Skip to main content Skip to Search Box
Summary Article: Arab Spring from Cultural Sociology of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa

The Arab Spring is the wave of protests and revolutions throughout the Arab world, beginning in late 2010 and resulting in perhaps the most significant social change the region has seen in generations. The revolutions have included non-Arab participants, notably the Jewish population of Tunisia; the Berbers in Morocco, Algeria, and Libya; and the Copts in Egypt.

The term Arab Spring is convenient shorthand, coined parallel to the 1968 Prague Spring of uprisings in Czechoslovakia. Factors driving the 2010-11 protests include economic travails exacerbated by the worldwide financial crisis; lack of state support for the poor; and dissatisfaction with dictatorial regimes, corruption, and government censorship. The use of social media has been characteristic of the revolts, in some cases used to organize a “day of rage” protest held on a Friday after midday prayers and, in other cases, simply to broadcast information that could not otherwise be disseminated. In some countries, protests have led to the overthrow of governments; in others, reforms were quickly made to appease demonstrators. Recriminations have frequently been violent, and accusations of rape, torture, wrongful imprisonment, and other mistreatment are widespread.

During the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, a slogan of the Arab Spring emerged, which was adopted by revolutionaries in Egypt and soon repeated throughout the Arab world: “Ash-sha'b Yurid Isqat An-nizam” (The People Want to Bring Down the Regime). It was shouted during mass arrests, chanted at demonstrations, and painted on buildings as graffiti. Throughout the region, the same demands were made: the end to corruption, dictatorship, and ongoing violations of human rights.

The improvements to standards of living in the Middle East in recent decades furthered dissatisfaction with many governments. Increases in education and literacy, in particular, as well as the growth of the middle class and an Internet-literate youth population led to demands for more transparency and fairness in government and a growing intolerance for dictatorship, absolute monarchy, and governmental failure to modernize along with the citizenry. Food security and food issues became a significant problem, and while food prices did not immediately return to the crisis levels of 2007-08, the financial crisis experienced in meantime hampered governments' capacities to offer relief to their poor and hungry. In November 2010, Julian Assange's Wikileaks of American diplomatic cables also revealed specificities of corruption that fueled public outrage.

Depending on one's perspective, the 2009 protests in Iran can be constructed as an inspiration to the Arab Spring or as the canary in the coal mine. The Green Revolution began on June 13, 2009, after the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's reelection was announced. So many were convinced that the election results were manipulated, that the Washington Post, Forbes, and others referred to Ahmadinejad's retention of power as a coup. Opposition candidates Mehdi Karroubi and Mir-Hossein Mousavi lodged official complaints, even as Ahmadinejad dismissed the concerns of protesters, comparing those in the street to upset soccer fans. As the police suppressed demonstrations, activists took to Twitter to communicate with the world, while Mousavi's supporters launched a distributed denial of service attack against Ahmadinejad's Website in protest. Iranian authorities eventually blocked cell phone and text-message transmissions, and blocked Web access to the BBC, the Guardian, Facebook, Youtube, and other sites. The protests developed into the Green Movement, led by Mousavi and Karroubi, and adopted the motto “Where is My Vote?” In this manner, the blueprint was developed for the coming revolutions.

Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution

Mohammed Bouazizi was a street vendor in the Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid, selling produce to support his family, including his mother, uncle, younger siblings, and a sister attending college. For several years, the local police harassed Bouazizi, as they did many other vendors, regularly confiscating his property on trumped-up grounds or demanding unnecessary permits as excuses to elicit bribes. On December 17, 2010, having accrued $200 in debt the previous day (more than he made in a month) in order to replenish his supply of produce, Bouazizi was again harassed by the police and had his scales confiscated by a municipal official who slapped him in the face and overturned his cart. Humiliated, and unable to get his scales back, Bouazizi bought a canister of gasoline, doused himself with it in the middle of traffic in front of the governor's office, and shouted, “How am I expected to make a living?” He then lit himself on fire. His self-immolation came less than an hour after his confrontation with the police. Bouazizi lived for 18 days in the hospital, reportedly comatose until his eventual death from his burns. Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali visited him, and according to Bouazizi's family, promised that he would be sent to France for medical treatment. When Bouazizi died, thousands of people participated in the funeral procession from Sidi Bouzid to the village of his birth.

In the intervening days, the Jasmine Revolution began to take shape. The term Jasmine Revolution has been used primarily by Western media outlets, referring to Tunisia's national flower. Protests began in Sidi Bouzid within hours of Bouazizi's hospitalization. An initially peaceful demonstration was obstructed and tear-gassed by police. Largely unreported by international media at first, the protests were chronicled on social media sites, with photos uploaded to Facebook and videos of angry young Tunisians being pushed off the streets by Sidi Bouzid police uploaded to Youtube. Protests spilled into the following week, and a week after Bouazizi's fiery dissent, protester Mohamed Ammari was shot to death by police in an act that was characterized as self-defense. On December 27, a protest of at least 1,000 people was held in the capital city of Tunis, calling for more jobs and better conditions for the poor. A rally the next day was held near the palace, where lawyers protested in solidarity with Bouazizi, calling for Ben Ali to step down and complaining about the regime's repressive policies. Early foreign media reports all noted the same things: Tunisia was not normally seen as a volatile country in the region, and had a scant history of rioting or violent demonstrations; and it was prosperous with a healthy middle class compared to much of the Middle East.

Ten days after Bouazizi died, President Ben Ali fled the country and was replaced by interim president Fouad Mebazaa. Protests continued unabated, demanding that Ben Ali's supporters and allies be removed from government. Soon the Central Committee of the Constitutional Democratic Party, the governing party of Tunisia, was dissolved, and all members of the party were removed from government by Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, who was himself replaced a month later by Beji Caid el Sebsie. On March 3, Mebazaa announced that elections to a constituent assembly would be held on July 24, 2011. Though protests continued and the mood was still tense, the country became more stable by summer. Meanwhile, the wave of revolutions had spread.

Egypt

The Egyptian revolution began on January 25, 2011, while riots raged in Tunisia as the post-Ben Ali government struggled to form. President Hosni Mubarak had served since the 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat, long enough that “his eternal reign” had been the subject of jokes for a generation. The jokes also pointed to his preference to preserve the status quo and avoid change, which had become intolerable by the 21st century. Other than a brief period in the 1980s, Mubarak had kept the country in a state of emergency since he took power—suspending constitutional rights, granting additional powers to the police and government, and severely limiting political rights like freedom of speech and the formation of political organizations. Under Egypt's emergency law, the government could and did imprison individuals indefinitely without providing cause.

As in Tunisia, growing economic calamities exacerbated a long-held dissatisfaction with government corruption and the disparity of Egypt's wealth distribution—most of which went to Mubarak's allies in order to prolong his rule. While the Tunisian revolution broke out suddenly, Mubarak's Egyptian opponents were well read on nonviolent revolution and consulted with leaders of the 2000 Serbian revolution that had overthrown Slobodan Milosevic.

Antigovernment demonstrations during the 2010-11 Tunisian uprising, sparked by the self-immolation of a street vendor (left). An Egyptian protester (right) supports the influence of the Tunisian revolt on his own country, which began just five weeks afterward.

On January 17, 52-year-old Cairo lawyer Mohamed Farouk Hassan lit himself on fire in a sign of solidarity with the deceased Bouazizi as well as with the growing unrest in Egypt. In all, there were at least five self-immolations, all apparently political motivated, in Egypt that week. Mubarak's opponents took the opportunity to plan a national day of revolt for January 25, National Police Day, in order to protest police brutality and other problems. Numerous political groups, especially youth movements, joined together in the protest to demand a higher minimum wage, the cessation of the state of emergency, term limits for the presidency, and the immediate resignation of the minister of the interior (perceived as the most corrupt branch of government). A late addition to the protest was Egypt's largest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood. Social media were used to organize and chronicle the event, from Twitter to Facebook to video blogs.

The day after the protest, the Egyptian government shut off Internet access for most of the country, resulting in a “day of rage” protest held that Friday (January 28) after midday prayers. When the size of the protests—hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in various Egyptian cities—became clear, the police withdrew and the Egyptian army was deployed. Prisons were opened and inmates were freed, reportedly to scare demonstrators. Mubarak, in his first public address since the protests began, pledged to form a new government. Days later, he promised political reforms but insisted on finishing his term of office in order to oversee the transition to his successor.

Violence in the streets grew out of control, reportedly encouraged by Mubarak in order to keep the protests in a state of chaos. Violence against reporters increased. Finally, two weeks after the day of rage, Mubarak fled. Egypt's parliament was dissolved and its constitution suspended, with the announced intention of the Supreme Council of Egyptian Armed Forces to maintain control of the country until elections could be held later in the year. The worst of the violence subsided, but at the end of May, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators gathered in Cairo—with still more in smaller cities—to demand a new Egyptian constitution and trials for those responsible for the deaths of demonstrators.

Mubarak made no public appearances after leaving office. In May he was fined about $34 million for damage to the Egyptian economy resulting from his shutting off Internet access and ordered to stand trial for corruption and the premeditated murder of peaceful demonstrators. His trial was scheduled for August 3, with his two sons Ala'a and Gamal joining him as codefendants. In June, following a year of widespread rumors about Mubarak's health, his lawyer confirmed that he had stomach cancer and circulatory problems; the following month, the same lawyer announced that his client had slipped into a coma.

The Revolutionary Wave

Similarly minded protests began throughout the Middle East and north Africa. In Syria, protests calling for political reforms began with the suicide of Hasan Ali Akleh on January 26 and grew slowly before becoming a full-fledged revolution in March. In a pattern that would be repeated throughout much of the region, the Syrian government offered one concession after another in an attempt to end the protests: The governor of Daraa was removed from office, followed by the entire cabinet of Syria, followed by the prime minister. Finally, emergency law—one of the objects of protest—was lifted on April 21. Nevertheless, the largest protest followed the next day. The Syrian government responded by deploying soldiers and tanks to Daraa, cutting off the city's water, power, and telephone lines. Government forces killed an estimated 1,300 civilians, while thousands more were held in a sports stadium converted into a temporary prison. Pro-government protesters attacked the French and American embassies in Damascus on July 11, because of the support these countries had expressed for the opposition; reportedly, no one was seriously injured.

In Libya, protests led to an all-out civil war. Peaceful protests in Benghazi in February over the arrest of human rights lawyer Fathi Terbil were met by a disproportionately violent response by the police, resulting in dozens of injuries; novelist Idris al-Mesmari was arrested simply for talking on Al Jazeera about the police brutality. This in turn inspired more protests over Muammar Gaddafi's regime, which had ruled Libya since 1969. Having come to power by military coup, Gaddafi kept the Libyan military deliberately weak in order to prevent the same thing from happening to him and depended on corruption, savvy negotiation, and distribution of the nation's oil wealth in order to remain in power. Meanwhile, a third of the country lived in poverty, and one-fifth were unemployed.

The Libyan protests were directly inspired by those in Tunisia and Egypt, and a Libyan “day of rage” was planned for February 17, with various opposition groups gathering in cities across the country. Government forces responded by opening fire on protesters, in some cases using .50-caliber ammunition. Protests turned into riots as government buildings were burned down. Gaddafi's response was to announce that the protesters had acted under the influence of coffee that Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda had spiked with hallucinogens. In later statements, Gaddafi alternated between allegations that his opposition included Al Qaeda members, or that they were backed by Western colonialist powers. He soon announced that he would not step down because his power was only symbolic, comparing himself to the Queen of England. By March, the Libyan government had lost control of Benghazi as well as a sizable minority of the country and a counteroffensive was launched to reclaim the harbors of Ra's Lanuf and Brega. It became clear that Gaddafi would not be as easy to remove from power as Ben Ali or Mubarak, and Libya found itself in a violent civil war, with the United Nations imposing a no-fly zone on March 17. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) intervention began two days later, as forces arrived to protect rebel-controlled cities. After an eight-month uprising, Gaddafi was captured by rebel fighters and killed in the streets in October 2011.

The following gains were made by demonstrators throughout the region in 2011:

  • In Algeria, protests led to the lifting of the government's state of emergency, which had been imposed for nearly 20 years.

  • In Lebanon, the Saad Hariri government was overthrown, and a new government formed under Najib Mikati.

  • King Abdullah II of Jordan dismissed the prime minister and his cabinet, forming a new government, with some minor political reforms.

  • Sultan Qaboos of Oman responded to protests by agreeing to grant lawmaking powers to Oman's legislature and dismissed the existing government.

  • Saudi Arabia announced municipal elections to be held in September 2011, to be voted in by adult males. The Umma Islamic Party, an alliance of intellectual elites and Islamists opposed to the existing government, formed in February; the Saudi government drew international criticism for arresting the party's leaders.

  • Morocco held a referendum on constitutional reforms on July 1, which passed by an overwhelming 98.5 percent majority. As a result of the referendum, Berber has been adopted as an official language alongside Arabic, a change the Berber population has long sought. The power to grant amnesty, formerly exclusive to the Moroccan king, was extended to parliament, and many of the king's other powers were transferred to the prime minister.

  • In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh fled after being injured during an attack on a mosque; Vice President Abd al-Rahman Mansur al-Hadi took over as acting president. Numerous members of government resigned. Protesters in Yemen demanded a new constitution and the dissolution of the existing government.

  • A number of authorities resigned in Iraq following the February “day of rage.”

  • In Bahrain, political prisoners were released and numerous ministers removed from power. The government attempted to quell protests by giving each family in the country about $2,600 to make up for economic conditions, while increasing government spending on social programs; the protests have continued nonetheless. The Bahraini protests have been called the Pearl Revolution, named for the Pearl Roundabout where government forces struck out violently at protesters.

  • In Kuwait, the entire cabinet resigned.

  • In Sudan, President Omar al-Bashir announced he would not run for reelection in 2015.

The Impact Spreads

Popular protests sprang up throughout the world after the start of the Arab Spring. Demonstrations calling for economic, social, and political reforms throughout sub-Saharan Africa have attracted thousands. The already perilous political situation in Côte d'Ivoire grew worse when a gathering of thousands of female peace activists were fired upon by government tanks. In central Asia, youth protesters have demonstrated in Azerbaijan, and Armenian protesters have demanded social and economic reforms as well as trials for the police and military forces who used violence against protesters after the 2008 election.

Significant antigovernment protests have been held in Greece, Albania, Croatia, and the Maldives. In Myanmar and China, explicit efforts were made via social media to emulate Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution in early 2011. In China, this led to numerous arrests of activists, as well as government deletions of Internet posts related to the planned protests. Protests in Iran were reignited by the Arab Spring, beginning with a “day of rage” on February 14, 2011, where groups showed their opposition to Ahmadinejad's government and their solidarity with Egypt and Tunisia. Green Movement leaders Mousavi and Karroubi were placed under house arrest the day before in an attempt to undercut the protests.

See Also:

Arab Monarchies , Arab Republics , Corruption , Internet , Modernity , Mubarak, Hosni , Nationalism , Popular Culture , Sadat, Anwar , Saudi Arabia , Television , West, Relations With the

Further Readings
  • Al-Barghouti, T. The Umma and the Dawla: Nation-State and the Arab Middle East. New York: Pluto Press, 2008.
  • Al-Jabri, Mohammad Abed. Democracy, Human Rights, and Law in Islamic Thought. New York: I. B. Tauris, 2008.
  • Amanat, Abbas and Griffel, Frank, eds. Sharia: Islamic Law in the Contemporary Context. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009.
  • “Arab Spring: An Interactive Timeline of Middle East Protests.” The Guardian. (July 12, 2011). http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/interactive/2011/mar/22/middle-east-protest-interactive-timeline (Accessed July 2011).
  • Brown, Nathan J. Constitutions in a Nonconstitutional World: Arab Basic Laws and the Prospects for Accountable Government. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.
  • Maddy-Weitzman, Bruce. The Berber Identity Movement and the Challenge to North African States. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011.
  • Smith, Lee. The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations. New York: Doubleday, 2010.
  • Kte'pi, Bill
    Independent Scholar Independent Scholar
    Copyright © 2012 by SAGE Publications, Inc.