Evaluating the Potential of the Second Wave of the Arab Spring



Ten years ago, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) experienced a wave of political unrest highlighted by massive popular protests, in the capital cities of Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and Syria. The movement, which demanded better democratic practices, economic opportunities, and increased civil rights, became known as the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring fundamentally changed the course of history in the MENA region.


On one side, the Arab Spring succeeded in ousting a number of corrupt regimes and led to rewriting constitutions and new laws that reflect the demands of the protesters. On the flip side, some dictator regimes clung to power and let their countries drown into civil wars, and many innocent civilians lost their lives. Syria, Libya, and Yemen have become failed states. Tunisia is the only state in the MENA region that has taken significant steps forward on the path to democracy. In other Arab Spring countries, the autocrats have remained in control.

Although the 2011 Arab Spring protests were ultimately squashed, the reasons behind those protests were not likewise squashed. As a report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace points out, “the problems that created the protests did not disappear, only the protesters themselves [disappeared]”. The MENA region is even poorer than it was when the 2011 Arab Spring protests began. There are fewer economic opportunities, and the quality of life for the average person living in the MENA is lower than it was when the 2011 protests began, and democratic practices have yet to improve.


Hence, could there be another wave of the Arab Spring? Possibly. The region is experiencing another movement of protests and uprisings against autocratic regimes. This “second wave” began in 2018 and closely resembles the protests of 2011. Three countries in particular, Algeria, Sudan, and Lebanon, are leading the way.


In Algeria, peaceful but firm protests forced the resignation of Abdelaziz Bouteflika when he attempted to announce his candidacy for a fifth presidential term in April 2019. By May 2019, several corrupt politicians from Bouteflika’s government were arrested. In September 2019, protests erupted in Sudan and continue up till today. Aims of the Sudanese protests include a new Chief Justice and Attorney General, the dismissal and trials of officials from al-Bashir government, the release of Abdelrahman Hassan, a Sudanese student, who was arrested during 2019 protests in Egypt, and an investigation into the Khartoum massacre, which occurred in June 2019. Lebanese protests, which are also still in progress, have resulted in the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri (later re-appointed in October 2020), the resignation of Prime Minister Hassan Diab, and the resignation of several members of Parliament.


While the causes for the aforementioned protests are the same as those of the first Arab Spring, the methods are different. The goals of the first Arab Spring were to encourage Arab leaders to amend their leadership and change their policies to allow for great democratic and economic opportunities. Now, it seems, protestors have no faith that governments will actually change their leadership styles and are calling for the complete resignation and dismantling of corrupt governments. This time, protestors do not trust their governments when they promise they’ll change, and instead want completely new politicians and new political parties.


This second wave of protests in the MENA region has also been more peaceful in nature than the first. Although the Algerian and Sudanese regimes have been unafraid to encourage their militaries to use violence to quell protests, protestors themselves have not responded to the violence with more violence. Because of their pacificism, protestors have been able to achieve more in this second wave of protests compared to the first. Protestors in Lebanon have also chosen to ignore preexisting sectarian lines and have formed a coherent Lebanese identity through protesting peacefully together, which is also unique to this second wave.


Algeria, Sudan, and Lebanon are not the only countries experiencing a possible second wave of the Arab Spring. Jordan, Iraq, and Morocco are also experiencing an uptick in protests, although they have not caused resignations nor political change on the same scale as the protests in Algeria, Lebanon, and Sudan. It will be interesting, as time goes on, to see if these protests across the MENA region continue to grow to a scale that rivals that of the first Arab Spring. It will also be interesting to observe if this second wave of protests follows the new pattern of inciting resignations instead of trusting politicians to change and remaining peaceful in nature.