Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

10 years later: Did the Arab Spring fail?

Tahrir Square
This combination of pictures created on November 23, 2020 shows a general view of Cairo’s Tahrir Square (R to L) on February 18, 2011 as it is filled with protesters celebrating the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak a week after the massive protests against him, which had erupted after a revolt toppled Tunisia’s ruler in what becomes known as the Arab Spring; and the same view almost ten years later on November 11, 2020. Ten years ago, a wildfire of revolts in the Arab world touched off an unlikely series of events that swelled, then dashed many hopes, and irrevocably changed the region. PEDRO UGARTE, Khaled DESOUKI/ AFP

Paul Aarts

The self-immolation of the Tunisian street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi on the 17th of December 2010 led to a wave of protests in the Arab world. Now, gloom reigns allover. (Civil) wars, repression and growing unemployment plague the region like never before. The ‘double crisis’ of the collapsed oil market and COVID-19 further deepened existing problems. Was the Arab Spring doomed to fail? Which lens should we look through to understand the potential of the waves of protests?


“The Arab Spring has failed” is a phrase you hear all too often. After a brief period of euphoria in 2010-2011, the mood quickly turned to disillusionment and gloom. ‘Winter’ became a popular label. The protests in Iraq, Algeria, Morocco, Lebanon and Sudan generated a sliver of hope in the past couple of years, but especially since the Corona pandemic and the worldwide recession, the path to rampant pessimism and unconcealed cynicism has been cleared.

In a recent essay for Foreign Policy, Middle East expert Steven Cook phrases this as follows: “The region has become a dystopia marked by violence, resurgent authoritarianism, economic dislocation, and regional conflict, with no clear way out (…) For the first time, it is entirely reasonable to feel hopeless about the Middle East.”[1] Clear words. However, whether the outlined picture of doom is justified, is another matter.

Not everyone shares this cynicism. After all, it cannot be denied that the Arab uprisings in the beginning of the last decennium were an unprecedented moment of political awareness and action. The yoke of submission was thrown off and the effects thereof have not disappeared yet in the meantime.

Even when history rarely passes in a linear course, more as a range of cycles and coincidences, it stays important to track traces of the past in the presence – as the German philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin has taught us. As far as there were any ‘revolutions’, they mostly took place in the heads and minds of the ones that took to the streets and less on a political-institutional level.[2]


In this sense, the uprisings of ten years ago were only the beginning of a lengthy process, whether ‘revolutionary’ or not, of which the outcome is unsure.[3] That last part cannot be emphasized enough.

It is then evenly problematic as it is naive to presume that dictatorships are unsustainable in the long run anyway and will make place for democracy. Studies based on this idea contain a high level of wishful thinking.

In such studies, cuddly concepts such as ‘civil society’, are often used.[4] The more civil society, the better – or that is the assumption.[5] Hope (for a democratic future) gets confused with analysis (of the complex reality).

Not so much naive, but still problematic are the approaches that fail to recognize the ‘mismatch’ between the content of the protests and the underlying causes of these protests. What does that mean?

The most used slogans were (and are) of a political nature, but it was (and still is) the disastrous economic situation that primarily deserves attention. This was, after all, the most important – if not the only – incentive of the revolts.

Gilbert Achcar convincingly explains this like no other in his book The People Want (2013) and Morbid Symptoms (2016). Also against the background of the ever deteriorating economic situation since 2011, and even more since the outbreak of the COVID-19-pandemic, it is notable that it has not been giving that much thought.[6]

Tunisian protesters carry flares and shout slogans during celebrations
Tunisian protesters carry flares and shout slogans during celebrations in central Tunis on January 14, 2018, marking the seventh anniversary since the uprising that ousted ex-president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and launched the Arab Spring. Anis MILI/ AFP

Mass politics, but little class content

The explanation for this noticed mismatch can be found in the past. The development economist Dani Rodrik explained that very clearly.[7] Roughly said, he reasons, the transition of the West into democracy was the result of industrialization processes at a time when the main social opposition existed between capitalists and workers.

In most developing countries on the other hand – and in the Arab world as well – this was hardly the case. There, it was mostly a political struggle that took place in the context of decolonisation and national liberation.

In such a context, the emergence of liberal democracy was considerably less likely because nationalist ideologies were much more developed than class-based ideologies. After all, the common enemy was outside and internal societal contradictions received less attention.

The consequences of this are still visible in the present. Mass politics in the Middle East are far less accompanied by a clear class consciousness, although there are some exceptions, such as worker protests in Egypt, Tunisia, and Bahrain.

The Egyptian analyst Maged Mandour strikingly formulates this weakness in relation to the Arab uprisings: “Aside from slogans of political change, human rights, and the need to combat corruption, there has been very little social content.”[8]

This analysis has consequences for the assessment of contributions to the debate that plead for more ‘citizenship’(muwatana) and a ‘civil state’ (dawla madaniyya). Those are, admittedly, sympathetic, but have little regard for the structural causes of the poorly developed ideational and organisational power of opposition movements.

Arguments that see a special role for the Arabic youth (sometimes narrowed down to ‘millennials’) fall short as well and have a highly idealistic character. Above all, does ‘the’ millennial or ‘the’ youth exist? Should we not, as a sociological reality, speak of a multiple?[9] After all, Famke Louise does not represent the youth in the Netherlands, as recently became painfully clear.[10]

Iraqi riot policemen wave national flags
Iraqi riot policemen wave national flags as they form a barrier while anti-government demonstrators gather for a protest by the local administration building in the southern city of Basra on November 7, 2020, after a protester was killed the previous day. Omar Fadhel, a young demonstrator, was shot dead in the southern Iraqi city of Basra on November 6 as gunmen killed an activist in the capital, police and medics said. Hussein FALEH / AFP

Autocratic paradox

The fact that the democratization process is more complicated than is sometimes assumed, is as well apparent from recent studies that point out the uncertain course of events after the ouster of a dictator. Autocratic trends appear to be unruly.

In the first years after a change of power, often there is increased instability and insecurity – both on a personal level (unrest, violence) as on an economic level (growth of unemployment). Research shows that civilians often respond to that with less faith in democracy instead of more. This is the so-called ‘autocratic paradox’.

When zooming in on countries where dictators have fallen and a true form of democracy has been installed, such as happened in Tunisia, we see a confirmation of that phenomenon. More in particular, it appears that support for democracy is dependent on an improvement of social economic circumstances, more so than on political and civil rights.[11]

Daily circumstances have deteriorated visibly. Incomes, for example, decreased with one fifth and unemployment rates have grown extensively. Many young Tunisians want to leave the country.[12]

When, on top of that economic unsafety, there is personal unsafety as well caused by a growing unrest and political instability, it is not surprising that people get nostalgic and start thinking of that strong man of the past. And then the Corona pandemic had not even started yet.

Lebanese nurses receive flowers from anti-government protesters
Lebanese nurses receive flowers from anti-government protesters on the occasion of International Nurses Day at the Rafik Hariri public hospital in Lebanon’s capital Beirut, on May 12, 2020. JOSEPH EID/ AFP


The political consequences of the COVID-19-pandemic were predictable: without exception all governments tightened the leash and increased the control over their civilians. First studies point that out as well.[13] The list is long: lockdowns, emergencies, curfew, arrests, coronavirus task forces and further restrictions on the freedom of speech.

In those places where shortly demonstrations were held (in Algeria, Iraq, and Lebanon), authorities used the opportunity to enforce an absolute prohibition on gatherings. Every space that was, in some countries, ‘conquered’ during the Arab Spring, such as parks and squares, were completely back into the hands of the government. Places of worship, as well, are under more supervision than before.

The economic consequences of the COVID-19-outbreak are devastating and strengthen the earlier described trends, not just in Tunisia. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Gross Domestic Product in the region will decrease with an average of 4.7 percent, and in some fragile, conflict-ridden countries even more.

Especially the tourism sector and incomes from migrant workers are hit hard. There is no prospect of short-term improvement. As far as possible, it is more likely that it will take an L-shape (a long tail with an upwards curve), or a series of W’s (a double dip).[14]

In a region where sixty percent of the population is younger than 25 years, and the youth unemployment is higher than anywhere else in the world, this will lead to growing poverty, especially – but not singularly – in the informal sector. Let us also not forget that this region has the largest numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons in the world – while the Middle East and North Africa only count for six percent of the world population.

Opportunities for democratization

The economic problems in the Arab world are colossal, especially where it concerns employment opportunities (also in relatively rich countries such as Saudi Arabia). A bizarre given is that the higher educated you are, the higher the chances that you will become unemployed.

According to estimations by the United Nations (UN), around 2030 the region will need between 60 and 100 million jobs. Egypt, for example, will need to create 3.5 million jobs in the upcoming five years; that comes down to 700,000 jobs per year.[15] That will, of course, never happen.

What does this mean for the future and the opportunities for democratization in the Arab world? Taking into account scenarios on the effects of automatization, digitalization and robotization – with as a consequence a world that will highly likely have much less instead of more jobs – the Arab world finds itself in an exceptionally bad position. This was already the case before the outbreak of the Corona crisis. These highly necessary jobs, to ensure economic safety, will probably never be there.

The political outcome thereof can be cataclysmal. If those jobs don’t arrive, an army of long-term unemployed people will come into being, which cannot be regarded any differently than as a direct threat by the incumbent regimes.

Against the historical background of the above-discussed flawed form of mass politics, this situation can hold longer than one would hope or expect. Resilience of dictatorship and repression is more obvious than anything else. Even ‘electoral’, superficial forms of democracy will not appear.

A Yemeni man holds up a load of bread during a demonstration
A Yemeni man holds up a load of bread during a demonstration against the deteriorating economic situation in Yemen’s third city of Taez on December 12, 2020. Yemen, which since 2014 has been gripped by a war between Iran-backed Huthi rebels and a beleaguered government supported by a Saudi-led military coalition, faces the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. AHMAD AL-BASHA/ AFP

Jobs, jobs, jobs

Do we end up in a doom scenario and was Cook right after all with his observation that the situation is ‘hopeless’? Let’s be honest: in the short and medium term it will only get worse. Neither Arab governments nor their nationals have much control over virus pandemics or worldwide economic recessions.

Despite everything, is there still room to play? Holding on to established economic policies will not help. On the other hand, it is not to be expected that there will be fast change if that comes at the expense of the powers that be.

Additionally, in civil society there is a chronic shortage of ideas and proposals to break this stalemate. They are only presented meagrely, including a vacillating plea for the introduction of a universal basic income.[16]

Admittedly, proposing a realistic alternative is nearly undoable, especially in the current circumstances. It remains essential nonetheless. As is clear from the above, initially it is about the creation of jobs, jobs, and again, jobs. This is ‘what the people want’.

In academic jargon, this is captured under the ‘thick’ definition of democracy, with an emphasis on economic security. ‘Thin’ democracy restricts itself to more procedural characteristics, such as elections and political freedoms – not unimportant, but insufficient.

A role for the EU?

Can the European Union (EU) help? Quite a few analysts and pundits have noted “If Europe doesn’t export jobs to Africa, Africa will export Africans to Europe”. These, too, are clear words. It is, however, very much questionable whether the EU will reflect and finally distance itself from the tenacious assumptions in its policy with regard to the Middle East and North Africa.

As convincingly pointed out by Andrea Teti and his colleagues, Brussels stubbornly holds on to the ‘thin’ definition of democracy, while acting against the background of a noncritical approach of market liberalization. Economic and social rights are not brought up all that much.[17]

Short-term stability is the guiding principle, ‘security first’ is the adage. Cooperation with pro-Western elites – as much authoritarian as they may be – is standing policy.

Of course, it is imaginable that Europe could help North African partners through more economic interaction and open up for more trade. However, this was not the case in the period before the economic recession, let alone under current circumstances.

Libyans wave national flags
Libyans wave national flags as they attend a celebration marking the seventh anniversary of the Libyan revolution which toppled late leader and strongman Moamer Kadhafi, in the capital Tripoli’s Martyrs Square on February 17, 2018. MAHMUD TURKIA/ AFP


Has the Arab Spring failed? Ten years after the first uprisings it’s a somewhat silly question. When, in the early seventies of last century, Chinese premier Zhou Enlai’s opinion about the impact of the French Revolution was asked, he jokingly replied “too early to say. Apocryphal or not, this statement is not without meaning.

If we look at somewhat similar processes in other places in the world then, for example, it stands out that it took approximately 170 years – from 1789 until 1958 – until democracy in France (under Charles de Gaulle) was somewhat consolidated. And how long did that process take – and with how many setbacks – in Germany, Italy, and other countries?

In other words, if the process of political emancipation is difficult in the Middle East and North Africa, it is not that special. After all, it happened with bumps in the road in other places as well and not seldomly taking one step forward and two steps back.[18]

Ironically, it is a fact that even the only ‘success story’, Tunisia, has solved a problem with a positive outcome, but unfortunately not the problem that was the motor of the ‘revolution’. Instead of the much-desired economic improvements, the protesters obtained a constitutional government. Elsewhere, people got even less or – in the worst case – they ended up in a vortex of bloody conflict.

Neither optimism nor pessimism

Whether the Middle East and North Africa will ever have any kind of democracy is of course unpredictable, although we need to consider more obstacles than would be the case elsewhere. It has nothing to do with ‘Islam’ or other cultural factors but more with a historically grown weakly developed class consciousness and therefrom resulting inadequate forms of opposition.

It’s obvious that, in attempting to estimate the future, wishful thinking and optimism is misplaced. However, it is short-sighted too, as notorious pessimists tend to do, to oppose that with a form of pessimism or even cynicism.[19] Both visions fall short.

The uprisings of ten years ago, and the ‘sequel’ to it in 2018 and 2019 in countries such as Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan, Algeria and Morocco, definitely had meaning and it would be simplistic to state that the Arab Spring has ‘failed’. Thus, while aspiring to make a sober, realistic assessment, we need to guard against both fruitless optimism and pessimism.

[1] Steven Cook, ‘The End of Hope in the Middle East‘, Foreign Policy, 5 September 2020 (italics, PA). By the same author: ‘Strongmen Die, but Authoritarianism is Forever‘, Foreign Policy, 5 July 2018. Carolien Roelants also states that the Arab Spring has failed. See Dwars door het Midden-Oosten, Amsterdam: Prometheus, 2018, p. 10. Books with ‘Arab Winter’ on their cover are popular on the market. See two recent examples: Noah Feldman, The Arab Winter. A Tragedy, Princeton and New York: Princeton University Press, 2020; and Stephen J. King, The Arab Winter. Democratic Consolidation, Civil War, and Radical Islamists, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020. Both authors are more nuanced in their approach of the Arab Spring than the titles suggest. Another recent publication that places question marks at the ‘failure’, is by Marina and David Ottaway, A Tale of Four Worlds. The Arab Region After the Uprisings, London: Hurst & Company, 2019.

[2] In this context Asef Bayat coined the term “refolutions”, something between a full, worthy “revolution” and “reform”. See: Revolution without Revolutionaries. Making Sense of the Arab Spring, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2017, pp. 17-20.

[3] See amongst others Barbara Geddes, ‘What Do We Know About Democratization After 20 Years? ‘Annual Review of Political Science’, June 1999. Also Eva Bellin, ‘A modest transformation: Political change in the Arab world after the “Arab Spring”‘, in Clement Henry & Jang Ji-Hyang (red.),The Arab Spring. Will It Lead to Democratic Transitions?, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, p. 33-48. René Koekkoek in his recent contribution ‘Politiek en idealen’ also makes a few considerable comments on the course of revolutions De Groene Amsterdammer, 23 September 2020).

[4]See an earlier, extensive literary overview, ‘Wat iedereen moet weten over de Arabische Lente‘ (ZemZem, 2012), with titles such as Inevitable Democracy in the Arab World(by Wissam S. Yafi), New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. The prominent journalist Rami Khoury mentioned in a interview that he, also, is of the opinion that democracy is ‘unavoidable’ in the Arab world – even if that does not count for every country. See Near East Quarterly, 9 September 2011, p. 1-6.

[5] The Lebanese social-anthropologist and ex-minister Charbel Nahas speaks straightforwardly on “vague terms such as civil society” and emphasizes the indispensability of “well-organised political parties”. See ‘De explosie biedt ook kans op hervorming‘,NRC Handelsblad, 18 August 2020. A similar argument is made by Paul Aarts & Marcia Luyten, ‘De Arabische Lente: een mistig seizoen‘, Socialisme & Democratie, 4/2011.

[6] There are exceptions that do try to unite politics and economics. See for example the work of Andrea Teti and his colleagues in the “Arab Transformations Project”. Also some studies by Arab NGOs and think tanks, such as Economic Research Forum, Nawaat, Observatoire Tunisien de l’Economie, Arab NGO Network for Development,and Alternative Policy Solutions. Furthermore, several contributions to Middle East Report and studies by Mark R. Beissinger, Amaney Jamal and Kevin Mazur.

[7] Dani Rodrik, ‘The Perils of Premature Deindustrialization’, Project Syndicate, 11 October 2013; Dani Rodrik & Sharun Mukand, ‘The Political Economy of Liberal Democracy‘, NBER Working Paper No. 21540, September 2015.

[8] Maged Mandour, ‘On the absence of Arab intellecutuals: the colonial connection’, Open Democracy, 15 July 2016 (italics, PA) and ‘The poverty of protest‘, Open Democracy, 5 December 2019.

[9] See the recent opinion piece by Laila al-Zwaini, ‘Geef ons madaniya, wij eisen een civiele staat!’, NRC Handelsblad, 19-20 September 2020. For a historical perspective of the role of the youth, see Funnekotter, ‘Voor een geslaagde revolutie moet je niet bij de jeugd zijn’, NRC Handelsblad, 30-31 May 2020; and Koekkoek in Politiek en idealen (English: ‘Politics and ideals’).

[10] Lennart van der Deure, ‘Famke Louise vertegenwoordigt de jeugd niet’, NRC Handelsblad, 23 September 2020.

[11] Pietro Marzo & Francesco Cavatorta, “The demise of the Arab strongman? Authoritarianism and the future of the Middle East”, in: Shahram Akbarzadeh (ed.), Handbook of International Relations of the Middle East, London: Routledge, 2019: p. 265-278; Melani Cammett, Ishac Diwan & Irina Vartanova, ‘Insecurity and political values in the Arab world’, Democratization, 5/2020; Andrea Teti, Pamela Abbott & Francesco Cavatorta, ‘Beyond elections: perceptions of democracy on four Arab countries’, Democratization, 4/2019; Ammar Shamaileh, ‘Never out of Now: Preference Falsification, Social Capital and the Arab Spring’,International Interactions, 6/2019; M. Tahir Kilavuz & Nathanael Gratias Sumaktoyo, ‘Hopes and disppointments: regime change and support for democracy after the Arab Spring’, Democratization, 5/2020.

[12] ‘In Tunisia, the cradle of the Arab Spring, protesters want jobs’, The Economist, 13 August 2020; Alessandra Bajec, ‘Tunisia: In Tataouine Socio-Economic Marginalization Is a Time Bomb‘, Arab Reform Initiative, 24 July 2020; Ishac Diwan,’Tunisia’s Upcoming Challenge: Fixing the Economy Before It’s Too Late‘, Arab Reform Initiative, 23 September 2020; Daniel Brumberg & Maryam Ben Salem, ‘ ‘Tunisia’s endless transition?’ Journal of Democracy, 2/2020.

[13] ‘The COVID-19 Pandemic in the Middle East and North Africa’, POMEPS Studies, #39, April 2020; Amr Hamzawy & Nathan Brown, ‘How Much Will the Pandemic Change Egyptian Governance and for How Long?’, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 23 July 2020; Tim Sweijs et al., ‘De Veiligheidsimplicaties van de Pandemie: De impact van Covid-19 op Europese veiligheid’, The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, 20 August 2020; Thomas Carothers & David Wong, ‘Authoritarian Weaknesses and the Pandemic‘, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 11 August 2020; Francis Fukuyama,’The Pandemic and Political Order‘, Foreign Affairs, July/August 2020; Afsoun Afsahi et al., ‘Five Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic‘, Democratic Theory, 2/2020; Layla Saleh & Larbi Sadiki, ‘The Arab world between a formidable virus and a repressive state‘, Open Democracy, 6 April 2020.

[14]The American channel CNBC recently added the letter K to that: a recession after which the recovery takes place in the society only for some, but not for others. See ‘Worries grow over a K-shaped economic recovery that favors the wealthy‘, CNBC, 5 September 2020.

[15] Ishac Diwan, Nadim Houry & Yezid Sayigh, ‘Egypt after the Coronavirus: Back to Square One‘, Arab Reform Initiative, 26 August 2020. For an impressive, more general analysis of the structurally high unemployment rates, see Steffen Hertog, ‘Sergmented market economies in the Arab world: the political economy of insider-outsider divisions‘, Socio-Economic Review, 13 April 2020.

[16] See footnote 6. For a stimulating debate on the notion of a universal basic income, see, Alternative Policy Solutions. In this context, it is striking that Rutger Bregman’s bestseller Utopia for Realists: The Case for a Universal Basic Income(Amsterdam: The Correspondent, 2016) has not been translated into Arabic, though it has been translated into 32 other languages.

[17] Andrea Teti, Pamela Abbott, Valeria Talbot & Paolo Maggiolini, Democratisation against Democracy. How EU Foreign Policy Fails the Middle East, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020.

[18] Sheri Berman, ‘The Promise of the Arab Spring. In Political Development, No Pain Without Gain‘, Foreign Affairs, January/February 2013.

[19] Uber-pessimist John Gray mentions this a lot. The following statement, in the context of the Arab world, was the most far-reaching: “Liberal democracy cannot be established in most of the countries of the Middle East. In much of the region the choice is between secular despotism and Islamist rule” (Black Mass. Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, London: Allen Lane, 2007, p. 146). For a less “illusionless” vision, see Susan Neiman, Moral Clarity. A Guide for Grown-up Idealists (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008). Moreover, Neiman makes a useful distinction between optimism and hope. She confesses never to have been an optimist in the past. The term “optimism”, she explains, refers to an assessment of facts. One should always keep hope, is Neiman’s approach to life. ‘Zonder hoop kan ik de wereld niet veranderen’, De Groene Amsterdammer, 4 July 2019.


The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the writer(s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Fanack or its Board of Editors.


This article has been originally published in Dutch by Clingendael. To read this article in Dutch, click on the following link:

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