Arab Spring

The Arab Spring was a series of antigovernment protests that took hold throughout the Middle East and North Africa beginning in December 2010 and that greatly affected the security of citizens, as well as government regimes, in the affected nations. The protests began in Tunisia, then moved across North Africa and to the larger Middle East. They affected a number of countries spanning from Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia in North Africa to Yemen and Bahrain in the Gulf, to Syria and beyond in the Middle East. The outcomes of the demonstrations varied significantly based most clearly on how the national government and the military responded. In some cases, the government fell in response to the protests without the eruption of civil war; in others, the government fell due to civil war; and in some countries, the government stood its ground by using violence or by paying off the citizenry. This entry first examines three misconceptions about the Arab Spring, provides details on the initial spark in Tunisia that ignited the wave of protests and violence both there and in other countries, and highlights the results of the Arab Spring in various countries. The entry also discusses the factors that led to differing outcomes in the various countries, and it finally examines the future of the Middle East and North Africa in their peoples’ quest for breaking free from the current regimes of power.


There are three main misconceptions regarding the Arab Spring. The first misconception is that these protests constituted a sudden paroxysm of antigovernment feeling. In reality, antigovernment protests had been going on and building up throughout the Middle East well before 2010. The second misconception is that these protests were somehow coordinated or connected between groups in different countries. While social media such as Twitter and Facebook helped spread word of the protests, the protests took different tonalities and modalities in different settings and were not coordinated. The final misconception is that the Arab Spring signified a transition to a more democratic Middle East and North Africa. In reality, only Tunisia has seen a smooth democratic transition, whereas other countries have seen their dictators dig in their heels or the status quo remain largely in place. Due to this fact, many have posited that the Arab Spring has become an Arab Winter.


The incident involving Bouazizi immediately sparked protests in his hometown, which soon spread to other parts of Tunisia. Caught off guard, Ben Ali did not know how to quell the unrest. A cabinet reshuffling and promises of new jobs had no effect, shooting at the protestors only made the protests grow, and a last-ditch attempt to stop the civil disobedience by closing all schools and universities indefinitely also did not impede the revolutionaries. On January 14, 2011, Ben Ali, Tunisia’s decades-long autocrat, fled the country. The protestors had won, and Tunisia now would hopefully transition to a democratic country.

Ben Ali’s ouster inspired Egyptian protestors, who filled Tahrir Square in Cairo, denouncing the 30-year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. As in Tunisia, these protests were met with flailing solutions by the Egyptian president, who attempted to reshuffle the government and installed a vice president before eventually ceding power to the military in February 2011.

Protests in other Arab countries proved less fruitful. In Libya, the protestors were met with brutal violence by dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Libyans started demonstrating in February 2011 but were met with heavy resistance from the dictator who had ruled them for 42 years. By March 2011, a civil war had erupted in Libya, largely pitting the east of the country, which housed the opposition’s Benghazi base, against the west. On March 17, 2011, the United Nations Security Council declared a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent Gaddafi from bombing his own people. The United States and the United Kingdom initiated an aerial bombing campaign, which soon included a coalition of 27 other Middle Eastern and European nations, against Gaddafi’s forces 2 days later. By October, Gaddafi was dead, but new stable leadership has not emerged in Libya as of early 2015. Instead, the country continues to be wrought with infighting, instability, and civil war.

In Syria, a similar dynamic played out with the Syrian civil war. Syrian protestors were met with brutal violence by dictator Bashar al-Assad. This violence led to an enormously violent and brutal civil war pitting the north of the country against the south. In this case, the revolutionaries were, for the most part, not aided by outside forces until 2014. As of January 2015, the civil war in Syria continues to rage on, leading to huge refugee flows into the neighboring countries, hundreds of thousands of deaths, and the wholesale destruction of northern Syria. The rise of the Islamic State in Syria forced outside nations to finally get involved in this conflict, though the military involvement has been limited in capacity and scope.

In Yemen and Bahrain, attempts at upheaval failed as well. In Bahrain, the protestors were met with violence, which eventually stopped the demonstrations. In Yemen, the protests led to smaller-scale violence that included an assassination attempt on Ali Abdullah Saleh. Illegitimate elections have since led to the rise of Saleh’s chosen successor, while violence and unrest continue in Yemen.

In other countries, citizens were paid off to nip in the bud the potential for revolution. In Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan, large salary increases for government workers and new subsidies were introduced in response to the Arab Spring protests. These payouts were mostly successful in stopping large-scale protests from occurring in these countries.

Critical Factors Affecting Arab Spring Outcomes

The second major factor determining the outcomes of the Arab Spring protests was the use of social media. In Tunisia and Egypt, social media provided a vector for gathering popular support and organizing demonstrations. In Syria, where the government turned off the Internet in late 2012, social movements had more difficulty organizing. In the Gulf, heavy censorship of the Internet impeded demonstrations.

The third factor that helps explain the differing outcomes of the Arab Spring in different countries is the role of the military. In Tunisia and especially in Egypt, a military ambivalent about the task of quelling protests, and even siding with the revolutionaries, made regime change possible. While Libya and Syria saw their fair share of military defections, the loyalty of the military to the ruling regime made civil war necessary to create the potential for regime change. In Bahrain and other Gulf states, strong military support of the monarchy made regime change nearly impossible.

Finally, the order of events helped explain the differing outcomes of the Arab Spring in different countries. In Tunisia, where the movement began, the government was caught completely off guard. Egypt’s leadership change was possible because Egyptian citizens were inspired by the Tunisian revolution. Syria, Libya, and Bahrain’s rulers’ brutal reaction to the demonstrations was the result of those regimes taking these protests very seriously due to the ouster of Ben Ali and Mubarak in Tunisia and Egypt, respectively.

Long-Standing Grievances and the Future

While the mythology of a wave of revolutions sparked by the dramatic actions of a fruit vendor is certainly inspirational, the reality is that long-standing structural, political, and economic problems led to the revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa. Surely Bouazizi felled the first domino, but the governments that the Middle East and North African dictators and monarchs had created were built on sand. High unemployment, endemic corruption and nepotism, lack of political freedoms, a democratic vacuum, and the sclerotic nature of their still quasi-socialist economies had already led to protests and violence in the Middle East and North Africa well before 2010. For instance, large-scale protests over labor policies occurred in both Egypt and Tunisia in 2008. Furthermore, Iran saw huge protests and government violence in response to its 2009 presidential election, which many believed was rigged.

As of 2015, the future of democracy in the Middle East and North Africa looks mostly bleak with the lone “victory” of a newly established democracy in Tunisia. Egypt is once again run by the military after democratic elections putting the Muslim Brotherhood in power led very quickly to a coup. Yemen and Libya are both looking increasingly like failed states. The Syrian civil war continues to rage. The Arab Spring was a moment in the history of the Middle East and North Africa that laid bare the grievances of the Arab people against their governments. While it may be true that the Arab Spring has turned to an Arab Winter, the grievances that sparked these revolutions still remain in many countries.

Gabriel Rubin

See also Libya ; Revolutions and Revolts ; Social Media ; War on Terror

Further Readings

Ahram, Ariel. “The Crisis of Authoritarianism and the Prospects of State Breaking in the Arab World.” Moscow State University Bulletin, Series 25, International Relations and World Politics, No. 1 (2012). (Accessed January 2015).

Danahar, Paul. The New Middle East: The World After the Arab Spring. New York, NY: Bloombury Press, 2013.

Friedman, Thomas. “The New Hama Rules.” The New York Times (August 2, 2011). (Accessed December 2014).

“Libya: The Next Failed State.” The Economist (January 8, 2015). (Accessed August 2017).

Robinson, Glenn. “Syria’s Long Civil War.” Current History (December 2012). (Accessed November 2014).

Ryan, Yasmine. “The Tragic Life of a Street Vendor.” Al-Jazeera English (January 20, 2011). (Accessed January 2015).

Simon, Bob. “How a Slap Sparked Tunisia’s Revolution.” 60 Minutes (February 22, 2011). (Accessed January 2015).

Yousef, Tarik. “Development, Growth, and Policy Reform in the Middle East and North Africa Since 1950.” Journal of Economic Perspectives, v.19/3 (2004).