POL3130: Themes in Global Politics

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Topic: What were the causes of the Arab Spring of 2011-12?

What were the causes of the Arab Spring of 2011-12?

As illustrated by Brownlee, Masoud, and Reynolds (2014), the Arab Spring, or otherwise referred to as the Arab Uprisings, can be defined as a set of protests that took place in North Africa as well as the Middle East at the start of December 2010. The Arab Spring goes by several names such as the Arab Revolt, Middle East Uprising just to name a few. The revolution begun with Tunisia followed by Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, Syria and Egypt as well as in smaller groups in states for instance Morocco and Saudi Arabia
(Prashad, 2012).

Looking at the instantaneous causes of the Arab Spring in North Africa and the Middle East, one has to delve into an event that took place on 17th of December 2010. A Tunisian fruit trader by the name of Muhammad Bouazizi got into an argument with a Tunisian Officer. Haas and Lesch (2013) states that Bouazizi did not have permit to sell his merchandise (fruits) out of his cart. This led to the altercation between the two that resulted in the officer taking Bouazizi’s cart. This was not the first time that the situation arose and Bouazizi was not amused by the fine of ten dinar imposed on him by the officer and aggravating the situation. Further, the officer assaulted him, spat on his face and affronted his dead father. Humiliation suffered by Bouazizi led to him setting himself ablaze after his complaints at the local municipal were ignored. This marked as the defining moment of the prevalent protest uprising in the region.

The outcry that rose from Bouazizi’s action led to the exclusion of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s twenty-three year rule ending his dictator leadership in Tunisia. At that time, Tunisians demonstrated to the streets in order to dispute the policies brought about by Zine el-Abedine Ben-Ali. As much as these demonstrations happened instantaneously and devoid of a synchronized exertion, unions in Tunisia as well as professional bodies played a major role in systematizing the protests (Anderson, 2011). Consequently, as the nation was protesting in opposition to the government, Ben Ali tried to appease the demonstrators by setting up a novel administration, with Muhammad Ghannouchibut as the Prime Minister who later resigned on February 27, 2011 due to his ties with Ben Ali. Nonetheless, Ben Ali resigned on January 14, 2011 even after trying to rearrange his administration in addition to his unwillingness to step down, he realised that the protests escalated, and he had lost his supremacy and power.

Spread of the Arab Spring

The Tunisian protests in addition to the triumphant revolt in opposition to Ben Ali ignited protests elsewhere in the expanse. For instance, the Egyptian populace prepared protests in opposition to the dictatorial leader Hosni Mubarak, whose reign begun in 1981. They too, took to the streets on January 25, 2011 and these protests deepened in Cairo and other parts of Egypt. Like other political heads in the Middle East region, Hosni Mubarak faced protests to resign but was unwilling to step down. He too attempted to reorganize his government by changing the various political positions, but this too was met with a lot of hostility and the demonstrations went on given that the citizens saw that Hosni Mubarak was reluctant in making favourable and true reforms (Rand, 2013). In light of the persistent protests, he announced that he was not going to run for the 2011 elections and was forced to resign ending his thirty years reign, hence leading to the second triumphant uprising in the Northern Africa region. There after, the protest spread in Libya and saw the Killing of the longest standing Libyan president Muammar al-Gaddafi on October 20, 2011 when his stronghold Serrt was assailed by the National Transitional Council’s military.

The incident between Bouazizi and the Tunisian officer was argued to be the defining moment of the uprising, however, there were several events and situations that took place in the previous years that added more to the frustrations the citizens of the various states felt. For instance, there were previous political issues that some scholars highlight that did not have a direct link to the Arab Spring but aided in the building of the civil society’s role in the nation (Heydemann and Leenders, 2012).These events also helped change the public or the citizens’ opinion and perception of the civil society. The civil society was charged with publicly advocating the political messages during the insurgency in opposition to Hosni Mubarak and the country. The earliest political events highlighted by
Anderson (2011)
were the protests that took place in Cairo in 2000.

It is during that time of regional turbulence that many leaders dealt with the ever-increasing demands that they resign from their leadership positions. According to Gelvin (2012), the Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir declared that he would not be seeking out a re-election in the year 2015. In addition, Nouri al-Maliki the Prime Minister of Iraq faced the same demands of resignation from citizens of Iraq ending his term in 2014. Violent demonstrations were on the rise in the region, and the Jordan’s political leaders resign, and this resulted to the appointment of Aoun Al-Kasawneh as the new prime minister and charged with the formation of a new government by King Abdullah. The revolt in Yemen saw the announcement of President Ali Abdullah Saleh on April 23, 2011 that he would resign but getting immunity in exchange, an arrangement the Yemeni opposition unceremoniously acknowledged on April 26. Saleh broke his word on the deal, therefore lengthening the Yemeni revolt. The geopolitical inferences of the long-standing revolt drew the international interest, and this saw a young Yemeni woman protester plus the past resolution to name the young Yemeni woman protester by the name Tawakkul Karman wins the coveted Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 (Osman & Kamal, 2013).

Causes of the Arab Spring

As mentioned by Sawani (2012) the actions that guided to the Arab Spring can be described fully when one keenly evaluates the particular circumstances taking place in each country. As stated earlier, some of the reasons leading to the Arab Spring cut across the states in Middle East.

  1. Poverty and Unemployment

Poverty and joblessness was the key issue that was highly advocated in the protests. The citizens of the nations in the Middle East and the Northern Africa were frustrated by the economic difficulty and that the nation’s earnings went to the specific few as demonstrated by Gause (2011). For several years, these citizens criticised their governments for little efforts exerted in the mitigation of the high poverty and unemployment levels. A good number of these states were facing elevated unemployment rates, furthermore, amongst the skilled youth populace. These factors were the key issues that led to aggravation towards the ruling governments, and in the end the protests against them. 

  1. Authoritarian Regimes

One of the widespread issues that cut across these protests was the repressive authoritarian governments among the countries aforementioned (Park, 2014). The likes of Ben Ali of Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Muammar al-Gaddafi of Libya, Bashar Al Assad of Syria, and Abdullah Saleh of Yemen had united their political control, restricted every opposition, and their governments executed several human rights cruelty against their nationals. When evaluating every leader, there are various human rights violation scores during their reign. Assessing the Tunisian Prime Minister Zine el Abedine Ben Ali, his government is viewed as being restrictive in regards to the human rights in Tunisia. There was a lot of spying of the Tunisian citizens and banning of any political party or organization as well as impeding any political behaviour or movement at a time it was scheduled to take place (Rand, 2013). In addition, during Ben Ali’s regime, the media and internet usage was highly scrutinized and many a times controlled, along with the unfair elections in favour of him and his political party. These dictatorial reigns or regimes worsened the living standards of the citizens due to the hard economic times, therefore, causing more frustrations that led to the Arab Spring. 

  1. Corruption

Corruption was another leading cause of the Arab spring. Most of the dictatorial regimes were said to be extremely fraudulent both in their political deals and trade deals, and in the amassing of their family affluence (Panara & Wilson, 2013). This is well illustrated in the case of Tunisia and Libya. It was alleged by several citizens that these governments were running their businesses to great extent through corruption. All these allegations came to light after Ben Ali and Gaddafi were overthrown shedding light on the billions they took from their nations to run their family businesses, acquire chattels, buy high-priced material items just to name a few.

As stated by Gelvin (2012), Tunisia and Egypt’s corruption levels acquired more or less mythic magnitudes. Citizens in both nations dealt with bribery of the police officers along with the civil servants due to poor wages and clearly, bribery was in fact deeply rooted into the economic structure. However, throughout the revolt, demonstrators expressed their rage on corruption towards their leaders. The privatization of government owned property and assets in Tunisia, Egypt nourished corruption, and people who had associations with the ruling party or the prestigious people were given top most priority in the acquisition of public ventures at low costs or at a bargained rate.

The Responsibility of the Social Media

The social media took an immense task in the uprising of the Arab Spring. Social media has been argued to play a role in the Arab Spring. The social media platform being Twitter along with Facebook provided an avenue for citizens to advocate their political messages, in addition to the logistics of where the protests were scheduled to take place (Howard & Hussain, 2013). Additionally, social media played a vital role in uniting a common identity and a shared purpose in the Middle East protesters. At some point, protesters often suffer the feeling of loneliness and powerlessness. Hence, social media helped in overcoming the view of segregation providing millions of Egyptians with a sense of connectivity for the sole purpose of changing their nation.

Conventional Media

As much the social media took the lime light in the course of the Arab revolts, the conventional media also played a role in the uprising (Howard & Hussain, 2013). One as to note that the conventional media faced a lot of restrictions but regardless of this fact, there were publications made via print media or other more conventional media types that would result in challenging these governments for their unfair actions and oppression. 

Effects of the Uprising

There were several outcomes of the Arab Uprising of 2011-12 as described below:

  1. Decline of oppressive regimes

One of the defining changes after the end of the Arab Spring was that the dictatorial leaders could be easily removed from positions of power through a revolt rather than by a military coup or by any intervention from foreign states. This was marked as one of the greatest accomplishment of the Arab Spring. The regimes in Yemen, Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia came to a halt due to the popular uprisings, in a unique demonstration of peoples’ power by end of 2011 (Park, 2014). Regardless of the fact, that many dictatorial leaders tried to hold on to their power, these protests ensured that they could not ignore the grievances of their people or take them for granted. Consequently, the governments of these nations have been obliged into reforming and dealing with corruption, ineffectiveness, and police cruelty extensively as shown by Andersson and Djeflat (2013).

  1. Outburst of Political Actions

After the uprising, the Middle East experienced a flare-up of political actions, especially in countries where these revolts effectively did away with their long-standing leaders (Katz, 2014). The was an emergence of numerous political parties, civil society associations, print media, Television stations and online media, as Arabs jumbled up in reclaiming their country from the despotic leaders. In the case of Libya, there were more than three hundred parties listed in the 2012 parliamentary elections owing to the fact that under Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime all parties were banned.

  1. Islamist and Secular Split Instability

There were hopes that the Middle East would have a smooth changeover to more stable democratic systems, nonetheless, profound divisions’ surfaced over the new-fangled constitutions and the swiftness of the transformation. To be more specific, Egypt and Tunisia there was a divide into Islamist and secular camps that battled acrimoniously over the responsibility of Islam in political affairs and the society as a whole (Park, 2014). Without doubt, profound distrust and a victor state of mind triumphed amongst the frontrunners of the initial open elections and there no room left for compromise. Therefore, the Arab Spring marshaled in a long-drawn-out era of political volatility and displaying the political, social, and religious divisions.

  1. Conflict and Civil War

As described by Osman and Kamal (2013) trying to bring down a government may lead to fortified conflict. The Arab regimes did not loose hope easily, despite the fact that the opposition did not form a united front. In the case of Libya, the revolt ended with the conquest of revolutionary insurgents comparatively for the reason that the NATO alliance and Gulf Arab states intervened (Abushouk, 2016). The revolt in Syria a country ruled by a repressive regime became an atrocious civil war due to the extended outside intrusion.

  1. Sunni-Shiite apprehension

The apprehension that existed among the Shiite plus Sunni divisions of Islam in most of the nations in Middle East in 2005 rose, at the time major, divisions of Iraq blew up in aggression involving the Shiites and Sunnis. The Arab Spring, however, toughened this drift in a number of states. Fearing the vagueness of seismic political volatility, several citizens sought after asylum in their sacred neighborhood (Zartman, 2015). The revolts in the Sunni-ruled Bahrain were for the most part the doing of the Shiite popular who insisted on superior political and societal impartiality. A good number of Sunnis, even those opposing the government were afraid of taking the government’s side. Moreover, there was a deep resentment in Syria from the majority of Sunnis because the nearly every member of Alawite religious minority sided.

  1. Economic Vagueness

There were many frustrations over the youth unemployment and the pitiable living conditions. This issue was a key factor advocated in the Arab Spring. Nevertheless, that economic policy in most of these countries has taken the back seat. Most of the political leaders are more concerned with them retaining their political power (Nuruzzaman, 2015). For the moment, the constant turbulence scares away investors and foreign tourists. It was a major achievement in removing the corrupt leaders, which was a constructive stride for the future; however, the citizens of these countries are yet to see substantial developments in their economy (Momani, 2013).


The Arab Spring of 2011 took many people by surprise since it was unexpected of the nations that took part. Regardless of the fact that some of the political analyst stated that the dictatorial leaders could only endorse the economic stability and prosperity, this was not true. Looking at the instantaneous causes of the Arab Spring in Northern Africa and the Middle East, one has to delve into an event that took place on the 17th of December 2010. A Tunisian fruit seller by the name of Muhammad Bouazizi got into an argument with a Tunisian Officer leading to the defining moment of the Arab Spring; it clearly shows that the Arab citizens were able to overcome their fear in relation to the oppressive state moreover, restoring their decorum. This called for the reassessment of the political tactic, which for the longest time took for, granted and underrated the part that unsystematic radical political groups in Arab society could play (Alcaro & Haubrich-Seco, 2012).


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