Arab Spring: Causes, Consequences & Lessons Learnt

Shahid H. Raja
15 min readJul 2, 2020


(The following article is an abridged version of the three chapters of the above book, published by Amazon and available at


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 modern Middle Eastern countries in the first half of the 21st century, was one such event. It started in Tunisia, where a 26-year-old street vendor named Abu Bouazizi committed suicide to protest the highhandedness 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.

The immediate result of the Arab Spring was the regime change and subsequent transformation of the governance style in Tunisia, leading to the advent of democratic reforms in the country. 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 an adult franchise basis resulted in the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood, a far-right Islamic movement. The Muslim Brotherhood government was later thrown out by the army in a coup d’etat that had much popular support but 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 Middle Eastern countries, they were 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: internationalized civil wars in both Syria and Yemen, the rise of the 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?


Its spontaneity and severity may have surprised a few people, but it had been 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 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 as small, insignificant events but soon developed into mass uprisings 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 Middle Eastern nation-states are passing through the most crucial phase of their demographic transition. While the rate of childbirth is gradually falling in almost all 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 centres, educated but unemployed young men and women are demanding jobs from their respective states, which are overstretched and hence under stress.

2. Revolution of Rising Expectations

Modernization, which always accompanies industrialization, has brought fundamental changes in the attitudes and behaviour of citizens all over the world. Once set in motion, modernization becomes a self-reinforcing process, penetrating all aspects of life and bringing multi-dimensional changes to 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 dealings, and an accountable and responsible executive. There is a sort of dysfunctionality in the traditional state-society relations; every successive generation of citizens expects 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 if the government fails to satisfy their demand; they could be violent. The speed and scale of electronic and social media have facilitated this trend of instant accountability for the state and made it that much easier to mobilize more citizens to respond. In this game of chess, the good intentions of the political elite and public servants are not enough; they must be backed by effective service delivery and prompt redress of grievances.

3. Globalization and Social Media

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

4. Weak States/ Bad Governance

One of the fault lines of almost all the Middle Eastern countries except for Israel and Turkey is their ineffective state-building and the state itself. All their institutions—the judiciary, law enforcement, etc.—are dysfunctional, suffering from a 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, is not providing their populace with adequate channels of expression and empowerment. Consequently, these countries are increasingly witnessing outbursts of popular resentment against the status quo, which is then exploited by regional and global hegemons as well as non-state violent actors.

5. Financial Crises of the 2007–2008

The financial crisis of 2007–2008 proved the proverbial last straw on the 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

The Arab Spring was one of the milestones in the long and arduous journey toward the empowerment of the masses living under dictatorship in most Middle Eastern countries. Unfortunately, with the 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 in the Middle East for several reasons peculiar to each country. Thus, it is difficult to pinpoint a definitive set of causes for its failure. But here we do attempt to list a few common reasons for its failure

  1. Spontaneity

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

2. Narrow Based

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

3. Sustainability

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

4. 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 that 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 a transformation of Tunisia along modern lines. It failed in Egypt after successfully ousting Mubarak for precisely the same reasons that the Western-leaning military establishment soon got fed up with the overly ambitious Islamic agenda of Mursi.

5. External State Support

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

6. Hijacked by Non-State Actors

While the movement was the triumph of mostly non-violent mob mobilisation, the movement itself was soon hijacked by 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 the actions of the Jihadists

Consequences of Arab Spring

Like any other momentous event, the Arab Spring was the result of multiple causes, which in turn, resulted in multiple results. Some of these consequences are as follows:

1. It became an Israeli Spring

Robert Fisk has rightly called it an Israeli Spring instead of an Arab Spring. According to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, the plans to change the regime in Syria were hatched in 2005–2006, prepared by the Israeli government, and handed over to the USA. It had three objectives.

  1. Firstly, to ensure Israeli security by installing a pro-West regime in Syria and weakening Israel’s arch-enemy, namely Iran, by cutting off its supply routes to Hezbollah passing through Syria. It has been confirmed after the revelation of Hillary Clinton’s emails.
  2. Secondly, to facilitate Israel's cementing or expanding its occupation of the Golan Heights for additional oil exploration and water security.
  3. Thirdly, to reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian and Iranian oil and gas by building an alternative pipeline known as the Qatar Jordan-Turkey-Syria Pipeline. Assad refused to agree to this pipeline passing through his country.

By creating unrest in the region, Israel was able to divert global attention from Palestine, extend its territories, and legitimise its annexation of the Golan Heights. At the same time, it allowed Israel to kill its enemies, bomb Arab cities with impunity, and thus test its latest weaponry. Last but not least, it weakened the two most powerful Arab armies, namely the Iraqi and the Syrian, through its proxy terrorist organisations.

2. Muslim Brotherhood Becomes Militant

One of the most unintended consequences of the Arab Spring was the transformation of a civil rights movement, namely the Muslim Brotherhood, from a peaceful organisation to a militant outfit. They took part in the elections held in Egypt after overthrowing the dictatorial regime of Husni Mubarak through peaceful civil demonstrations. However, the way he was made helpless to run the government and later thrown out of power convinced the Muslim Brotherhood to adopt violent means to seek power. They tested their arms in the vacuum created in the Syrian region after the failure of the Arab Spring. Now it is openly engaged in terrorist activities against the new military regime in Egypt.

3. It was counterproductive.

It is one of the ironies of fate that the results of the Arab Spring turned out to be quite the opposite of what it wanted to achieve, namely the replacement of authoritarian regimes in the region with democratic ones. Except for a few initial years in Tunisia, where the Arab Spring started, every Arab country is now more authoritarian than before. The most tragic part is that these authoritarian regimes now use more draconian techniques to suppress the public's aspiration for empowerment by using technology imported from the West.

4. Governance Vacuum spawned Global Terrorism

The ensuing invasion of Syria by regional and global powers created a governance vacuum, providing an opportunity for terrorist organisations to consolidate their gains. At one time, one of the fiercest militant organizations, the Islamic State of Syria, was holding large swathes of territory. It was only after Russia and Iran entered the battlefield in a big way that these organisations were weakened. Now these footloose mercenaries are going back to their homes, carrying ideas of imposing their morality on their helpless countrymen

5. Conflicts, Crisis, and Wars

Thanks to its geostrategic location, and the availability of massive hydrocarbon resources, the Middle East had not been a peaceful region in the past, and the Arab Spring opened the floodgates of conflicts, crises, and wars. What started as a copycat act of the Tunisian Arab Spring for people's empowerment was badly managed by the Syrian ruling elite, an unrepresentative regime like so many others in the region. It soon turned into an internal civil war and, later, outright foreign aggression through proxies and pygmies in the region.

The Middle East is now in the grip of two Cold Wars, one global and the other regional. At the global level, it is the intensification of the old rivalry between two superpowers, namely Russia and the USA, with China as a new entrant. At the regional level, it is an all-out war for the dominance of the Middle East between the regional powers, namely Turkey, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, respectively. Unfortunately, they have no qualms about using terrorist outfits to increase their influence in the region.

6. Sectarianism Increased

While relations between the two major factions of Islam, namely Sunni and Shia, had never been peaceful, they became acrimonious after the failure of the Arab Spring. As this sectarian divide is coterminous with tribal affinity on the one hand and political loyalty on the other in most of the countries in the Middle East, it has now morphed into a struggle for regional influence between Shia political powers, led by Iran, and Sunni political powers, led by Saudi Arabia.

Some of the non-representative oppressive regimes are also promoting these conflicts to divert the attention of their respective restive populations from their high-handedness. This sectarian divide has now mutated into a war between two groups of countries in the Middle East. Sunni nations like Egypt and Saudi Arabia are at odds with Shiite nations like Iran, Syria, and Iraq. All of them rely on different sources of support for their claims, ranging from hard power to soft power.

Lessons Learnt

Whether it was a fad in Middle Eastern politics or is going to happen again, the 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:

  1. Governance Matters

The survival of any regime or even system is directly dependent on its legitimacy, both institutional and emotional. The latter is, in turn, a result of its performance. In this rapidly globalising world, you cannot remain aloof and must change your system of governance and service delivery with the modern cannons of governance, which ensure operational efficiency, the effectiveness of service delivery and equality of treatment

2. Democracy Matters

Democracy has been much maligned for its alleged shortcomings, such as corruption, mismanagement, economic disruptions, 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 time, accountable to the public. Only genuine leaders elected through a popular universal franchise can hold the nation together; dictatorship always leaves the country broken and in a mess.

3. 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, improving their efficiency and effectiveness, and broadening their ownership. Some of the institutions that matter the most are the 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 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 policymakers of a useful channel of two-way communication with the populace.

4. Growth without Social Justice is a Recipe for Disaster

No doubt, economic growth matters because it is only through it that poverty can be alleviated and inequalities reduced. However, the content of the growth and the equitable distribution of its fruits matter more than the growth itself. Patterns of growth envisaged in the initial stages determine the prosperity of certain regions and the 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, the 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.

5. Devolution Matters

Devolution of powers and decentralization of service delivery institutions, backed by equitable distribution of resources, are two of the key instruments to keep the people's and regions' feelings of marginalization under control. Devolution can prevent, reduce, or at least localize public agitation by addressing the issues at the local level and redressing the grievances of the public.

6. 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 the media is vigilant. Keep an eye on early warning signs and address them promptly 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.

7. Don’t Underestimate Social Media

All other things are 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 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:

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

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

However, after some time, people started demanding the civic amenities that had been badly disrupted during the revolutionary phase, creating disillusionment among the masses about the competence of the new leadership, which has institutional legitimacy but now faces a crisis 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, 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 book “International Relations: Basic Concepts and Global Issues”, published by Amazon and available at


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