Mark L. Haas and David W. Lesch
THE SO-CALLED ARAB SPRING unexpectedly erupted in late 2010 and early 2011. It was characterized in the beginning by huge and largely peaceful popular protests in a number of Arab countries against long-standing entrenched regimes. It began in Tunisia, where a young man trying to eke out a living as a street vendor set himself on fire as an act of defiance against the government. His action was borne of frustration and disillusionment over the socioeconomic malaise and political repression in his country. Little did he know that he would light a fire across the region. Shortly thereafter, mass protests pushed the Tunisian president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, out of office.
In neighboring Egypt, suffering from many of the same systemic maladies, throngs of protesters gathered at Tahrir Square in the center of Cairo, eventually forcing President Husni Mubarak from power. Similar events transpired in Yemen, where President Ali Abdullah Saleh fled the country in June 2011 in response to popular pressure, leaving Vice President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi as acting president. Protests sprang up elsewhere in the Arab world from the Persian Gulf to North Africa, most spectacularly leading to the death of Libyan President Muammar al-Gadafi following a campaign of armed popular resistance supported militarily by NATO and the Arab League. Then the regime in Syria, which many had thought would weather the storm of the Arab Spring, began to encounter mass protests. The regime, however, unleashed a brutal crackdown against the opposition, displaying a resiliency that confounded the prognostications that it, too, would soon fall. As a result of these contending forces, Syria has been plunged into a savage five-year civil war that continues at the time of this writing.
All the while, certain countries in and outside the Middle East, such as Iran, Israel, Turkey, the United States, and Russia, have a significant stake in what the Arab Spring means in terms of their own interests and objectives. They continue to look on in fascination and confusion as to how to respond to the tremendous changes occurring before their eyes. These countries have frequently responded to events by military intervention, either directly using force or actively supporting groups that are engaged in armed combat.
Debates in both academic and policymaking circles about the meaning, consequences, and likely outcomes of the mass protests abound. Indeed, the very name “Arab Spring” is controversial. As a number of the contributors to this volume point out, this term is something of a misnomer. Ask the Syrian protesters in Syria fighting against a brutal crackdown ordered by a repressive regime in the spring of 2011 or 2012 if they feel that they are in an “Arab Spring.” You will likely get laughed at or punched in the mouth. However, we employ the term in the title of this volume primarily for recognition purposes because, rightly or wrongly, most of what this volume addresses—the protests, their origins, and the repercussions—is frequently known by that name.
Beyond the matter of labeling, the events beginning in 2010 have created a host of questions that have major implications for regional and global politics. Were the uprisings a spontaneous combustion caused by the unique confluence of factors that produced a “perfect storm” of dissatisfaction and dissent? Or were there important historical antecedents, of which the Arab Spring is only the latest, albeit most dramatic, manifestation? Or both? Will the Arab Spring eventually usher in a period of democratic development and prosperity? Or will authoritarian leaders, many of whom have successfully fought back against protesters, continue to remain in power? Has the Arab Spring cleared the road for Islamist parties, long suppressed across the region, to take and maintain power, at least in some places? If so, what will this mean for domestic and international politics?
The mass demonstrations throughout the Arab world that began in 2010 took most analysts by surprise. The Middle East and North Africa were an important exception to what prominent political scientist Samuel Huntington labeled the “third wave” of democratization that swept across much of Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Asia after the end of the cold war.1
Analysts consistently ranked the Arab states as the least free in the world, and few in 2010 were predicting that popular pressures for democratization would be sufficiently powerful to change this situation.
Soviet leader Leon Trotsky reportedly asserted that revolution is impossible until it is inevitable.2
The logic underlying this statement applies to the Arab Spring protests. In retrospect, it is clear that there were very powerful forces pushing people across the Arab world to revolt and that some authoritarian governments had feet of clay: They were not nearly as invulnerable to popular pressures for change as widely believed.3
A particularly important source of protest is the fact that states in the Middle East and North Africa have more “youth bulges”—a disproportionate number of young people in a particular state—than any other region in the world. Throughout the entire Middle East and North Africa, roughly one of every three people is between the ages of ten and twenty-four.4
Youth bulges were particularly pronounced in those countries that experienced the most widespread and powerful demonstrations during the Arab Spring. In Tunisia in 2010, more than 42 percent of the population was under twenty-five. This number was 48 percent in Libya, 51 percent in Egypt, and 57 percent in Syria.5
Youth bulges, as numerous studies have documented, frequently create highly combustible social and political environments. Large numbers of young people are much more likely than other demographic cohorts to act on their grievances in an attempt to rectify them, even if such action requires large-scale protests and even violence.6
Arab youth before the Arab Spring began certainly had pressing grievances against their governments, including the systematic denial of basic rights, massive governmental corruption, extreme levels of unemployment, widespread poverty, and steady increases in the cost of living (including food prices). There was also a general hopelessness that none of these conditions would improve without major pressure for political and economic change. Youth bulges and widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo, combined with the socioeconomic challenges created by the 2008 global financial crisis, were critical to the origins of the protests and their spread throughout the Arab world. Many of the authors in the first part of this
volume, who concentrate on the Arab countries that were most dramatically affected by the protests, examine these shared grievances as key conditions that led to the demonstrations.
These commonalities help explain why the protests spread throughout much of the Arab world. They do not account, though, for major variations in both the intensity of the demonstrations and the success in achieving their objectives. Explaining these variations based on analyses of key national differences among Arab countries is another core goal of the chapters in Part I
. Some protests, such as those in Jordan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia (the last of which were minor), sought to push the government to adopt various political and economic reforms, whereas demonstrations in other countries—including those in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria—sought to overthrow existing authoritarian governments. Perceived legitimacy of existing rulers was obviously a central factor that led to popular preferences for reform over revolution. As Steve Yetiv points out in Chapter 5
, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah was one of the most popular leaders in the Arab world. Support for King Abdullah of Jordan has also remained strong, as Curtis Ryan argues in Chapter 6
. Although many Iraqis perceive their government to be highly ineffective, the fact that Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is one of the most revered figures in Iraq, continues to support reform and changes in leadership within the existing political system and not revolution helps explain the lack of support for the latter, at least among the Shia population (see Ibrahim Al-Marashi’s analysis in Chapter 7
). By contrast, in states where rulers’ legitimacy was low due to widespread views of corruption and profligacy—including Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya (see Chapters 1
, and 3
by Julia Clancy-Smith, Jeannie L. Sowers and Bruce K. Rutherford, and Karim Mezran and Laurentina Cizza, respectively)—protesters were much more likely to push for revolutionary over reformist objectives.
The timing and temperament of the protests have also played major roles in shaping preferences for reform over revolution. The entire world has witnessed the turmoil, the floods of refugees, and the mass killings that have plagued both Libya after Gadafi’s ouster in September 2011 and Syria as various groups pushed for the overthrow of the Bashar al-Assad regime in the spring of that same year (on the latter, see the analysis by David Lesch in Chapter 4
). The overthrow or attempted overthrow of existing governments has also allowed for the empowerment of radical, brutal Islamist groups, particularly the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The more revolutionary forces and outcomes
in the Middle East are associated with chaos and violence, the more likely it is that the legitimacy of existing governments will be enhanced.
Authoritarian leaders are well aware of this relationship. Dictators in the Arab world have long used the fear of the rise of radical groups to power as a tactic designed to increase their popular support. The intense violence that has accompanied the weakening of autocrats in Syria and Libya has reduced the pressure for revolution in those countries that remained quiet in the early months of the Arab Spring, as the chapters on Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq, and Iran all document. While the early successes of the Arab uprisings originally inspired people in other countries—hence the spread of the demonstrations throughout the region—the highly negative outcomes, especially in Libya and Syria, that resulted from the protests have since created powerful disincentives against revolution in other states. If the metaphor of a wave captures part of the early dynamics of the Arab Spring (see James Gelvin’s concluding chapter), time has revealed that descriptions of a “double” or “reverse” wave are actually more apt. This alternative image captures the tension between revolution and reaction, referring to both the spread of the protests due to the initial successes of the demonstrations and the increasing disincentives against revolution that followed due to revulsion created by large-scale violence in some of the revolutionized states.
In addition to variation in the political objectives of the protesters (reform versus revolution), there have also been major differences in outcomes. Some protesters have been much more successful in achieving their goals than others. Tunisian, Egyptian, and Yemeni protesters were able to topple their governments, or at least force out current leaders; Libyan rebels did so only with significant foreign military aid; demonstrators in Bahrain and Syria have thus far been unsuccessful in their efforts; and protests in Saudi Arabia barely got off the ground. A number of factors account for these differences, and the chapters in this volume highlight the most important. When a state’s military largely comprises ethnic, religious, and/or kinship minorities (Assad’s government and military, for example, are dominated by the minority Alawite sect, and many in the Saudi military are members of the royal family), there is an increased likelihood that military personnel will remain loyal to the regime, even if this loyalty requires firing on fellow citizens engaged in political protests. Minority groups will fear that the creation of a more democratic regime will result in their ouster from power or even their persecution. These fears create powerful incentives to do whatever it takes to remain in positions of influence.
Large revenue streams that are controlled by the government, such as that created by Saudi Arabia’s massive oil wealth, further tip the balance in favor of the political status quo. Oil wealth in fact provides multiple barriers to change (see Chapter 5
). These resources not only allow a government to maintain patronage systems (including for the military) to help ensure loyalty and assuage some popular grievances but also increase its ability to adopt activist foreign policies against revolutionary groups outside the state, while reducing the likelihood that oil-dependent countries will push hard for the oil exporter to adopt major domestic changes. As long as repressive governments are able to continue vast financial support systems, and especially when their militaries remain willing to brutally crush dissent, it will be very difficult for revolutionary forces to achieve their objectives.
Conversely, when governments do not control large resource-based wealth that can be used to maintain patronage systems and buy off protesters (as in Syria, Egypt, and Yemen), or when states possess professional militaries whose leaders and per...