Beginning in late 2010 and early 2011, a wave of pro-democracy protests and uprisings known as the Arab Spring spread through the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), challenging long-standing authoritarian regimes in the region, specifically in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, and Syria. The lasting effects of these protests, which are modest in terms of real democratic progress, can be viewed in an informative piece by the Council on Foreign Relations. For perspective, we asked SIS faculty what they believe the legacy of the Arab Spring is, ten years later. Here are some of their responses.
The legacy of the Arab Spring is a faded dream that millions of young people had in yearning for a world of compassion and tolerance; a world that allowed them expression and fulfillment of their artistic and intellectual selves, of democracy, and human rights. It was an idea that could not be fully realized, but it has not entirely evaporated and still remains to haunt the rulers and inspire youth.
Audrey Kurth Cronin
The Arab Spring shows the limitations of mass movements calling to overthrow regimes with no realistic organization for what will follow them. In some cases, the results were dreadful. Horrific regional violence and mass displacement unfolded in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Egypt reverted to authoritarian rule. Backlash against technology-driven mobilization hammered press and internet freedom region-wide. Tunisia, where the revolts began, emerged as the only country with improved (if fragile) governance. I hope the legacy of the Arab Spring will be a desire to shore up the hopes and ideals that drove it, alongside the resolve to build change gradually, country-by-country from within—remembering both the elation and the peril of popular revolution.
The Arab Spring was a momentous moment in the MENA region’s history, which saw the demise of several long-standing autocrats. However, ten years later, its legacy is mixed. Only Tunisia is still on a path to democracy, while Egypt has reverted to an autocratic regime, and Syria, Libya, and Yemen are in the grip of civil wars. Youth unemployment—arguably a key driver of the 2011 uprisings—remains high, even in Tunisia. Civil society actors still find themselves battling corruption and oppression. Egypt, in particular, has clamped down on free speech and journalistic freedoms with little or no protest from Western governments. The 2011 uprisings showed the world that the people of MENA want to be free. Unfortunately, in the ten years that have passed, the world has showed them that it still prioritizes stability over democracy in MENA.
Was it a miracle, myth, or mirage? At the time, some saw the Arab Spring as an internet and interconnection miracle—a symbol of hope and positivity regarding the catalytic impact of the internet worldwide and its role in fostering democracy. The decade since has taught us to question that view and consider both the mythic and mirage-like qualities of that event. Some still view it in a mythic perspective: using it to tell a story of technology and hope. Others view it as almost a mirage-like occurrence: a fleeting, optimistic, time-linked perspective on a joyful and short-lived, only partially internet-facilitated celebration of people power in the face of autocratic rule. My research tells us that this latter view has proven to be correct—some governments continue to utilize internet-related technologies (and related multilateral venues) to control and/or disrupt. The jury is still out in terms of civil society roles globally and “digital sovereignty” nationally. There is, however, an additional positive outcome ten years out: internet technologies and governance questions are inextricably intertwined and more central today to international affairs.
For decades, "human rights in the Middle East" was a subject of scrutiny, debate, and mobilizations spearheaded from outside of the region. Western governments, including successive US administrations, frequently took up the region’s dire human rights conditions and funded a variety of human rights initiatives to remedy them, in many ways as a substitute for forgoing economic and military alliances with highly repressive regimes. These foreign governments’ human rights talk was heavy in its emphasis on women’s rights and other violations for which backward cultural and religious beliefs were designated as the key culprits and light on its emphasis on civil and political rights violations. At the same time, local voices promoting human rights were largely silenced by authoritarian rulers simultaneously paying lip service to human rights and undermining it by arguing that it served foreign, Western, imperialist agendas. Cumulatively, these dynamics resulted in minimal Middle Eastern agency in defining the nature and scope of its own predicament vis-à-vis the human rights paradigm. The 2011 Arab Uprisings not only resulted in a sizable rise in popular rights consciousness and local human rights activism—the region’s human rights politics came to be increasingly (though not absolutely) driven and defined from within the Middle East, not abroad. Despite the dark path of the uprisings, this shift has in many ways endured.
The tenth anniversary of the Arab Spring brings to mind the general decline of democracy around the world. This reinforces what scholars of the Arab world have come to recognize: that the region’s politics owes less to the peculiar influences of Islam, Arab culture, or the petroleum “resource curse” than the media would have us believe. To the contrary, over the past century, Arab politics has often been a bellwether for transnational trends.
As a historian, my research contributes to a new appreciation of how deep the struggle for democracy runs in Arab history. The Arab Spring must not be understood in terms of a late discovery of democracy by non-Western people; rather, it appears to be the latest battle in a long war for freedom, equality, and dignity waged by ordinary people. As far back as 1860, peasants on Mount Lebanon rebelled against feudal landlords to establish a short-lived republic. In 1876 and 1881, Arabic-speaking citizens of the Ottoman Empire and Egypt supported constitutional movements and won elections to parliament. In 1920, Arabs from what was known as Greater Syria (including today’s Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Palestine/Israel), gathered in Damascus under the inspiration of Woodrow Wilson’s call for self-determination against colonialism. They wrote and ratified the most democratic constitution to date in the Arab world.
As I show in my recent book, How the West Stole Democracy from the Arabs, European powers crushed that state because it threatened their colonial rule in other parts of the Arab world. Likewise, during the Cold War, the rivalry of the United States and Soviet Union stifled democratic movements in the Middle East. In 2011, the people who bravely demonstrated for freedom, bread, and dignity were ultimately defeated by the intervention of foreign powers who propped up their dictators. Democratic backsliding in Europe, North America, and Asia is intimately linked to a global system that has continued, for decades, to deny full sovereignty and self-determination to citizens in weaker states. The marginalization of the Arab world in the new world economy sparked the Arab Spring, and now foreign-backed dictators aim to stifle those who might still protest for their survival. Let us take this tenth anniversary to encourage a shift in media discourses away from blaming Arab culture and towards the true, systemic causes of democracy’s defeat.
The history of the Arab Spring is yet to be written. Although authoritarians throughout the Middle East and North Africa must rule through fear and intimidation, jailing and torturing tens of thousands of dissents and peaceful protesters, this only underscores the brittle nature of their regimes. Their crackdown on civil society shows how much they fear their own populations. Civil society and human rights will prevail, but only if democracies throughout the world support nonviolent people power movements, instead of exporting weapons, tear gas, and torture devices to prop up these regimes. Our publics must demand that this be so.