Arab Spring: Genesis, Causes of Failure & Lessons Learnt


The Arab Spring is the name given to the spontaneous uprising of the public against the bad governance of the modern Middle Eastern countries in the first half of the 21st century. This article explains how and why it started from Tunisia where it succeeded  and how it spread to other countries where it failed and why. Based on this analysis, an effort has been made to draw lessons for improving the style of statecraft in the developing countries.


Every event, big or small, is an outcome of multiple reasons and then itself becomes a cause for several subsequent events. The Arab Spring, a spontaneous uprising of the public against the bad governance of the modern Middle Eastern countries in the first half of the 21st century, was one such event. It started from Tunisia where a 26-year-old street vendor Abu Bouazizi committed suicide to protest the high handedness of a petty government official who had insulted him and seized his business goods.  However, it soon engulfed the entire country in violent demonstrations against the government.

Immediate result of the Arab Spring was, of course, regime change and transformation of governance style in Tunisia leading to the advent of democratic reforms. Its success led to its copycat replication in Egypt where it also resulted in the toppling of the two-decade-old corrupt dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. Elections held on adult franchise basis resulted in coming into power of the Muslim Brotherhood, a far-right Islamic movement. Muslim Brotherhood government was later thrown out by the army in a coup d’etat that had much popular support, but which has resulted in a regime that is no less authoritarian than Mubarak’s. 

However, it failed to achieve similar results in other Arab countries for one reason or another. Western intelligence agencies then took charge of these movements in Libya and Syria while in other ME countries it was ruthlessly suppressed. It is really unfortunate to observe how a largely peaceful development, which inspired millions around the world, fizzled out with a whimper in the end. Rather, it contributed to the situation obtaining in the Middle East today: internationalised civil wars in both Syria and Yemen, the rise of Islamic State, authoritarian rule in Egypt, the collapse of the central government in Libya, and migrants risking their lives and properties to flee to Europe?

Causes of the Arab Spring

The spontaneity and severity of the Arab Spring may have surprised few people but it was in the making for a long time. That vendor’s incident was just the tipping point for the start of the Arab Spring. History is replete with such events which apparently started with small events but were in the making for a long time. French and American Revolutions, First World War,1857 Indian War of Independence, etc. All these events started from small insignificant events but soon developed into mass uprising of the people against the governing elite of the day or initiated a global war. Similarly, there are several causes, long term as well as short term, structural as well as managerial, of the Arab Spring. Some of these are;

  1. Demographic Changes

Like all other developing countries, most of the Middle Eastern nation-states are passing through the most crucial phase of their demographic transition. While the rate of childbirths is gradually falling in almost all the countries due to long term changes in social values and growing prosperity, the death rates are falling even more rapidly because of better health facilities. Consequently, their populations are growing at unsustainable rates, creating huge youth bulges. Concentrated in the urban centers, educated but unemployed young men and women are demanding jobs from their respective states which are over-stretched and hence under stress.

  • Revolution of the Rising Expectations

Modernization, which always accompanies industrialization, has brought fundamental changes in the attitudes and behaviour of the citizens all over the world. Once set in motion, modernization becomes a self-reinforcing process, penetrating all aspects of life and brings multidimensional changes in any society.

These changes, in turn, transform social life and political institutions, bringing rising mass participation in politics in the long run. Consequently, people are now demanding a greater say in public affairs, an open government, transparency in public dealing, and an accountable and responsible executive. There is a sort of dysfunctionality in the traditional state-society relations; every successive generation of citizens expect far more than their parents expected from the political leaders and government servants in terms of service delivery.

And they are not content with the peaceful expression of their resentment in case of government failure to satisfy their demand; they could be violent. Speed and scale of electronic and social media have facilitated this trend of instant accountability of the state and made it that much easier to mobilize more citizens more quickly to respond. In this game of chess, only good intentions of the political elite and the public servants are not enough; they must be backed by effective service delivery and prompt redressal of grievances.

  • Globalization and Social Media

Thanks to social and electronic media, small issues which a decade or so ago could only find a place on the back page of a national newspaper become breaking news in major global channels creating advocacy and sympathy movements in different parts of the world. This was particularly evident during the Arab spring started from a small incident but swept the country after country because of the ubiquities of social media. Maybe at another time, Arab Spring could have been suppressed in its infancy.

A striking example of how this cyberspace activity created a revolutionary mood among the masses is illustrated by the case of 28-year-old Khaled Mohamed Said, who was beaten to death by Egyptian security forces in 2010. Photos of his disfigured corpse were distributed online, and a Facebook page entitled, “We are all Khaled Said,” created by a Google employee, resulted in hundreds of thousands of followers. Naqeebullah Mehsud’s case of Pakistan is another recent example.

  • Weak States/ Bad Governance

One of the fault lines of almost all the Middle Eastern countries except for Israel and Turkey is its ineffective state-building and the state itself. All their institutions-armed forces, judiciary, law enforcement, etc are dysfunctional, suffering from the capacity deficit and massive corruption. It has created crises of confidence among the people about their respective states. Unfortunately, the political establishment in most of the countries in the Middle East, historically governed by authoritarian elites, are not providing their populace adequate channels of expression and empowerment. Consequently, these countries are increasingly witnessing the outbursts of popular resentment against the status quo which is then exploited by the regional and global hegemons as well as the non-state violent actors.

  • Financial Crises of the 2007/8

The financial crisis of 2007/08 proved the proverbial last straw on camel’s back. While the export earnings in oil-exporting, countries were increasing, other countries were facing severe financial crises resulting in accelerated inflation, unemployment, declining quality of life, etc. Therefore, frustrated youth took part in protests, demonstrations, sit-ins and other methods of protest.

Causes of Failure of the Arab Spring

Arab Spring was one of the milestones in the long and arduous journey for the empowerment of the masses living under a dictatorship in most of the middle eastern countries. Unfortunately, with one exception of Tunisia, it failed to achieve any significant positive results in terms of replacing dictatorial regimes with properly elected representatives in an institutionalized democratic setup. However, it failed in different countries of the Middle East for several reasons peculiar to each country.  Thus, it is difficult to pinpoint any definitive set of causes for its failure. Bur here we do attempt to list few common reasons for its failure

  1. Spontaneity

Though the ground was ripe for this eventuality, yet it was not an organized movement launched by any organisation well versed with mass mobilisation. It succeeded in Tunisia because the Islamist Ennahdha party which had suffered immensely during the Ben Ali’s dictatorship took reins of the movement after it had started. It took along other stakeholders and was thus successful in the exit of the dictator. In other countries, the Arab Spring just remained copycat acts

  • Narrow Based

In most of the Middle Eastern countries it was seen as a movement by a particular group advancing its own agenda by using the grievances of the youth. Old guards saw it as a direct attack on their authority, while business classes generally abstained to protect their businesses. In few countries, it took sectarian connotation leading to its de-legitimisation

  • Sustainability

To succeed, a mass mobilisation needs a lot of resources and challenging work to keep it going over a period of time.  In every country witnessing the Arab Spring, the Movement ran out of steam before it could gain its momentum because of the half-hearted attempts of those who tried to own it.

  • Institutional Support

The biggest reason for its failure was the lack of support from the state institutions, particularly the armed forces and the security agencies.  In the case of Tunisia, it was the absolute neutrality of the armed forces and the wholehearted support of the security establishment which played the most crucial role in toppling the government. Being closer to Europe, these institutions were headed by the western-oriented elite which genuinely wanted transformation of Tunisia along modern lines.   And it failed in Egypt after successfully ousting Mubarak for precisely the same reasons-the western leaning military establishment soon got fed up with the over-ambitious Islamic agenda of Mursi.

  • External State Support

Almost all the Middle Eastern nation-states are ruled by non-representative rulers who are being backed by the West for their own vested interests. While the Western population was supporting the Arab Spring, their governments were firmly behind their puppets supplying arms and intelligence.

  • Hijacked by Non-State Actors

While the movement was the triumph of mostly non-violent mob mobilisation, the movement itself was soon hijacked by the non-state violent actors who took advantage of the weak state structures and occupied vast territories. Arab Spring just turned out to be Arab Winter because of these actions of the Jihadists

Lessons Learnt

Whether it was a fad in the Middle Eastern politics or going to happen again, Arab Spring has some very pertinent lessons for every nation-state still struggling with the twin challenges of nation-building and state-building. Some of these are as follows

  • Governance Matters: Survival of any regime or even system is directly dependent on its legitimacy- institutional as well as emotional. The latter is in turn result of its performance. In this rapidly globalising world, you cannot remain aloof and must change your system of governance and service delivery under the modem cannons of governance which ensures operational efficiency, the effectiveness of service delivery and equality of treatment
  • Democracy Matters: Democracy has been much maligned for its alleged shortcomings such as corruption, mismanagement, economic disruptions, and slow economic growth, etc. However, despite all these allegations, democracy is still the best form of governance humanity has ever experimented with. Let it run its course. Frequent, free and fair elections will ultimately prop up capable leadership over a period, accountable to the public. Only genuine leaders elected through popular universal franchise can hold the nation together; dictatorship always leaves the countries broken and in a mess.
  • Institutions Matter: Soon after independence or a regime change, people are very emotional about their newfound empowerment; however, these sentimental legitimacies must be converted into institutional legitimacy by strengthening the service delivery institutions through improving their efficiency and effectiveness and broadening their ownership. Some of the institutions which matter the most are armed forces, law and order agencies, judicial institutions and nation-building departments like health, education and general administration. Civil society organisations and media are two very powerful institutions that can play a crucial role in making or breaking of a country. Timely and forceful articulation of grievances of deprived regions by these institutions should be taken seriously and addressed appropriately. They are also instrumental in creating and fostering common denominators of cultural and social homogeneity in a country. Stifling them will deprive the policymakers of a useful channel of two-way communication with the populace.
  • Growth sans Social Justice is a recipe for Disaster: No doubt, economic growth matters because it is only through growth that poverty can be alleviated and inequalities reduced. However, the content of growth and equitable distribution of is fruits matter more than the growth itself. Patterns of growth envisaged in the initial stages determine the prosperity of certain regions and deprivation of others in the long run. Let the market forces work but the state must always be correcting the anomalies these forces always create due to the inherent logic of the capitalistic model of growth. Of course, capitalistic mode of production is far more efficient than other modes but is also more efficient in its negative fallouts- not only creating inequalities but also accentuating and reinforcing them.
  • Devolution Matters: Devolution of powers and decentralisation of service delivery institutions, backed by equitable distribution of resources is one of the key instruments to keep the feelings of the people and the regions feeling marginalisation in control. Devolution can prevent, reduce or at least localise the public agitation by addressing the issues at the local level and redressing the grievances of the public.
  • Keep an eye on Early Warning Signs: Revolutions do not occur overnight. Their seeds take time to germinate. There is always a time to salvage the situation provided the leadership is responsible and responsive, civil society is aggressive and media is vigilant. Keep an eye on early warning signs and address them in time and sagaciously. What Machiavelli said five hundred years ago is still applicable. Wrong political decisions are like tuberculosis, easy to cure but difficult to detect in the beginning; once belated they become easy to detect but difficult to cure.’ of the past. It must be inclusive.
  • Don’t Underestimate Social Media: All other things constant, if there were no social media, the movement would have been crushed while it was still in the making. However, the movement itself became viral thanks to the outreach of social media creating waves of symphonies all over the world. Any state will ignore the power of social media at its own peril.

What Next?

Invariably all the Post-Arab Spring states will pass through the same stages on their road to capitalistic development as the Central Asian and East European countries are doing after they got independence because of the fall of the Soviet Empire. These states are suffering from the following three types of maladies:

  • Dysfunctional political structures (parliament, political parties, legal and regulatory framework)
  • Flawed political processes (elections, the participation of electorate)
  •  Weak political culture (tolerance, accommodation, respect for election results).

These are the inevitable legacies of dictatorial and authoritarian regimes when they are ousted. Coupled with a lack of experienced political leadership, as all those who had the expertise in statecraft are sidelined in the new regime and those who waged the campaign are not well equipped to understand the intricacies of governing a complex political economy, the country normally remains adrift in this phase. Consequently, they fail to improve the quality of life of a common man which was the main driving force for their independence

However, after some time, people start demanding the civic amenities which had been badly disrupted during the revolutionary phase, creating disillusionment among the masses about the competence of the new leadership which has the institutional legitimacy but now faces the crises of performance legitimacy. Thus, a new phase of instability starts which is then exploited by the remnants of the old regime in collaboration with their old foreign benefactors. It will take time and a lot of sacrifices on the part of the people and help from the global actors, formal and non-governmental, to straighten the economic and political governance of the states.

From the e-book 20 Global Issues: A Handbook by Shahid Hussain Raja and published by Amazon

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