The Arab Spring

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On December 17, 2010, in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire.  This act of political self-sacrifice lit a fire which erupted across the Arab world in a series of popular demonstrations and revolutions that have come to be collectively called “The Arab Spring”.  The Arab Spring was a popular uprising, which engaged large elements of the populations in the Arab world.  The movement crossed religious and class boundaries and included both urban and rural populations.  However, although popular participation was high across the entire region, the results of the uprisings have been uneven, and the impact of the Arab Spring on the future of the region and the world remains unclear.  There have been positive outcomes, as in Tunisia and Jordan, neutral outcomes, such as in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and very negative outcomes, such as in Syria.

Causes and Challenges

The Arab Spring resulted from long standing structural, economic, and political problems in the Arab counties. If the underlying fundamental social problems, such as a lack of economic opportunity or an economy which equates with the nation's educational system are still absent, the Arab Spring can only be considered a partial success.  In order to consider the uprisings a success, the changes the uprising caused to the political system need to be followed by changes to the economic, cultural and social conditions of the Arab World.  Campante and Chor have found that “education in the Arab world was indeed matched with poor labor markets, and particularly so in the countries that have been at the heart of the protest wave” (Campante and Chor, 2012, p. 166-168).  If the political regimes which came to power after the Arab Spring do not address this structural deficiency between the education of the workforce and the available jobs, these new states must also be considered unstable, even if they are more democratic in outlook that the systems they replaced. 

Just as the absence of an expansion of economic opportunity is a danger to the establishment of a modern, democratic state, the countries where the “Arab Spring” occurred must also find a way to contain Radical Islam, and other anti-modern social movements which have been empowered in the wake of the Arab Spring protests.  Another political problem facing the new states is that even where the new government maintains a commitment to democratic institutions, conservative forces may have the electoral power to roll back the rights and legal protection of women.  For example, the new government in Tunisia “opened the way to the crystallization of the right-wing block which includes Al-Nahda Renaissance Party” an Islamic party (Amin, 2012, p.35).  Indeed, the new Tunisian state “is likely to achieve some democratic improvements...along with regression in key social issues [like] women's rights, secular education (Amin, 2012, p.35).  

This is certainly an important challenge, as it will be hard to consider the Arab Spring movement as having a long term positive impact if the final outcomes include the exclusion of minority populations from the political processes, and the elimination of women's rights and gender equality.  A commitment to equal rights for all citizens is one of the hallmarks of a modern state.  However, in many of the countries changes by the uprisings of the Arab Spring, some of the groups participating in the new governments are diametrically opposed to modernity.   In these locations, it is crucial for the rest of the population to use new media forms like Twitter and Facebook to both keep themselves engaged in the political process, and to keep the rest of the world informed about what is occurring 'on the ground'.  

Social Media

Consensus is strong about the role social media like Twitter and Facebook played in keeping the momentum behind the street protests growing across borders in the Arab world. In their study “The Revolutions were Tweeted”, Lotan, et al., argued that the Arab Spring “revolutions featured prominent use of social media, both by activists organizing the demonstrations, and by those disseminating or discussing news of the events locally and globally”(Lotan et al., 2011, p. 1375). One of the reasons the regimes that were overthrown were unable to contain the popular revolutions in the streets of their countries was because social media served to both inspire continued activism, and to document any crackdowns on the protests.  The role played by social media in Tunisia and Egypt seemed to prove that “social media may have the potential to provoke and sustain political uprisings by amplifying particular news and information” (Lotan et. al., 2011, p. 1375).

The powerful role social media played during the Arab Spring has many implications. First, in the Arab countries themselves, activists can employ social media to continue the peaceful democratization of their societies.  Citizens can quickly document and transmit news about the new government, and shape perception of whether or not they are acting in a positive or negative manner.  Women and other coalitions can use social media to struggle against attempts to reduce or eliminate the role of women in society by conservative political factions.  Also, the lessons of the use of social media during the Arab Spring has implications beyond the borders of the Arab World.  Activists in other countries can look to the use of social media during the Arab Spring for inspiration, and learn new methods for organizing and mobilizing the local population.  Human rights organizations and other activists in the first world can monitor the activities of the new governments, and bring international pressure on any which attempt to suppress the rights of their citizens.

Different States, Different Outcomes

It is important to note that although the region wide protests have been described under the general rubric “Arab Spring”, the movement was very different in the various nations of the Arab World.  While the dictatorships of Egypt and Libya were overthrown, the wealthy Arab monarchies in the Persian Gulf region remain in power.  For example, “The Arab Gulf states have responded to region-wide demands for accountable governments and political freedoms by increased spending on job creation and benefits for their citizens”(Rogan, 2012, p.3).  The gulf monarchies, because of their regressive social policies and extreme wealth discrepancies would have seemed vulnerable targets for the protest movements, yet the governments remain in power.  It seems their strategy has, for the moment at least, worked: “The calculus seems to have been that by increasing the number of citizens with a stake in the status quo, the oil rich Gulf States could snuff the protest movement before it spread like wild fire” (Rogan, 2012, p. 4). 

The Arab monarchies in Jordan and Morocco, who do not rule oil rich states, have had to turn to non-economic strategies to attempt to mollify the population. To the contrast of of perceived public opinion, in these states, the governments responded by actually listening to the demands of activists and making political concessions.  From a western point of view, the changes in Jordan and Morocco may be the most progressive in the area, with the most positive long-term implications for the region in the world.  For example, King Abdullah  II of Jordan and King Mohammad VI of Morocco “announced measures to promote the independence of the judiciary, to establish an elected government with the prime minister chosen by the electorate rather than the monarch and a legislature with genuine law making powers”(Rogan, 2012, p. 10). After the events of the Arab Spring, Jordan and Morocco have been transformed into functioning Constitutional Monarchies in the British model.

However, if the democratic reforms in Tunisia take hold, it will be Tunisia which may end up being the greatest success of the Arab Spring.  A study of the results of the Arab Spring Revolutions in Tunisia is also illuminating. In 2011, Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began more than a year before, made the transition into a democratic nation. While there are many challenges facing the new democracy, successful examples can also be found.  The first successful example in Tunisia which can serve as a model for other states is how Tunisia has managed to reach a compromise between religion and the state.  Stepan, in his study of Tunisia, calls this compromise the “Twin Toleration”.  This refers to the fact that religious people in Tunisia have been convinced to tolerate a non-Islamic government, while at the same time, the government has allowed Islam to exist free from state harassment.  The roots of this successful transition are found in the nature of the popular revolution.  The multiple groups which comprised the protests did not seek conflict with each other, but instead formed united leadership.  Known as the “Ben Achour Commission...this turned out to be one of the most effective consensus building bodies in the history of crafted democratic transitions”(Stepan, 2012, p. 90).  This consensus model continued after the old government was overthrown, and negotiations about the shape of the new constitution and the new Tunisian state began.  

What enabled the Ben Achour Commission to achieve such positive results? First, unlike in other counties, like Egypt for example, the Tunisian groups focused on process and functional government rather than ideology. Second, the Commission made the transitional nature of its mandate very clear.  It never allowed itself to be presented as the new government in Tunisia; rather, it was always seen as a placeholder while the people created a new government.  This prevented any faction from gaining too much power during chaotic times.  Last, the Commission instituted “pure Proportional representation” (Stepan, 2012, p 91).  This crucial step insured that the coalition building nature of the revolution would become part of the new government.  No one group could easily gain a majority power over the new government or Constitutional convention (Stepan, 2012, p. 91). 

The popular revolution in Egypt was even more widespread than in Tunisia, however, unlike in Tunisia, Egypt did not lay the ground for an effective democratic government. The results have likewise placed the future of a democratic Egypt in doubt.  After the overthrow of Mobarak's dictatorship, a new Constitution was put in place, and President Morsi was elected.  In 2013 however, after fresh rounds of protest against Morsi, the Egyptian military overthrew the government and currently wields state power.  In Egypt, unlike Tunisia, Islamic and secular leaders did not establish a compromise, or establish that a functioning government was the top priority of the revolution.  As a result, the elections and new constitution did not establish protections for minority groups from the majority.  If one faction was able to gain a numerical majority in the government, they could impose their views and policies on the rest of society.  This is exactly what happened as Islamic groups gained power in the new government and established laws which aligned with their world view. 

Religious Sphere, Secular Sphere

An examination of the difference between the results of the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia again points out the importance of understanding the role of religion in the long term success and implications of the Arab Spring.  There are many forms this relationship can take which would enable democracy to flourish in these countries.  The Tunisian model, while inspiring, is not the only one.  However, as the examples of Egypt and Syria warn, there must be some mollification of Islam by democratic society.  Stephan and Linz point to India as another example of a country with both an extremely large Muslim population and a functioning democratic government as well as other young Muslim democracies in Indonesia and Senegal. (Stepan and Linz, 2012, p. 15). 

One very promising development is finding justification for democratic reform in the Koran itself.  For example, the successful Muslim democracies have all “stressed the importance of Koran verse 2:256 which states 'There shall be no compulsion in religion'” (Stepan and Linz, 2012, p. 16). Likewise, in Tunisia, Indonesia and Sengal, both secular and religious political groups have used the Koran's many parables about compromise and justice to establish the legitimacy of democratic institutions.  Once the legitimacy of a civil sphere free from a religious sphere has been established, it is much easier to create space which allows for both religious and secular living.  

In his analysis of the political situations in the Arab world after the Arab Spring, “The Languages of the Arab Revolution”, Abdou Filali Ansary reminds readers of a crucial point: that the split between secular and Islamist is not as black and white as it is normally perceived in the west.  In other words, there are many elements of the Arab populations who engage with both discourses and desire a society which has elements of both institutions.  

While Ansary admits that there is a bloc of Islamist parties who reject any compromise with a modern state, he reminds that this is a relatively new phenomenon, and that “a new political language” has developed in response to it (Ansary, 2012, p. 6).  This new political language is crucial because “The coinage and dissemination of new concepts that capture the aspirations and hopes of new generations in the Arab world in ways that are aligned with modern political ideas, and at the same time, adjusted to the particular conditions of local populations”(Ansary, 2012, p, 7). The new language is a fusion of western democratic terms with Islamic concepts and Arabic words.  Ansary points to the influence of new media in spreading western political language throughout the Arab world.  

Negative Outcomes

However, for all the optimism, there are several locations where the Arab Spring resulted in negative outcomes.  The first example is Bahrain, a Gulf state monarchy.  Unlike the Saudi plan to buy off its citizens with greater public spending, or the political reformations in Jordan and Tunisia, Bahrain responded to the popular uprisings of its people by instituting a bloody crackdown.  By all accounts, the monarchy has reduced political, civil and legal rights of its citizens, slaughtered protesters, and shifted to become a more brutal, less free regime.  The worst of all outcomes is undoubtedly Syria, where initial hopes for the overthrow of the Assad dictatorship have turned into a nightmare of civil war, genocide, Terrorism, and international war.

It is estimated that over 250,000 Syrians have lost their lives since the uprising against the Assad regime began (Syria, 2015, para 1.).  From the very beginning of the Arab Spring, Syria has been violent.  The tyrannical Assad regime responded to peaceful street protests by ordering the military to open fire on the civilians. This violence only caused the protests to grow in number and intensity, which provoked even more violent crackdowns, beginning a cycle of bloodshed.  Eventually, large elements of the Syrian military refused to follow Assad's orders, and civil war broke out (Syria, 2015, para. 3-4).

The bloodshed in in Syria soon spread beyond the country’s borders, and forces from across the region joined in the struggle.  Religious and sectarian conflicts broke out, and terrorist organizations took advantage of the chaos to establish operations.  One of the Jihadist groups is ISIS (Syria, 2015, para. 5).  The growth of ISIS and other terrorist groups in Syria has led to military intervention by first world powers such as Russia, the United States, and most recently, France.  

Conclusion

The results of the Arab Spring have been mixed.  However, since the uprisings themselves were completely unexpected, it is hard to predict just what exactly the long term implications of the Arab Spring will be on the region and the world.  In some countries, the long term prospects seem very good.  For example, Jordan has established real democratic reforms to its government and elections.  Tunisia has peacefully resolved the tension between religious and secular groups, and continues to maintain a democratic, free, state.  In other countries, the results have been more mixed, and it is unclear which way the balance will tilt.  Egypt has had some of the largest and most diverse demonstrations, but failed to establish a boundary between government and religion.  As a result, religious law has replaced civil law. However, the Egyptian military has since reestablished its control over the state. In some countries, the current conditions make imagining a positive outcome difficult.  The most extreme example is Syria, which has become home to civil war, terrorism, and crimes against humanity.

References

Amin, Samir. (May 2012). The Arab Revolutions: A Year After. Interface: A Journal for and about Social Movements. Vol 4, 1., p.33-42.

Ansary, Abdul Filali. (April 2013). The Languages of the Arab Revolution. Journal of Democracy. Vol 23.,2. p.5-18.  

BBC News. (2015, October 9). Syria: The story of the conflict. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-26116868.

Brown, Nathan. And Hamzaway, Amr. (Sept/Oct. 2007). Arab Spring Fever. The National Interest. 91. p., 33-40.

Campante, Filipe and Chor, David. (Spring 2012). Why was the Arab World Poised for Revolution? Schooling, Economic Opportunities and the Arab Spring. Journal of Economic Perspectives.  Vol 26.,2, pg. 167-188.

Lotan, G., Graeff, E., Ananny, M., Gaffney, D., Pearce, I., Boyd, D. (2011)The Revolutions were Tweeted: Information Flows During the Tunisian and Egyptian Revolutions. International Journal of Communications. 5. p. 1375-1405.

Rogan, Eugene. Regional Overview. (2012) The Arab Spring: Implications for British Policy. London: Conservative Middle East Council.

Stepan, Alfred. (April 2012). Tunisia's Transitions and the Twin Tolerations. Journal of Democracy. Vol 23., 2.  p. 89-103.

Stepan, Alfred and Linz, Juan. (April 2013). Democratization Theory and The Arab Spring. Journal of Democracy. Vol 24.,2. p. 15-30.