Evaluating the high ambitions of the Arab Spring, ten years later



The Arab Spring is one of the most defining movements in the history of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The events of the Arab Spring had both short-term and long-term impacts and helped shaped the region as we know it today, in 2021. While the Arab Spring pushed for stronger democratic norms, improved economic conditions and better civil liberties, the movement has not achieved its intended results, except for in Tunisia. This article aims to compare the desired and actual outcomes of the Arab Spring to better understand the situation in MENA ten years later.


The Arab Spring began on December 17th, 2010 and lasted for two years, until December 2012. The movement reached its peak in the Spring of 2011. Overall, the Arab Spring began because people across the MENA region were fed up with their respective governments and wanted to protest to bring about positive change. Specific issues that caused the Arab Spring included authoritarianism, political corruption, poverty, unemployment, inflation, human rights violations, and sectarianism. Goals of the Arab Spring included the promotion of democracy, free and fair elections, human rights, economic freedoms, better employment opportunities, and regime change. Methods of nonviolent protests across the region included civil disobedience, demonstrations, internet and media activism. According to official estimates, around 61 thousand people died across the region during this two-years period.


When Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire to protest police corruption and police violence in Tunisia, he created a wave of protests and uproar that fundamentally changed the region. His self-immolation caused a surge of unrest and protest in response, not only in Tunisia but also in Libya, Egypt, Syria and Bahrain, before spreading to the rest of the region. The Arab Spring in Tunisia led to the ousting, charging, and exiling of then President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The Tunisian protests, also, brought down and overthrew the entire Tunisian government. Ten years later, Tunisia is considered the most successful state in terms of achieving its Arab Spring agenda. Following the overthrow of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his regime, Tunisia now has a well-functioning democracy. Tunisia is also considered the most democratic country in the MENA region by Western standards.


Unfortunately, Tunisia is the only country to achieve the type of democratic progress the protestors in the Arab Spring yearned for. Although protests helped to remove leaders and topple governments in Libya, Egypt, and Yemen, these states have not experienced the type of democratic progress they were looking for. The protests of the Arab Spring also triggered sectarian conflict and civil war, causing mass displacements in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Many Arab countries are worse off than they were before the revolts started in 2010, and the region as a whole is doing worse than it was ten years ago. Poverty has skyrocketed across the Middle East. The region is the only place in the world where people have become poorer in the last decade, both in terms of total numbers and proportion of the population. According to the World Bank, in 2018 the Middle East replaced Latin America in terms of the number of people classified as poor.


In a similar vein, the economy of the region is deeply flawed. Huge economic challenges, coupled with a growing population, have left the MENA region with the highest rate of youth unemployment in the world. It is counterintuitive that the Arab Spring, a movement that so passionately called for greater economic freedoms and growth, would ultimately find that the region is worse off economically than it was ten years ago when the protests started. It is also worth questioning how much of a role the Arab Spring played in worsening the economic situation in the region, as it caused great instability, vacuums of power, and violence that facilitated a path for corruption and economic downturn.


But the shadow of the Arab Spring ten years later is not completely dark. Governments in Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Jordan, Palestine, and Morocco implemented constitutional and legal reforms in response to protests. In some cases, countries have become more stable and civil liberties have improved as a result of legislation implemented based on the Arab Spring protests. For example, women’s representation in senior government positions has dramatically increased in the last decade throughout the region, and more women are speaking out about the injustices they experience.


It will be interesting to watch how the COVID-19 pandemic affects the goals of the Arab Spring, in the long term. Will the economic upheaval caused by the pandemic only worsen living conditions in the Middle East, or will the governments of the region turn over a new leaf when the pandemic finally ends, and the world starts to put itself back together again?