10 years after the Arab Spring, USC Dornsife scholars examine its troubled legacy
On Dec. 17, 2010, a Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire in protest of ongoing harassment by local police. His self-immolation ignited the flames of uprisings across nearly the entire Middle East, much of which had been controlled for decades by repressive regimes.
Massive protests in favor of ending oppression and improving living standards emerged in numerous countries simultaneously. Nearly 300,000 protestors crowded Egypt’s El-Tahir Square, while some 100,000 protestors sat in the Square of Homs calling for the resignation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Demonstrations, riots and marches stretched on for months.
At first, the protests seemed to work. Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya successfully overthrew their autocratic leaders. Other countries received economic concessions from their government, release of political prisoners and resignation of parliament members.
A decade later, however, the end results look decidedly grimmer. Egypt swapped one repressive ruler for another. Syria and Yemen are locked in devastating civil wars.
Even in Tunisia, a supposed success story, 87% of the citizenry believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. What went wrong? And is there still reason to hope that the democracy movement might finally take hold?
History repeats itself
Laurie Brand has studied the Middle East since the 1980s and has seen numerous uprisings rock the region. (Photo: Peter Zhaoyu Zhou.)
For Professor Laurie Brand, the Arab Spring’s mixed results didn’t exactly come as a shock.
Brand, Robert Grandford Wright Professor and professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, has been studying the region since the 1980s, and she’d already witnessed one set of uprisings that ended in similar disappointment.
In 1987, a coup tossed out the Tunisian president who’d been in power since 1956. A few months later, Palestinians mounted the first major uprising against Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Algerian youth riots in 1988 led to the downfall of the country’s one-party system.
The movement stalled, however. Tunisia’s new president stayed in office until 2011’s uprisings when, like his predecessor, he was forced out. Palestine and Israel remain embroiled in conflict. In 1991, Algeria descended into a civil war that prompted a nation-wide state of emergency only lifted during the Arab Spring.
“Ultimately, those of us who work in the region were just extremely disappointed in the way things turned out,” says Brand. “So, there was a degree to which I thought we should be cautious about what to expect to come out of the [Arab Spring] protests.”
In a viral image from the Arab Spring, Egyptian protestors on the Kasr El-Nile bridge kneeled in prayer as they were blasted with water cannons manned by state security forces. (Image Source: Wiki Commons.)
The Middle East’s starts and stops towards progressive reform have much to do with the interference of outside interests, says Brand.
“All kinds of external players become involved, either directly militarily or through the funding of military groups,” says Brand. “State actors, non-state actors, wealthy individuals, interference from the United States Gulf Arab States intervention, Turkish intervention, Russian intervention. There’s this massive intervention of diverse forces with all kinds of different interests.”
Meaningful political reform is often opposed by many of those doing the intervening. The success of a democratic movement in one country may encourage its spread to other nations, like Saudi Arabia, where a totalitarian monarchy maintains a tight grasp on power.
“In both the late 1980s and during the Arab Spring, there were tremendous forces brought to bear to make sure there was not a greater move towards openness,” says Brand. Slowing or reversing pro-democracy movements in the region becomes a priority for those fearful of an uprising in their own backyard.
Sabotage and squabbling
Sabotage also occurred from within. In Egypt, state-run media depicted the protestors as violent or underplayed the strength of the movements. In several countries, the internet was shut down for days to prevent protestors from organizing effectively.
Onursal Erol traveled to Istanbul in 2012 to research ongoing protests. (Photo: Courtesy of Erol Onursal.)
After the uprisings died down, official government narratives depicted protestors as puppets of foreign interests, says Onursal Erol, a postdoctoral scholar and teaching fellow in Middle East studies, who was in Istanbul the year after the Arab Spring to conduct research on the movements.
“The bureaucratic propaganda machine says that [protestors] were western agents. It wasn’t a real, organic democratic movement. They were either insidious CIA spies or naïvely playing into the hands of those spies,” says Erol. “This is all just propaganda put in place by the government of these various countries. Those years had genuine demonstrations all around the world, like the Occupy Wall Street Movement in the United States and the 15-M Movement in Spain.”
Other challenges arose from the ideological conflicts among the disparate groups that joined the revolution. The move toward democracy attracted both the devoutly religious and the secular as well as gay and lesbian activists, feminists and diverse members of the working class.
Attempting to mount a revolution with such diametrically opposed cultural groups meant in-fighting and power grabs were inevitable.
“Some participants think perhaps they were a little too naive in thinking they could be this gigantic revolutionary organism that organically came together from all sorts of different ideological backgrounds,” says Erol.
Dissatisfaction with the outcome of the Arab Spring a decade later may simply be due to impatience. “This is a massive social change. Maybe 10 years isn’t enough time to fully get you where you might want to be,” says Erol.
After the first romantic and heady days of an uprising comes the slow and steady work of liberation and institution building that stretches on for years.
“It’s a daily grind of slow revolution that is endless and that is steadily increasing the sphere of liberties and emancipation,” says Erol. “Is it revolution over one night in Egypt, or is it the slow establishment of secular and Islamist Egyptians working alongside each other, together?”
Even now, the stirrings of pro-democracy protests rumble in the region. Demonstrations in Algeria have been ongoing since 2019. “I don’t know if I’d say there’s a pre-revolutionary situation, but there’s clearly a popular mobilization,” says Brand.
Lines by the Tunisian poet Abu al-Qasim al-Shabbi, which were shouted in the streets like an anthem during the Arab Spring, remain as relevant today:
“If, one day, a people desires to live, then destiny will answer their call / Night is certain to pass, and their chains will surely be broken.”