Analysis of the Arab Spring

Question

What are the main points of consensus in the analysis of the Arab Spring about the factors that led to it and what tipped the balance into widespread protest/unrest?

Summary

There has been much analysis of the causes and rapid spread of the 2011 Arab Spring (or Arab uprisings). General consensus emerges on a combination of political, economic and social factors as being critical. These can be divided into: a) structural, long-standing, underlying factors that led to a build-up of popular anger and frustration in Arab countries; and b) proximate, more immediate factors that transformed localised protests into nationwide movements, and fanned uprisings across the region.

The key findings in the literature include:

Structural factors:

  • The breakdown of the ‘authoritarian bargain’ or exclusionary social contract, whereby the state provided services, employment and food-energy subsidies in return for political support (or compliance), was the overarching reason for loss of legitimacy by Arab regimes and popular anger against them (Winckler, 2013; Beck and Huser, 2013; World Bank, 2015).
  • A population explosion in the Arab world (Beck and Huser, 2013) coupled with government failures to carry out structural reforms and create jobs, led to rising unemployment, in particular youth unemployment (Winckler, 2013; Lesch, 2013; World Bank, 2015). Improvements in education levels across the region contributed to raised expectations among young people – and frustration when public sector jobs were no longer available, and those in the private sector were low-paid or unsuited to their skills (UN ESCWA, 2014; Gardner, 2003).
  • Austerity measures introduced as a result of structural adjustment programmes, and the impact of the global financial crisis, led to rising prices (particularly food prices), economic hardship and deteriorating living standards for the majority of people (Ardic, 2012; Winckler, 2013; Lesch, 2013; World Bank, 2015).
  • Corruption by ruling elites and their cronies was carried out both on a larger scale and in a far more blatant fashion, further widening income inequality. The sharp contrast between the struggles of ordinary people and the luxuries enjoyed by corrupt elites fuelled public anger (Ardic, 2012; Lesch, 2013; Winckler, 2013).
  • The ‘authoritarian contract’ led to the emergence of a substantial middle class in Arab countries, but they saw their quality of life deteriorate as the contract broke down (UN ESCWA, 2014). Statistics on life satisfaction show that, by the end of the 2000s, people in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen were among the least happy people in the world (World Bank, 2015).
  • Authoritarian regimes were characterised by consolidation of power in the hands of a few; denial of fundamental rights such as freedom of expression and of organisation; use of violence to suppress opposition and massive abuses of human rights. Moreover, as the exclusionary social contract broke down, regimes became more dependent on repression and violence. Greater access to information and awareness, including of individual cases of blatant human rights abuses by the security services, led to widespread anger and a sense of injustice (Salih, 2013; Lesch, 2013; Howard and Hussain, 2011).
  • Public anger and frustration at the lack of jobs, denial of rights, corruption, inequality and so on, fuelled a desire to restore individual and national dignity (karama) (Delacoura, 2012; Gerges, 2014; Lesch 2013; Beck and Huser, 2013; Ardic 2012).

Proximate factors:

  • Electronic information networks and social media played a critical role in raising awareness of abuses (notably Muhammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation which triggered the Tunisia uprising), mobilising protesters, and in sustaining action and ‘defeating’ the security services during the uprisings (Howard and Hussain, 2011; Delacoura, 2012).
  • There was a definite demonstration effect driving the Arab Spring, evident from the speed with which uprisings followed each other across the region, as people saw what was happening in other countries and were inspired to follow suit (Lesch, 2013; ICG, 2011b).
  • Blunders in state response, in particular using a heavy-handed approach and trying to crush opposition, had the reverse effect of galvanising more people to join the protests (ICG, 2011b and 2011d).
  • The armed forces played a decisive role in many of the Arab uprisings, particularly the early ones in Tunisia and Egypt. In both countries the army opted to side with the people, forcing Ben Ali and Mubarak to step down. In Libya, by contrast, the army split along regime and opposition lines leading to civil war. In Syria, the core of the army remained loyal to the Assad regime, resulting in ongoing conflict (Salih, 2013; ICG, 2011a and 2011d; Delacoura, 2012; Gerges, 2014).
  • The protests were not ideological, were not led by political parties or indeed any leading figures, and generally started spontaneously. The demand for regime change and social justice had inclusive appeal, uniting people from different groups in society. The grassroots nature and scale of popular mobilisation made it difficult for regimes to take effective action against them (ICG, 2011a and 2011d; Ardic, 2012).

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Suggested citation

Idris, I. (2016). Analysis of the Arab Spring (GSDRC Helpdesk Research Report 1350). Birmingham, UK: GSDRC, University of Birmingham.