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The 10th Anniversary of the Arab Spring: Is There Still a Flicker of Hope?

Authors: Ang Hui Min, Asill Singh Bardh

Region Head: Yong Hwee Shi

Editor: Chok Geow


The Arab Spring was a series of anti-government uprisings that took the world by storm. It began in Tunisia and spread throughout the Arab world rapidly, creating monumental changes in affected countries. This paper seeks to study the impact of the Arab Spring on these countries as well as the role of international actors and religion in the escalation of this conflict.

How The Arab Springs Started

It was a cold winter night on December 17th, 2010 when a street vendor in Tunisia stood in front of a government office and set himself on fire, killing himself. This sparked the revolutionary movement known as the Arab Springs, which has claimed over 180,000 lives and displaced over 6 million people. (Lageman, 2020). His death sparked a series of protests that spread very quickly through the middle east countries with the help of social media (Blakemore, 2021). Within weeks, protests erupted in Algeria, Libya, Sudan, Yemen, and it became all too powerful as within months we saw incumbents being overthrown and leaders stepping down.

These protests should have been anticipated. Afterall, the explosive combination of high unemployment (Figure 1) paired with economic instability and stifling oppression has long set the stage for a combusive outrage (Khan, 2014). The fractured political system, plagued with megalomaniac dictators was bound to crumble.

Figure 1

Source: (Khan, 2014)

The Arab spring revolution led to power vacuums opening across the Arab world, signalling the time for change. However, the Arab Springs revolution did not necessarily lead to an improvement in the socio-economic conditions in the region. Through this article, we will examine how different countries experienced various outcomes.

A Success Story: Tunisia

Tunisia, one of the countries considered to have made the most progress since the Arab Spring appears to have gotten it right. A young democracy, a new constitution with free media and elections held every five years, they were able to undergo a relatively peaceful transition. With the ratification of the Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC) in 2014, it sought to hold politicians accountable and investigate reported acts of corruption (Truth and Dignity Commission, 2019, p. 5). Its transparency has gained the recognition of the public as it has received over 63 000 victim files which they hope to address through a process of arbitration and reconciliation (Truth and Dignity Commission, 2019, p. 5).

In 2017, the parliament passed a law to combat violence against women. The code abolished polygamy, instituted judicial divorce and set the minimum age of marriage at 17 for women, “subject to their consent” (UN Women, 2017). It also opens the door to education, the freedom of choice of the spouse and civil marriage. With stronger political systems, Tunisia began to attract foreign direct investment as the country was viewed as a reliable economic partner with liberal investment laws (Bass, 2015, p. 41). In conclusion, the Arab Springs had a positive impact on Tunisia as it brought about systemic change in the country, with the establishment of sound political and economic institutions.

Understanding Syria: The Importance of a Strong Foundation

The lack of a strong foundation in Syria led to the survival of the regime. The Shia minority and the Sunni majority in Syria had long been unable to acquiesce to each other’s ideologies. Along with an extended history of high unemployment, corruption and scarcity of political freedom under President Bashar al-Assad, who succeeded his father, Hafez, after his death, Arab Spring in Syria was a lost cause ("Why has the Syrian War”, 2021). Despite the common goal of overthrowing the incumbent, a divisive society had a lower possibility of success than a cohesive one (Alrowaiti, 2017, p. 15).

The case study of Syria taught us that no matter how many times revolution or protests occur, and the dictator is toppled, it won’t be enough without the role of strong economic and political foundations beneath it. In stark contrast, the firm society institutions present in Tunisia enabled a smoother transition to democracy. Furthermore, we will explore the role of religion in worsening the conflict for Syria below as well as the role of the international community.

Role of Religion in Escalating the Conflict

Assad’s regime took advantage of the social structure (Sunni majority and Alawite Minority) while forming the military. He made sure to appoint the most powerful and important positions to the Alawite minority and family members to consolidate their trust and loyalty (Pipes, 1989, p. 2). The strong foothold in the Military proved to be a vital step in the success of the regime as the people were rendered helpless in face of the armed forces.

In contrast, Tunisia’s religious homogeneity lended it an advantage towards its victory in the Arab Spring. The absence of a sectarian pull and a highly institutionalized military meant that it appointed positions based on meritocratic achievements (Tinawi, 2019). Following the arranged coup on President Bourguiba, Ben Ali ascended to power in 1987 (Ware, 1988). He took preventive measures to dismantle the military’s power in fear of facing the same predicament. Instead, he relied and invested in the Interior Ministry to consolidate his position, with the Military being allocated nearly half of the funding provided for the Interior Ministry (Tinawi, 2019). The lack of economic progression for the military spurred them to align with the people. When the riots occurred, General Rachid’s refusal to help President Ben Ali was a pivotal moment in the uprising and a deciding factor for Ali’s departure from the country (Maclean, 2011).

Secularisation was considered to be an inexorable part of modernisation, and that was what the Arab Spring was about. It was a move to secularism and an end to authoritarian rules, backed by religious ideologies. While the standing of religion in social and political life was expected to fall with modernisation, in the case of Syria, it was the very mechanism that strengthened rebel groups against the backdrop of an efficient and corrupt government (Zaman, 2011).  

Role of International Players

Many countries interfered in Syria to fulfil their own agenda which further escalated the situation. Russia, who already had military bases in Syria, launched an air campaign in support of Mr Assad in 2015 (Marcus, 2020). This proved to be crucial in turning the tide of the war to the government's favour. Meanwhile, countries like the US, UK and France initially provided support for what they considered “moderate” rebel groups (Nixon, 2011). Meanwhile, Iran was believed to have deployed hundreds of troops and spent billions of dollars to help Mr Assad. Saudi Arabia, with her vested interest to counter Iranian influence, has armed and financed the rebels (Shahla, 2020).

In summary, foreign intervention has impeded the resolution of conflict in Syria and created a massive proxy war. The lack of collective action from the international community in trying to improve the situation in Syria and intervention, masquerading as an uphold of democracy, has only escalated existing tensions beyond repair (Eck, 2019). The flawed structure of the UN security council meant that they were helpless against passing any constructive measures as vetoes from the big five prevented any significant changes from occurring.

A Decade On

While the Arab Springs may have arguably not been entirely successful, no doubt the political equilibrium is slowly shifting towards secularisation and democratic ideals. However, with low employment and economic instability plaguing the region, it is imperative that countries like Tunisia continue to maintain strong political institutions to prevent the spread of violence and rise of authoritarian leaders. Dictators may have prevailed, mainly through coercion, but we believe coercion will only fuel more grievances amongst the people, which will ultimately drive them to seek political change and there will be an equilibrium shift in the next decade to come.


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