab Spring, new hopes sprout).

Yemen Revolution
Credit: Britannica

The outcome of the revolution in Yemen

Due to poor organization and a lack of forward planning, it can be concluded that Yemen turned out to be in a worse state after the revolution than before it started. The entirely opposite outcome brings into question the very nature of political protests. The analysis at the end of the article will bring forth some arguments that address the key factors that can determine the outcomes of political protests. 

Bahrain revolution

The protests in Bahrain are one of the less-known revolutions within the Arab Spring, yet it still holds significant regional importance. On February 20th 2011, mass protests occurred where protesters demanded elected Parliament and a new constitution from the ruling Al Khalifa family (Bahrain: The Revolution That Wasn’t). After violent crackdowns from the government, protesters retaliated in their demands by calling for the immediate resignation of the ruling family. However, the turning point of the revolution happened when Saudi Arabia, UAE, Gulf Cooperation Council collectively sent troops to militarily support the regime (Bahrain: The Revolution That Wasn’t). The revolution led to worse outcomes and human rights conditions. Members of the opposition and protesters were imprisoned for anti-government crimes. Investigations have also found evidence of torture in clamping down on opposition groups (Arab Spring). 

Bahrain revolution

The aftermath of the Bahraini revolution

According to Human Rights Watch, the ruling Khalifa family “demonstrated a zero-tolerance policy for any free and independent political thought, and they have imprisoned, exiled, or intimidated anyone who criticizes the government” (Human Rights Watch). Most notably, Nabeel Rajab was imprisoned due to “peaceful criticism” of Bahrain’s neglect of human rights. It is obvious that the revolution in Bahrain was a failure as it emboldened the ruling party. International stakeholders are also linked in supporting the ruling family which led to worse outcomes in human rights. 

Socio-Political Anthropology: What determined the success and failures?

The relative success and failure of the various revolutions in the Arab Spring are still heavily debated upon by experts. Given the similar political and socio-economic contexts, countries turned out very different in their levels of success. The best result is probably represented in the Tunisia model in which an authoritarian government was replaced by a representative democracy. A less successful example includes Egypt in which one dictator was replaced with another dictator of similar political grip. Other countries such as Yemen descended into a civil war ever since the protests. 

Although different factors were at play that ultimately determined the result of the protests; there are two key advantages Tunisia had over the other countries: strong civil infrastructure and media influence. 

Social media in the modern age of political protests

Even though Tunisia’s mass media and traditional media sources were censored by Ben Ali, young people were able to overcome this barrier through the use of social media. Facebook played a pivotal role in bringing people together, organizing protests, and recruiting more supporters. According to a research article published in the Journal of Social Science Studies, Muller and Hubner divided the functions of Facebook in terms of five dimensions: demonstration function, acceleration function, widening function, anonymity function, bonding function (Muller et Hubner 18). 

The initial reason why Bouazizi’s self-immolation sparked public interest was that visual documentation was taken and disseminated via Facebook. It is important to note that Bouazizi was not the first or only person that self-immolated as a symbolic sign of protest; the difference between Bouazizi and all his predecessors is that his actions and later images of him in the hospital went viral on Facebook. According to statistics, in the first quarter of 2011, Facebook Averaged 2356520 members which translates into a penetration rate of 22.49% (Muller et Hubner 23). These statistics serve as a stark contrast to the protest in Egypt in which only 7.66% of the population had access to Facebook (Muller et Hubner 24). 

The initial interest was not enough in overturning an entire regime. The role of Facebook was magnified later in its demonstration function by connecting Tunisians across the country to a common cause. After Mohamed Bouazizi’s cousin published a video that showcases the first public demonstration, people felt empowered to join the cause; moreover, Tunisians were able to garner the attention from Tunisians abroad which brought the issue to an international stage (Muller et Hubner 24). 

In the face of violent crackdowns, Facebook served its widening function by encouraging more Tunisians to join the platform. According to official records, 1.8 million Tunisians were registered Facebook users, one week later 1.97 million users had registered (Daniel 2011). 

Importance of civil society

Another reason why the Tunisian revolution proved to be more successful than the others is its civil society. The Tunisia society, despite living under an authoritarian regime, was “really well-educated middle class, the economy is liberalized, long history of women and gender equality” (Muller et Hubner 22). In comparison, the revolution in Egypt seemed to be unplanned and disorganized. According to BBC, the protests had no real leaders and people often disagreed about their roles after the revolution (Bowen). This gave the military a perfect opportunity to take advantage of the chaos. 

The truth about democratic transitions

Overturning an entire political regime is far more nuanced than changing a leader. It is about reforming the entire institution that gave rise to the leader in the first place.

Democratic transition is not about overthrowing a leader in hopes of replacing them with someone else. It’s about reforming the vast network of institutions underneath that person. According to an analysis by Amanda Taub from Vox, the most important aspect of political reform is changing an entire institution that gave rise to the leader instead of just replacing one person with another. 

In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak was preparing for a revolution long before it even happened by removing his political opponents, stacking the cabinet with his loyalists, and winning the favour of the judiciary (Taub 2016). When Mubarak lost power, the entire institution was unable to stand on its own, giving the military the perfect opportunity to take over. 

In Bahrain, even the leader was irremovable due to the west’s unique interest in the gulf and Saudi Arabia’s resentment towards Shiite-majority protests. This ultimately made the democratic transition difficult as the ruling family garnered the support of those with private interests. 

Lesson for future generations

Looking at socio-economic and political anthropology of revolutions, we can say that the key lesson demonstrated through the Arab Spring is the importance of planned political protests. Individuals need to have the foresight in strategizing against an entire institution instead of just one person. Protesters also need to take into consideration the private interests of international stakeholders, ensuring their non-interference. Political protests are far more dangerous and costly; in the worst-case scenario, the failure to bring about total change will come at a daring cost.

Significance of Democratic Values 

The almost simultaneous uprising in multiple Arab countries within a short span of time indicates a common aspiration for democratic values. Regardless of the political situation of the country, people all show a desire live in a society where they are given freedom, equality, economic opportunity, and basic human rights. In many countries such as Yemen and Bahrain, individual citizens were willing to give up their existing materialistic assets and risk their livelihoods for a potentially more democratic society. Even though the majority of the countries still remain authoritarian after the uprising, it is reasonable to assume that the fight for political freedom will continue. 

Leave a Reply