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The Arab Spring was a series of anti-government protests, uprisings and armed rebellions that spread across the Middle East in early 2011. But their purpose, relative success, and outcome remain hotly disputedfrgcrgvh in Arab

countries, among foreign observers, and between world powers looking to cash in on the changing map of the Middle East.

2011 ARAB UPRISINGS: WHY THE NAME THE “ARAB SPRING”? The term Arab Springwas popularized by the Western media in early 2011 when the successful uprising in Tunisia against former leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali emboldened similar anti-government protests in most Arab countries. The term was a reference to the turmoil in Eastern Europe in 1989, when seemingly impregnable Communist regimes began falling down under pressure from mass popular protests in a domino effect. In a short period of time, most countries in the former Communist bloc adopted democratic political systems with a market economy. But the events in the Middle East went in a less straightforward direction. Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen entered an uncertain transition period, Syria and Libya were drawn into a civil conflict, while the wealthy monarchies in the Persian Gulf remained largely unshaken by the events. The use of the term the “Arab Spring” has since been criticized for being inaccurate and simplistic.


The protest movement of 2011 was at its core an expression of deep-seated resentment at the aging Arab dictatorships (some glossed over with rigged

elections), anger at the brutality of the security apparatus, unemployment, rising prices, and corruption that followed the privatization of state assets in some countries.

But unlike the Communist Eastern Europe in 1989, there was no consensus on the political and economic model that existing systems should be replaced with. Protesters in monarchies like Jordan and Morocco wanted to reform the system under the current rulers, some calling for an immediate transition to constitutional monarchy, others content with gradual reform.

People in republican regimes like Egypt and Tunisia wanted to overthrow the president, but other than free elections they had little idea on what to do next. And, beyond calls for greater social justice, there was no magic wand for the economy. Leftist groups and unions wanted higher wages and a reversal of dodgy privatization deals, others wanted liberal reforms to make more room for the private sector. Some hardline Islamists were more concerned with enforcing strict religious norms. All political parties promised more jobs but none came close to developing a program with concrete economic policies.


Arab Spring was a failure only if one expected that decades of authoritarian regimes could be easily reversed and replaced with stable democratic systems across the region. It has also disappointed those hoping that the removal of corrupt rulers would translate into an instant improvement in living standards. Chronic instability in countries undergoing political transitions have put additional strain on struggling local economies, and deep divisions have emerged between the Islamists and secular Arabs.

But rather than a single event, it’s probably more useful to define the 2011

uprisings as a catalyst for long-term change whose final outcome is yet to be


The main legacy of the Arab Spring is in smashing the myth of Arabs’

political passivity and the perceived invincibility of arrogant ruling elites. Even in countries that avoided mass unrest, the governments take the quiescence of the people at their own peril.

8 Countries That Had Arab Spring Uprisings Tunisia Tunisia is the birthplace of the Arab Spring. The self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi, a local vendor outraged over the injustices suffered at the hands of the local police, sparked countrywide protests in December 2010. The main target was the corruption and repressive policies of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was forced to flee the country on January 14, 2011, after the armed forces refused to crack down on the protests. Following Ben Ali’s downfall, Tunisia entered a protracted period of political transition. Parliamentary elections in October 2011 were won by Islamists who entered into a coalition government with smaller secular parties. But instability continues with disputes over the new constitution and ongoing protests calling for better living conditions.


The Arab Spring began in Tunisia, but the decisive moment that changed the region forever was the downfall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the West’s key Arab ally, in power since 1980. Mass protests started on January 25, 2011, and Mubarak was forced to resign on February 11, after the military, similar to Tunisia, refused to intervene against the masses occupying the central Tahrir Square in Cairo. But that was to be only the first chapter in the story of Egypt’s “revolution”, as deep divisions emerged over the new political system. Islamists from the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) won the parliamentary and presidential election in 2011/12, and their relations with secular parties soured. Protests for deeper political change continue. Meanwhile, Egyptian military remains the single most powerful political player, and much of the old regime remains in place. The economy has been in freefall since the start of unrest.


By the time the Egyptian leader resigned, large parts of the Middle East were already in turmoil. The protests against Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime in Libya started on February 15, 2011, escalating into the first civil war caused by the Arab Spring. In March 2011 the NATO forces intervened against the Qaddafi's army, helping the opposition rebel movement to capture most of the country by August 2011. Qaddafi was killed on October 20. But the rebels’ triumph was shortlived, as various rebel militias effectively partitioned the country among them, leaving a weak central government that continues to struggle to exert its authority and provide basic services to its citizens. Most of the oil production has returned on stream, but political violence remains endemic, and religious extremism has been on the rise.


Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh was the fourth victim of the Arab Spring. Emboldened by events in Tunisia, anti-government protesters of all political colors started pouring onto the streets in mid-January 2011. Hundreds of people died in clashes as pro-government forces organized rival rallies, and the army began to disintegrate into two political camps. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda in Yemen began to seize territory in the south of the country. A political settlement facilitated by Saudi Arabia saved Yemen from an all- out civil war. President Saleh signed the transition deal on 23 November 2011, agreeing to step aside for a transitional government led by Vice-President Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi. However, little progress toward a stabile democratic order has been made since, with regular Al Qaeda attacks, separatism in the south, tribal disputes and collapsing economy stalling the transition.


Protests in this small Persian Gulf monarchy began on February 15, just

days after Mubarak’s resignation. Bahrain has a long history of tension between

the ruling Sunni royal family, and the majority Shiite population demanding greater political and economic rights. The Arab Spring reenergized the largely Shiite protest movement and tens of thousands took to the streets defying live fire from the security forces. Bahraini royal family was saved by a military intervention of neighboring countries led by Saudi Arabia, as Washington looked the other way (Bahrain houses US Fifth Fleet). But in the absence of a political solution, the crackdown failed to suppress the protest movement. Protests, clashes with security forces, and arrests of opposition activists continue (see why the crisis won't go away).


Ben Ali and Mubarak were down, but everyone was holding their breath for Syria: a multi-religious country allied to Iran, ruled by a repressive republican regime and a pivotal geo-political position. The first major protests began in March 2011 in provincial towns, gradually spreading to all major urban areas.

The regime’s brutality provoked an armed response from the opposition, and by mid-2011, army defectors began organizing in the Free Syrian Army. By the end of 2011, Syria slid into an intractable civil war, with most of the Alawite religious minority siding with President Bashar al-Assad, and most of the Sunni majority supporting the rebels. Both camps have outside backers Russia supports the regime, while Saudi Arabia supports the rebels with neither side able to break the deadlock


The Arab Spring hit Morocco on February 20, 2011, when thousands of protesters gathered in the capital Rabat and other cities demanding greater social justice and limits on the power of King Mohammed VI. The king responded

by offering constitutional amendments giving up some of his powers, and by calling a fresh parliamentary election that was less heavily controlled by the royal court than previous polls. This, together with fresh state funds to help low-income families, blunted the appeal of the protest movement, with many Moroccans content with the

king’s program of gradual reform. Rallies demanding a genuine constitutional

monarchy continue but have so far failed to mobilize the masses witnessed in

Tunisia or Egypt.


Protests in Jordan gained momentum in late January 2011, as Islamists, leftist groups and youth activists protested against living conditions and corruption. Similar to Morocco, most Jordanians wanted to reform, rather than abolish the monarchy, giving King Abdullah II the breathing space that his

Republican counterparts in other Arab countries didn’t have. As a result, the king managed to put the Arab Spring “on hold” by making

cosmetic changes to the political system and reshuffling the government. Fear of chaos similar to Syria did the rest. However, the economy is doing poorly and

none of the key issues have been addressed. The protesters’ demands could grow

more radical over time.

Leaders in the Arab Spring Era Mohamed Morsi

Egypt's first democratically elected president who came to power more than a year after his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, was ousted in Egypt's Arab Spring revolution. A leading figure in the country's Muslim Brotherhood, which was banned under Mubarak. Morsi's presidency is seen as a critical test for Egypt's future. Did the revolutionaries who filled Tahrir Square calling for democracy and a country free of tyranny trade autocratic Mubarak for a theocratic regime that would implement Sharia and squeeze out Egypt's

Mohamed ElBaradei

Though not political by nature, ElBaradei and allies formed the National Association for Change in 2010 to push for reforms in a unified opposition movement against Mubarak's rule. The movement advocates for democracy and social justice. He has advocated for the Muslim Brotherhood being able to be a part of democracy in Egypt. His name has been floated as a possible presidential candidate, though some are skeptical of how he'd fare in a vote with Egyptians because he's spent so much time living outside the country.

Manal al-Sharif

There was an uprising in Saudi Arabia -- a contingent of women who dared to simply get behind the wheel and drive, thus upending the strict Islamist code of the country. In May 2011, al-Sharif was filmed by another women's rights activist, Wajeha al-Huwaider, driving the streets of Khobar in defiance of the ban on women behind the wheel. After the video was posted online, she was arrested and imprisoned for nine days. She was named one of TIME magazine's 100 most influential people in the world for 2012.

Bashar al-Assad

After being recalled from his ophthamology studies and moving quickly through the ranks, Assad became a staff colonel in the Syrian military in 1999. The presidency is his first major political role. He promised to enact reforms when he took power but those have not been realized, with human rights groups accusing Assad's regime of imprisoning, torturing and killing political opponents. State security is strongly intertwined with the presidency and loyal to the regime.

He has described himself as anti-Israel and anti-West, has been criticized for his alliance with Iran, and is accused of meddling in Lebanon.

Malath Aumran

Malath Aumran is the alias for Rami Nakhle, a Syrian pro-democracy activist who has waged a cyber campaign of dissent against the regime of Bashar Assad. After the Arab Spring protests spilled over into the Syrian uprisings of 2011, Malath Aumran has used Twitter and Facebook to keep the world abreast of the crackdown and continued demonstrations. Tweeting in English, the updates has filled a valuable void where media have not been allowed inside of Syria. Because of his activism, Aumran is under threat from the regime and

continues his work from a safehouse in Lebanon.

Moammar Gadhafi

The dictator of Libya since 1969 and the third-longest serving world ruler. Also known as being one of the most eccentric world rulers, from his days of

sponsoring terrorism to recent years when he tried to make nice with the world and be seen as wise problem-solver. Killed when he was cornered by rebels while on the run in his hometown, Sirte.

Hosni Mubarak

Egypt's president from 1981, when, as vice president, he took the reins of the government following the assassination of Anwar Sadat, to 2011, when he stepped down in the face of intense anti-government protests. The fourth Egyptian president came under criticism for human rights and a lack of democratic institutions in the nation, but was also seen by many as a necessary ally who has kept extremists at bay in that critical region.

How the Arab Spring Started

Tunisia, the Birthplace of the Arab Spring

The Arab Spring started in Tunisia in late 2010, when a self-immolation of a street vendor in a provincial town of Sidi Bouzid sparked mass anti- government protests. Unable to control the crowds, president Zine El Abidine

Ben Ali was forced to flee the country in January 2011 after 23 years in power.

Over the next months, Ben Ali’s downfall inspired similar uprisings across the

Middle East.

The Reasons for the Tunisian Uprising

The shocking self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi on December 17, 2010, was the fuse the lit the fire in Tunisia. According to most accounts, Bouazizi, a struggling street vendor, set himself on fire after a local official

confiscated his vegetable cart and humiliated him in the public. It’s not entirely

clear whether Bouazizi was targeted because he refused to pay bribes to the police, but the death of a struggling young man from a poor family struck a chord

with thousands of other Tunisians who began to pour into streets in the coming weeks. Public outrage over the events in Sidi Bouzid gave expression to deeper discontent over the corruption and police repression under the authoritarian regime of Ben Ali and his clan. Considered in Western political circles as a model of liberal economic reform in the Arab world, Tunisia suffered from high youth unemployment, inequality, and outrageous nepotism on the part of Ben Ali and his wife, the vilified Leila al-Trabulsi. Parliamentary elections and Western support masked a dictatorial regime which held a tight grip on the freedom of expression and the civil society while running the country like a personal fiefdom of the ruling family and its associates in the business and political circles.

What Was the Role of the Military?

Tunisian military played a key role in forcing Ben Ali’s departure before mass bloodshed could take place. By early January tens of thousands called for

regime’s downfall on the streets of the capital Tunis and other major cities, with

daily clashes with the police dragging the country into a spiral of violence.

Barricaded in his palace, Ben Ali asked the military to step in and suppress the unrest. In that crucial moment, Tunisia’s top generals decided Ben Ali lost control of the country, and unlike in Syria a few months later rejected the president’s request, effectively sealing his fate. Rather than wait for an actual military coup, or for the crowds to storm the presidential palace, Ben Ali and his wife promptly packed their bags and fled the country on January 14, 2011. The army swiftly handed over power to an interim administration which prepared first free and fair elections in decades. Unlike in Egypt, the Tunisian military as an institution is relatively weak, and Ben Ali deliberately favored the police force over the army. Less tainted with the regime’s corruption, the army enjoyed a high measure of public trust, and its intervention against Ben Ali cemented its role as an impartial guardian of the public order.

Was the Uprising in Tunisia Organized by Islamists?

The Islamists played a marginal role in the initial stages of the Tunisian

uprising, despite emerging as a major political force after Ben Ali’s fall. The

protests that started in December were spearheaded by trade unions, small groups of pro-democracy activists, and thousands of regular citizens. While many Islamists took part in the protests individually, the Al Nahda

(Renaissance) Party – Tunisia’s main Islamist party banned by Ben Ali – had no role in the actual organization of the protests. There were no Islamist slogans heard on the streets. In fact, there was little ideological content to the protests

which simply called for an end to Ben Ali’s abuse of power and corruption.

However, the Islamists from Al Nahda moved to the foreground in the coming months, as Tunisia moved from a “revolutionary” phase to a transition to a democratic political order. Unlike the secular opposition, Al Nahda maintained a grassroots network of support among Tunisians from different walks of life and won 41% of parliamentary seats in 2011 elections.

10 Reasons for the Arab Spring

Arab Youth: Demographic Time Bomb

Arab regimes had been sitting on a demographic time bomb for decades. According to the UN Development Program, the population in Arab countries more than doubled between 1975 and 2005 to 314 million. In Egypt, two-thirds

of the population is under 30. Political and economic development in most Arab states simply could not keep up with the staggering increase in the population,

as the ruling elites’ incompetence helped lay the seeds for their own demise.


The Arab world has a long history of struggle for political change, from leftist groups to Islamist radicals. But the protests that started in 2011 could not have evolved into a mass phenomenon had it not been for the widespread discontent over unemployment and low living standards. The anger of university

graduates forced to drive taxis to survive, and families struggling to provide for their children transcended ideological divisions.

Aging Dictatorships

The economic situation could stabilize over time under a competent and credible government, but by the end of the 20th century, most Arab dictatorships were utterly bankrupt both ideologically and morally. When the Arab Spring happened in 2011, Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak had been in power since 1980, Tunisia’s Ben Ali since 1987, while Muammar al-Qaddafi ruled over Libya for 42 years. Most of the population was deeply cynical about the legitimacy of these aging regimes, although until 2011, most remained passive out of fear of the security services, and due to an apparent lack of better alternatives or fear

of an Islamist takeover).


Economic hardships can be tolerated if the people believe there is a better future ahead, or feel that the pain is at least somewhat equally distributed. Neither was the case in the Arab world, where the state-led development gave place to crony capitalism that benefited only a small minority. In Egypt, new business elites collaborated with the regime to amass fortunes unimaginable to the majority of the population surviving on $2 a day. In Tunisia, no investment deal was closed without a kick-back to the ruling family.

National Appeal of the Arab Spring

The key to the mass appeal of the Arab Spring was its universal message.

It called on the Arabs to take back their country away from the corrupt elites, a perfect mixture of patriotism and social message. Instead of ideological slogans, the protesters wielded national flags, along with the iconic rallying call that

became the symbol of the uprising across the region: “The People Want the Fall of the Regime!”. The Arab Spring united, for a brief time, both secularists and Islamists, left wing groups and advocates of liberal economic reform, middle classes and the poor.

Leaderless Revolt

Although backed in some countries by youth activist groups and unions, the protests were initially largely spontaneous, not linked to a particular political party or an ideological current. That made it difficult for the regime to decapitate the movement by simply arresting a few troublemakers, a situation that the security forces were completely unprepared for.

Social Media

The first mass protest in Egypt was announced on Facebook by an anonymous group of activists, who in a few days managed to attract tens of thousands of people. The social media proved a powerful mobilization tool that helped the activists to outwit the police.

Prof. Ramesh Srinivasan has more on the use of the social media and political change in the Arab world.

Rallying Call of the Mosque

The most iconic and best-attended protests took place on Fridays, when Muslim believers head to the mosque for the weekly sermon and prayers. Although the protests were not religiously inspired, the mosques became the perfect starting point for mass gatherings. The authorities could cordon off the main squares and target universities, but they could not close down all mosques.

Bungled State Response

The response of Arab dictators to the mass protests was predictably awful, going from dismissal to panic, from police brutality to piecemeal reform that came too little too late. Attempts to put down the protests through the use of force backfired spectacularly. In Libya and Syria, it led to civil war. Every funeral for the victim of state violence only deepened the anger and brought more people to the street.

Contagion Effect

Within a month of the downfall of the Tunisian dictator in January 2011, the protests spread to almost every Arab country, as people copied the tactics of the revolt, though with varying intensity and success. Broadcast live on Arab satellite channels, the resignation in February 2011 of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, one of the most powerful Middle Eastern leaders, broke the wall of fear and changed the region forever

The Arab Spring

Tunisia: Government overthrown on Jan. 14, 2011. President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali flees into exhile. Elections for a Consituent Assembly held on Oct. 23,


Egypt: Government overthrown on Feb. 11, 2011. President Hosni Mubarak steps down, faces charges of killing unarmed protesters. Elections held on Nov. 28, 2011. Protests continue in Tahrir Square.

Libya: Anti-government protests begin on Feb. 15, 2011, leading to civil war between opposition forces and Moammar Gadhafi loyalists. Tripoli was captured and the government overthrown on Aug. 23. Gadhafi was killed by transition forces on Oct. 20.

Syria: Protests for political reforms have been ongoing since Jan. 26, 2011 with continuing clashes between the Syrian army and protesters. On one day in July, 136 people were killed when Syrian army tanks stormed several cities.

Yemen: Ongoing protests since Feb. 3, 2011. President Ali Abdullah Saleh is injured in an attack on June 4. On Nov. 23, he signs a power-transfer agreement ending his 33-year reign.

Other nations: Protests and uprisings related to the Arab Spring also took place in other countries as well, including: Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco and Oman.

Reasons for US intervention in Syria

The main reason for US intervention in Syria was the apparent use of chemical weapons outside the Syrian capital Damascus on August 21 2013 (see BBC video). The US has blamed the Syrian government forces for the deaths of hundreds of civilians in the attack, an accusation vehemently denied by Syria. But cynics will say that the civil war in Syria had already killed more than 100 000 people since 2011, with most Western governments sitting on the fence.

So why intervene now? US CREDIBILITY ON THE LINE Washington made it clear repeatedly it had no intention of getting involved

in another war in the Middle East, even as the Syrian opposition accused the US

of indifference to the country’s destruction. The risks were simply too great.

At the same time, Barack Obama drew the line on the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian army. The "red line", he called it, promising some sort of punitive action if the regime of Bashar al-Assad crossed it.

Several alleged incidents involving chemical weapons took place in 2013, but the graphic images of the destruction caused by the August 21 attack shocked the world. Even without water-proof evidence of Syrian army’s involvement, doing nothing in the face of open defiance from a Russian-backed Arab dictatorship would make Obama look weak and indecisive. Yes, the use of chemical weapons is banned by international conventions (to which Syria is not a signatory).

But it was the prospect of appearing irrelevant that spurred Obama into action, after two years of seeing US influence in the Middle East slowly erode with the changes brought about by the Arab Spring.

WHY IS SYRIA IMPORTANT? The US has of course other reasons to play a role in the Syrian crisis. Syria is one of the pivotal countries in the Middle East.

It borders Turkey and Israel, has a close relationship with Iran and Russia, plays an influential role in Lebanon, and has a history of rivalry with Iraq. Syria is a key link in the alliance between Iran and the Lebanese Shiite movement of Hezbollah Lebanon. Syria has been at odds with the US policies in the region

practically since its independence in 1946, and has fought several wars with

Israel, America’s top regional ally.

In other words, the US had plenty of reasons to want to intervene in Syria regardless of who was behind the August 21 attack. The question was always how to do it on the cheap, and without making the situation on the ground even worse.

WEAKENING ASSAD, BUT NO INVASION Weakening the Syrian regime has been a long-standing goal of successive US administrations down the years, with multiple layers of sanctions in place against the regime in Damascus. But what exactly Obama wants to achieve militarily is less clear. A push for regime change would probably require an invasion using ground troops, an unthinkable option given the war-weary US public. Plus, many policymakers in Washington have warned that a victory for Islamist elements among the Syrian rebels would be equally dangerous for US interests. Still, it is also unlikely that a limited bombing campaign lasting a few days

would really impair Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons again. The US would most likely have to target a wide range of Syrian military facilities to significantly

degrade Assad’s fighting capacity, sending a clear message that more damage

can be inflicted at a later stage.

However, wars don’t always go as planned, and Obama could get drawn

into a longer commitment to a conflict he had been trying hard to avoid.


Lots of what the US does in the Middle East has something to do with its antagonistic relationship with Iran. The Shiite Islamist regime in Tehran

happens to be Syria’s chief regional backer, and Assad’s victory in the fight

against the opposition would be a major triumph for Iran and its allies in Iraq and Lebanon. This in turn is unpalatable not only for Israel, but also for the Gulf Arab

monarchies headed by Saudi Arabia. Assad’s Arab foes would not forgive the US

for handing Iran another victory (after invading Iraq, only to enable an Iran- friendly government come to power).

It’s therefore clear that despite being lukewarm about Syria’s fragmented

opposition and scared of hardline Islamist rebels, the US was probably bound to intervene at some stage in this conflict. We shall see how costly this involvement will turn out to be.

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