The Arab Spring: Opportunity missed or disaster averted?

Gamal Abdel-Gawwad Soltan
Sunday 24 Jan 2021

Ten years after the protests of the Arab Spring, there is still debate about the lessons to be learned from the experiences of the different countries involved

It has been ten years since widespread protests erupted in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya and Yemen, in addition to smaller-scale ones in a few other Arab countries, with the protests as a whole being collectively named the Arab Spring.

The immediate conclusion, which many made at the time, was that the protests had put an end to talk of Arab exceptionalism. That euphoria, however, did not last long. It took less than a couple of years for failed states and civil wars, rather than democracies, to dominate the regional scene, and ten years later, the debate about what really happened during those days in early 2011 is far from over.

There are those who believe that the Arab Spring was a missed opportunity, a view prevalent among Western scholars as well as the activists who took part in the events of the revolutionary days. Others believe that the Arab Spring was a risk averted, a view prevalent in Egypt and other Arab countries that were only minimally touched by the protests.

Tunisia is a unique and interesting case, as this is one country where the Arab Spring delivered a genuinely pluralist polity. But the question remains as to whether Tunisia’s democratic regime is delivering the socioeconomic goods needed to people like Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street-vendor who set the entire region alight when he set himself on fire in a protest against inequality and injustice.


The Arab Spring made it clear that in Arab politics there are too many Islamists and too few genuine democrats of a secular, leftist and liberal kind.

In Syria, militant Islamists marginalised the moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA) as well as the liberal intellectuals of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) in the years after the Arab Spring protests began. The Islamic State (IS) group, with its capital in the city of Raqqa in northern Syria, provided a graphic illustration of the threats of militant Islamism in the Middle East.

In Yemen, the Sunni Islamist Islah Party led the protests against former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. In a later stage, the Shiite-based Houthi Movement occupied most of Northern Yemen, including the capital Sanaa, and since then Yemen has been embroiled in civil war.

In Libya the situation is complete chaos. Forces of tribalism, Islamism, regionalism, nationalism and ethnicity intermingled to produce the Libyan Civil War. Ironically, while the Islamists lost in the elections in Libya, they continue to exercise veto power over the political process in the country. In the Libyan House of Representatives elections in June 2014, the Islamists won only 30 seats out of the 200 contested. But they refused to recognise the results, challenging them in court and ultimately violently storming the House itself, forcing its relocation to the city of Tobruk 2,000 km east of the capital Tripoli.

In Egypt, the regime of former president Hosni Mubarak imposed heavy restrictions on political parties and civil society, but exerted only marginal control over mosques, which were turned into platforms for Islamist funding, organisation and mobilisation.

When young people led the 25 January Revolution and successfully breached the wall of silence in 2011, the Islamists took advantage of this opening, stormed the broken walls, and then marginalised any non-Islamists. The Muslim Brotherhood subsequently won the parliamentary and presidential elections, but failed to establish a broad-based government.

For the Egyptian people, the country seemed to be heading towards another Ayatollah-led regime, where, as had happened in Iran after 1979, following a revolution various means would be used to establish a theocratic regime. The situation seemed to secularist observers that they had had to incur the cost of the Mubarak regime twice – first when they were denied the right to organise during his rule and second when he was removed from power, giving an opportunity to the Islamists, who were determined to establish their own exclusive regime.

Tunisia is the only country where a pluralistic political system emerged following the protests. Although the Islamist Ennahda Party is a power to be reckoned with, non-Islamists effectively balance the influence of the Islamists in Tunisia, not allowing them to dominate the country’s politics.

Such structural, rather than legal, checks and balances help to maintain the democratic nature of Tunisian politics, with these being lacking in the experience of other Arab countries.


Genuine democrats are not only lacking within countries that have been touched by the Arab Spring, but they are also lacking in the surrounding region.

In the states of the Middle East there are champions of Arabism, Islamism, Sunni or Shiite Islam, Palestinian rights, anti-Israel politics and anti-Americanism. But there is no single state that can credibly claim to be championing democracy and individual rights.

In the early days of the Arab Spring, Turkey enjoyed significant democratic credentials. However, just a few years later, Turkey lost most of these, and instead of championing democracy and individual rights it now champions a dangerous mix of Islamism, Ottomanism and pan-Turkism. It could be argued that the black hole known as the Arab Spring has swallowed up the nascent Turkish democracy.

Politics in the Middle East is dominated by identity politics. There are plenty of rival tribes, sects and ethnic groups, while class conflict is muted. Identity-based ideologies dominate the ideological landscape of the Middle East. While it is true that such ideologies reflect class conflict, among other things, the mere fact that social groups choose to express their concerns and future visions in terms of their identity tells us a lot about political cultures and possibilities in the region.  

The Arab Spring took place in a dangerous neighbourhood, where strategic rivalries are the name of the regional game. As a result, the Middle East lacks a regional order, and major actors compete to change the status quo to their advantage. This applies to Iran and Turkey in particular, with these countries finding in the Arab Spring an opportunity to expand in states that were torn apart as a result of various stresses. Iran and Turkey are key players in the Syrian Civil War today, and Turkey is explicitly interfering in the Libyan Civil War, while Iran is supporting the Shiite Houthis in Yemen.

Following the exhaustion caused by its long wars of choice in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US is also scaling down its presence in the Middle East, and contending regional actors are competing to fill the vacuum that the US is leaving behind. The Arab Spring was, at least in part, an outcome of the US policy of democracy promotion. Ironically, while it further accelerated the US reluctance to be involved in the Middle East, it created an opportunity for a Russian come-back, particularly through the strife in Syria and Libya.

In Syria, Russia is playing the role of a juggler, maintaining the balance between the competing Iranian and Turkish parties. In Libya, it is playing a similar, but subtler, role in regulating the rivalry between Turkey and Egypt. Russia, not really a democratic power, has thus inherited a significant portion of the decaying American influence in the Middle East and became the holder of the balance of power in large parts of the region.


Egypt and Tunisia are two countries that survived the Arab Spring without slipping into civil war. They follow different models of development, with democracy and individual rights being prioritised in Tunisia and development being prioritised in Egypt.

Tunisia has achieved a great leap forward when it comes to liberties. According to the US think tank Freedom House’s rating of individual liberties around the world, Tunisia has made it from “not free” in 2010 to “free” in the following years. Members of the country’s opposition enjoy levels of freedom not matched in any other Arab or Middle Eastern country. However, the deep ideological and political divides in Tunisia have caused serious paralysis that has limited the government’s capacity to deliver.

The following indicators can illustrate this. Between 2010 and 2019, Tunisian GDP declined by 12 per cent from $44.05 to $38.8 billion. Per capita income declined by 18 per cent from $4,130 to $3,370. With a lower political-liberties ranking and twice Tunisia’s rate of population growth, Egypt’s GDP increased by 34 per cent in the same period from $218.98 to $303.09 billion. Per capita income in Egypt increased by over 13 per cent from $2,370 to $2,690.

Developing nations, it seems, have to choose between economic and political development. Addressing multiple needs simultaneously is a tremendous challenge, which few if any of them can afford. The years to come will reveal whether the Tunisian elites can come to terms with each other such that they can begin to deliver more to people like Mohamed Bouazizi who sparked off the Arab Spring. They will also tell us whether Egypt will follow the South Korean model, in which economic growth allows for a political transition at a later date, or whether it will follow the Chinese model in which economic growth further sustains a statist developmentalist regime. 

Restoring order at the national and regional levels is the immediate challenge facing the Middle East. At the regional level, contending actors need to come to terms with the existing reality, rather than to continue to disrupt it. Confidence needs to be built between states, and regional institutions are badly needed in the desert of institutions called the Middle East.

Functioning states need to be rebuilt in conflict-torn countries. Policies, initiatives and actions should be judged by the contributions they make to the restoration of order and stability, and resources should be made available towards this end.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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