The buds of the Arab Spring

Ten years after the start of the Arabellion in North Africa and the Middle East, many view the movement as a failure. But rather than being over, it has now entered a more mature phase with new forms of protest. An assessment by Claudia Mende

By Claudia Mende

It was the beat of a butterfly’s wing that set a tsunami in motion. On 17 December 2010, street vendor Mohammed Bouaziz set himself on fire in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid. The self-immolation of a 26-year-old man claiming years of harassment at the hands of the police and local authorities led to mass protests across the region.

Initially in Tunisia, later in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and almost every other country in the region, thousands of people joined anti-regime demonstrations. The dam holding back decades of frustration at authoritarian paternalism, corruption and mismanagement had finally been breached.

Jordanian national Rawan Baybars was 22 years old at the time. She was completing her marketing degree and followed the protests on Al Jazeera. She watched as people expressed their anger at authoritarian rule and demanded freedom, bread and dignity. Baybars, who now works for the Red Cross in Amman, watched on her television screen as dictatorships were toppled and regimes imploded: on 14 January 2011 in Tunisia, just one month later in Cairo, then in Yemen and Libya.

“That was a turning point in my life,” she says today. “I grew up with a sense that there was a lot wrong with our country, for example that there are no civil rights. I thought although it was terrible, that was just the way it was. Since the Arab Spring I know that things can change.”

She believes that this realisation still applies, although 10 years on, social and economic conditions have worsened for many people. In her own experience, despite a good education and a whole series of internships, she can only find temporary jobs interspersed with periods of unemployment.

The exception of Tunisia

Hopes for a swift democratisation have been dashed. Barely any of the protest movement’s expectations have been fulfilled. Apart from in Tunisia, it has not been possible to establish wide-reaching civil rights and freedoms anywhere.  

In Egypt, the first free elections put Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in power. Clearly overwhelmed, Morsi plunged the nation into chaos and was toppled by the military in 2013. Thousands of his supporters were killed. Since then, repression in Egypt is worse than it was in the Mubarak era. Civil society has little room for manoeuvre. Military ruler Abdul Fattah al-Sisi wants to turn back time and extinguish all memory of the events of January 2011.

Protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square in 2011 (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/F.Trueba)
Der Tahrir-Platz in Kairo gilt als das unangefochtene Epizentrum der Arabellion: Der Geist der Freiheit, den damals der Tahrir-Platz entfesselte, sollte im Zuge der Konterrevolutionen und autoritären Restauration in vielen arabischen Staaten endgültig erstickt werden.

In Syria, the protests spiralled into a bloody civil war stoked by regional and international powers. Following the deaths of more than 500,000 and the displacement of millions, dictator Bashar al-Assad remains in power thanks to the support of Russia and Iran.

Yemen’s revolution, which began in January 2011 and forced the resignation of long-time President Ali Abdallah Saleh, also developed into full-blown civil war. Here too, the conflict is determined by the geopolitical rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The victims are the people of Yemen, scene of what is probably the world’s biggest humanitarian catastrophe.

In nations such as Jordan and Morocco, rulers were able to placate protesters with smaller-scale political concessions. In the Gulf region, citizens were silenced with cash, for example in the form of pay hikes for civil servants.

Tunisia may be the only success story, but there too, democracy is far from well-established. Instead, unemployment, economic decline due to a lack of tourism and national debt threaten the very foundations of this small Mediterranean nation.

Structural changes need time

So, has the Arab Spring failed? Has the spring turned into a bitter winter, as many western media reports claim? There are many different explanations for how things have developed. The activists, most of them young, knew what they were up against, but lacked concrete political concepts.

Decades of repression and no freedom of expression nixed any open political discourse. Moreover, societies in these nations are deeply divided along secular and Islamic lines. While Islamic groups were able to fall back on existing structures, this wasn’t the case for secular political forces. This put them at a disadvantage in elections, for example in Egypt.


Today, there is a huge sense of disappointment, especially among young people. “Most of my friends just want to leave,” says Rawan Baybars, “and that’s really sad.” They view the region’s situation as hopeless, nothing short of a disaster.

The idea that things would change quickly was naive, says sociologist Rima Majed from the American University in Beirut. Structural change needs much more time, she adds. It is not possible to appraise the Arab Spring after just a few years. It was 100 years before the ideals of the French Revolution prevailed, she says. For this reason, she does not want “to describe it as a failure.”

And, although partially under the radar of the West, protests in the region continue to be ongoing. 2011 was just the start of a lasting period of radical change. In Algeria, 2019 marked the end of Bouteflika’s long rule, as well as Omar al Bashir’s 30 years at the helm of Sudan. A transitional government took over in Khartoum. In northern Morocco, the Hirak Rif Movement has protested against the government’s neglect of this rural region.

In Iraq too, there have been sporadic protests against corruption, unemployment and the poor standard of public services. Just as in Lebanon, where a warehouse storing ammonium nitrate exploded due to negligent practices at the port of Beirut. Since then, the nation’s political elite has lost any remaining shreds of credibility.

“The people thought the Arab Spring had come to an end,” says the Palestinian academic Marwan Muasher from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “But that’s not the case. We’re now seeing the protest movements entering what is perhaps a more mature phase.” The demonstrators have learned from the mistakes of the first protest wave and their demands “for an end to corruption and for good governance are still relevant,” says Muasher.

Consumer boycott and peaceful sit-ins

This is a view shared by Lebanese sociologist Rima Majed. New forms of protest have arisen following the experiences of 2011, she says. “If people aren’t taking to the streets, it doesn’t mean they are indifferent to the grievances,” says the sociologist.

The protest is changing. This doesn’t just apply to Lebanon. In Morocco, for example, activists have discovered the consumer boycott as a way of expressing their displeasure. In 2018, anonymous online activists called on consumers to stop buying products manufactured by leading businesspeople, for example Danone yoghurt. Sales of the product slumped in the months that followed. In Sudan, people sometimes sat peacefully for weeks on streets and squares and refused to move. These examples show how the protest movements continue to evolve.


Following initial euphoria for an Arab world on the brink of a new era, people in the West have largely lost interest. Outmoded stereotypical views of the Arab world have re-emerged. Too religious, too backward, the region and its people are different after all – just a few widely-held western opinions.

The West continues to back stability 

But when issuing judgements such as these, the West should critically scrutinise its own role in the Middle East. After all, while Europe and the U.S. may have always paid lip service to democratic values and human rights, some of their policies run directly contrary to these. Arms shipments to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria and the United Arab Emirates prop up repressive regimes and stoke conflicts.

In the name of democracy, the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, toppled Saddam Hussein and created a fiasco. When current military leader of Egypt Sisi violently ousted the democratically elected President Morsi in 2013, there were no sanctions, instead Egypt continues to receive billions in aid. No wonder the word “democracy” gives rise to contradictory emotions in the Middle East. It has all too often been used by western powers to gloss over their own interests. After all, in case of doubt, it is preferable to back apparent stability than genuine transformation towards greater democracy.

The latest protests in Lebanon have shown that people are continuing to take a stand for their right to a decent life. The old, authoritarian and sometimes feudal structures are no longer tenable. The contours of a new order are not yet visible. It will be a long road until the establishment of constitutional structures, says Marwan Muasher. The coronavirus pandemic and the consequences of climate change are exacerbating existing conflicts.

And yet there are also always people like Rawan Baybars, who have faith in a future for their homeland despite adverse circumstances and who don’t simply want to get up and leave. They are the beacon of hope for a better future.

Claudia Mende

© 2020

Translated from the German by Nina Coon