Useful Notes: The Arab Spring

aka: Middle East Uprising 2011
الشعب يريد إسقاط النظام‎ Romanization , Translation 
— The motto of the uprising

In December of 2010, a young merchant immolates himself to death in protest of the thuggish policies of the Tunisian dictatorship. This soon leads to protests and, eventually, the resignation and flight of the dictator...and the beginnings of a revolutionary wave not seen since the end of the Cold War. The sheer size, importance, multitude of methods, and brutality of the unrest has made it a modern real life showcase of many tropes, listed below.

Unlike the revolutionary wave at the end of the Cold War, though, only one of the revolutions—the one in Tunisia—has successfully established a democracy. However, social changes are taking root across the Arab world as people begin to question, and some regimes have made changes to prevent damage; comparisons to Europe's Revolutions Of 1848 have begun to appear in the literature.

In General

  • Apocalypse How: Of the Regional/Societal Collapse variety in Syria and Yemen in particular. Diseases long beaten back have started to return, for example, and the sheer population movement out of Syria has led some in the media to declare that there is no Syria anymore.
  • Ax-Crazy: Many many examples throughout the Spring. Gaddafi, Baghdadi, numerous field commanders. Too many to list. Suffice it to say, there are many, and no sides are spared.
  • Big Badass Battle Sequence: Many throughout the Spring:
    • In Iraq, it was Tikrit.
    • In Libya, it was Misrata, Tripoli, and Sirte.
    • In Syria, it was Kobani, Tel Abyad, Aleppo, Homs....
    • In Yemen, it was Aden.
  • Cool Car: The technicals involved in the fighting, due to the sheer length of the conflicts, have evolved over time from simple pick up trucks with heavy weaponry bolted to the bed to rudimentary tanks and infantry fighting vehicles. Comparisons to Mad Max have been made more than once in the media.
  • Disaster Dominoes: As described above, it all started with a Tunisian self-immolating himself in protest. His countrymen revolted, and then the rest of North Africa, and then the Middle East...
  • Foil: Gaddafi and Assad, in the media and in their respective conflicts. The former was a Large Ham, was in power for decades, dressed strangely, and was almost funny if not for the very real consequences of his actions. The latter is The Quiet One, had only been in power ten years when the uprising began, dressed in impeccable suits, and comes off as somewhat frightening in interviews. Similarly, Gaddafi fell in less than a year, while Assad is still around almost five years on. Because of how close both of their uprisings were in media coverage, the contrast is even more stark.
  • I Have Many Names: The self-proclaimed caliphate based in Raqqa officially goes by the name the Islamic State. However, most refer it to the name it had prior to declaring the caliphate, which is translated from Arabic as either the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Before the war it was Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Outside of the english-speaking world however, most refer to it by the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, transliterated as either Daesh, Da'ish, or DAIISH.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Just as several leaders reacted poorly to the situation, there were others who acted sensibly. For example, Oman got off rather lightly, as Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said made economic concessions and government reshuffles, as well as granting lawmaking powers to the national legislature. In Morroco's case, King Muhammad VI's government wisely ordered the security forces not to fire on protesters and granted significant constitutional reforms, preventing the revolution from reaching critical mass.
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized: Sadly, the initial aspirations of the Arab Spring have, due to a confluence of realpolitik from the major powers, chaos of the revolts, and a lack of thinking through attainable solutions, the entire Arab Spring has become this, leading some to say that it has become the Arab Winter.
  • Spreading Disaster Map Graphic: Has become extremely common since the beginning of the Spring, mostly in areas where the protests devolved into open war.
  • Staged Populist Uprising: In Libya and Syria in particular, this was the refrain of the Gaddafi and Assad regimes in response to the Spring, using it to justify their suppression of the initial protests. Coincidentally, these two countries have been among the worst affected by the events of the Arab Spring....
  • Summon Bigger Fish: This has happened thrice so far in the Spring as of this entry:
    • The first was in Libya, as Gaddafi's forces marched on Libya's second city of Benghazi, with the Colonel himself boasting on national television his intent to level the city for daring to resist him. Soon after, NATO recieved UN authorization to intervene to protect the city from massacre, eventually leading to a more comprehensive no-fly zone being established over Libya as a whole.
    • Second time, in Yemen, when the GCC started sending their own military to directly assist the laughably overmatched Hadi loyalists, whom the GCC was backing to defeat the Houthis and reestablish order and who, sadly for the GCC, were only able to be a Curb Stomp Cushion at best. Naturally, since their direct involvement began, the battlefield has become more balanced.
    • The third instance was the direct intervention of Russian forces (particularly air power) on behalf of Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria. It is unknown as of yet what the consequences will be, with speculation going anywhere from Out of the Frying Pan to Awakening the Sleeping Giant to everything in between.
  • Urban Warfare: The Spring in general has become one of the primary examples of this type of conflict, running the gamut from riots and protests to running street battles with police and paramilitary units to WWII style sieges. Some of the longest sieges in modern military history have occured during this revolutionary wave.
  • Vehicular Turnabout: In the beginning, the rebels, whatever the country, started out with mere AK-47s and petrol bombs. Now? They drive the government's looted tanks and AP Cs....
  • Velvet Revolution: Despite the bad press the Arab Spring gets these days, most of the time, the protests actually resulted in this trope. Indeed, in places like Lebanon (with their garbage protests) and Iraq (with their anti-corruption protests) in 2015, that is still the case.
  • War Refugees: One of the biggest effects of the war beyond the region proper, at orders of magnitude that are only rivaled by the refugee situation during WWII.


  • Voluntary Vassal: Because of the demographic makeup of the island and the relatively small Bahraini Defense Forces not being equipped or experienced to deal with the uprising going on there, essentially became this for Saudi Arabia in order to safeguard the royal family's rule. Bear in mind, it was already this economically before the Spring, due to the lack of its own oil resources, but the uprising tightened the relationship.


  • Alternative Character Interpretation Was Mohamed Morsi an aspiring tyrant who intended to destroy Egypt's newfound democratic system and replace it with a Sunni theocracy/dictatorship, or was he a man trying to do his best in a difficult situation with many powerful and deeply entrenched forces both inside and outside the country arrayed against him?
  • Revolving Door Revolution: Started under a military dictatorship, then went under an Islamist government, now it's back under a military dictatorship.
  • Then Let Me Be Evil: The view of many Muslim Brotherhood supporters after Morsi was ousted. Having been denied the use of the political system to achieve their goals,they turned to violence.


  • And There Was Much Rejoicing: Gaddafi's death.
  • Bald of Evil: Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam. And possibly Gaddafi himself.
  • Big Brother Is Watching: While in power, Gaddafi put surveillance in government, in factories and in the education center to keep an eye on them, ordered assassinations and placed bounties on critics around the world, forbade anyone from forming political parties, made it illegal for Libyans to engage in political conversations with foreigners, and removed foreign languages from school curricula.
  • The Caligula: Gaddafi showed many signs of this, infamous for his extravagant clothing and speeches during his four decade reign. What makes this notable is he was still doing this even at the height of the civil war.
  • Calling Your Attacks / Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: What eventually got Gaddafi overthrown, when he announced to Libya and the world that he would massacre any who stood against him in Benghazi and everywhere else. That had acted as the catalyst the UN needed to authorize a no fly zone and have NATO carry out an aerial intervention.
  • Civil War: The first one of the several that have resulted from the Arab Spring.
  • Co-Dragons: Gaddafi's sons in general, but Khamis and Saif al-Islam in particular. The former was the leader of Gaddafi's Elite Mooks who besieged Misrata for most of the war, while Saif was Gaddafi's heir apparant.
  • Elite Mooks: Besides Gaddafi's female bodyguards, there's also the infamous "Khamis Brigade" named after one of his sons.
  • Emergency Presidential Address: The famous "Zenga Zenga" speech he issued in response to the initial protests.
  • Evil Overlord: Gaddafi was closest thing to one.
  • Four-Star Badass: Averted. For all the resistance his loyalists put up in the battle for Sirte, Gaddafi himself went down rather quickly when the rebels captured him (in fact, his death process was probably extended by the rebels deciding to beat the hell out of him rather than just straight-out killing him).
  • Get Back Here Boss: After the fall of Tripoli when Gaddafi fled, the war effort to sweep up the remaining resistance from that point on was just as importantly an effort to chase down Gaddafi before he escaped/regrouped.
  • Glass Cannon: The loyalist town of Bani Walid wound up being this. After NTC forces pushed through the town's defenses, they managed to capture 95 percent of the town very quickly.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: The rest of the world really got physically involved in the 2011 uprising after Gaddafi started threatening to blow passenger jets out of the sky if the UN didn't butt out, resulting other countries actively helping the rebels' attempt to bring him down.
    • Doubly so, since Libya has actually done this before.
    • He was reportedly fearful of military coups against him and deliberately kept his army weak to prevent this.
  • It's All About Me: Gaddafi plastered the capital with enormous posters of himself (they were cheerfully torn down and burnt when the rebels captured the city). Reportedly he gave a gift to his underlings of watches with his face on the dial.
    • Indeed, most of these very tropes are more to do with Gaddafi himself than the Libyan state...because by 2011 he WAS the state.
  • Kill It with Fire: One of his many Kick the Dog moments during the war was to round up several dozen of his opponents in a cell and execute them with grenades, strictly For the Evulz.
  • Large Ham: Gaddafi. It was sort of his calling card.
  • Last Stand: Benghazi, just before the NATO intervention.
  • Last Villain Stand: After the brigade in charge of defending Tripoli surrendered without a fight, Gaddafi was considered an Anticlimax Boss for a time, until his remnant made their stand in his hometown of Sirte, where they resisted the rebels for nearly a month. He was killed as the city fell.
    • The loyalists sure put up one helluva fight - according to That Other Wiki, the total number of rebel casualties is six times higher than that of the loyalists. And the loyalists were greatly outnumbered, too (1,000-5,000 vs. 16,000 rebels).
  • Mouth of Sauron: Moussa Ibrahim was Gaddafi's chief spokesman, and often briefed the international media during most of the conflict, only disappearing when Tripoli itself fell....leaving those same reporters he used to brief every day at the mercy of the loyalist guards at the hotel, who held them hostage for days until the Red Cross negotiated their collective release.
  • Near Villain Victory: His forces were at the outskirts of Benghazi before the NATO airforce showed up.
  • No Ontological Inertia: Gaddafi died, and the Libyan state died with him.
  • Path of Most Resistance / Revealing Cover Up: Making headways into Sirte with no sign of Gaddafi, the rebels begun speculating that he might have already left the country. And then they stumbled on a loyalist safehouse that put up a much tougher fight.
  • Permanent Elected Official: Averted. Gaddafi served as Secretary-General of the General People's Congress (or Head of State) after the revolution in 1967 but resigned from the post in 1977. Part of his argument against standing down (the demand of the initial protests) was that he didn't have an official office to resign from.
  • Rasputinian Death: The precise details are uncertain, but apparently this is how things went: his convoy was strafed by French warplanes, he was hit in the legs, he fled and was captured, and was shot at least two more times in the torso and head. It's not known if he was hit by stray fire or just executed.
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Bureaucratized: After Gaddafi's fall, the National Transitional Council (consisting mostly of dissidents and intellectuals and ex-bureaucrats) tried to stabilize the situation, with only limited and distant support from the very nations that brought it to power, and even less support from the rebel groups distrustful of any authority. The result was this, leading to Libya's current situation.
  • The Siege: The city of Misrata, third largest in Libya, was under siege by Gaddafi's forces for most of the war. Not only was it one of the most iconic events of the war itself (with many comparisons to the likes of Stalingrad at the time), but the rebels breaking of that siege was the turning point of the whole war, with Gaddafi on the retreat from then on.
  • Villainous Breakdown / Sanity Slippage: Just when the world thought the guy couldn't get any crazier, he started ranting about the uprising against him by his own people being fueled by Zionist agents, imperialist foreign powers and LSD,note while accusing the Western countries of orchestrating the whole thing in an insidious plot to destroy Libya's air conditioners.
    • This was just the tip of the iceberg for this trope. The more his power slipped, the more his sanity devolved. Many dictators get hit by this pretty hard when their power is threatened, and Gaddafi just fell significantly faster than most.
    • Of particular interest is the speech he gave while sitting in a broken car in a blown up building holding an umbrella, a large part of which was him commenting on the rain. No, we don't get it either.
    • After being deposed, he issued an epic rant which just screams this trope. In it he made three very conflicting points at once, including basically saying "fuck you" to Libya while encouraging them to rise up and rebel against the, well, rebels.


  • Aggressive Negotiations: In what was known as "Kneel Or Starve", Assad would surround a rebellious neighborhood or town, pummel them with artillery, and prevent any food from getting in or any people from getting out...until the rebels in question, starving and no longer able to fight, surrendered. Sometimes the rebels (without weapons) would be allowed to leave, and sometimes they'd be locked up instead, in a Fate Worse Than Death, given the nature of Syrian prisons. This tactic was later used by the rebels themselves, whenever they'd takeover a loyalist or ISIS-held town.
  • Amazon Brigade: The Syrian Kurdish militias have made it a point to show that a LOT of their fighters are women. They fight in their own units as well as with the men.
  • Better The Devil You Know: The Syrian Alawites put up with Assad not because they have any love for him, but because they fear they will be systematically persecuted by a Sunni-majority regime. This is also increasingly the attitude of the international community towards Assad.
  • Beware the Quiet Ones: When Bashar al Assad took over his father Hafez's role as Syria's president, everyone thought he'd reform the government and make it democratic. He didn't, but he also was a lot less antagonistic toward his own people, so it was assumed when the Spring began there, that'd he'd buckle immediately (he was popular enough that people weren't calling for his ouster initially, just reform) and Syria would go the path of Algeria. Sadly, he proved that just because he wasn't a Large Ham like Gaddafi, who had fallen around the time the revolt in Syria began in earnest, didn't mean he wasn't as (and, as history has shown, more) dangerous than the Libyan dictator.
  • Civil War: And one of the most brutal ones in recent memory, with at least a quarter million dead and 11 million chased out of their homes (and half of THEM are now refugees elsewhere).
  • Deadly Gas: Assad gassed rebel neighborhoods with deadly Sarin nerve gas in August of 2013, prompting the international community to defang his chemical arsenal. This, unfortunately, hasn't stopped him or other factions (most notably Daesh) from creating and using simpler and cruder chemical weapons, like chlorine and mustard gas.
  • Draft Dodging: Increasingly a problem for Assad....
  • Elite Mooks: Hezbollah and the Iranian Quds Force for Assad, former Saddam-era Iraqi military and Chechen militants for ISIS, and Al-Qaeda for most of the rest of the rebels.
  • Enemy Mine: Both Daesh and the Assad regime have been accused of collaborating with each other. At times, both sides appear more content with grabbing territory from other rebel groups rather than confronting each other.
  • Everyone Has Standards: This is Al-Qaeda Central's supposed reason for disavowing Daesh. The truth is both groups are just as brutal and terroristic; analysts figure it's more like because al-Qaeda's brand is becoming increasingly overshadowed by Daesh's.
  • Government in Exile: Technically has one, called the Syrian National Council, but no one has really paid them any heed since it became clear early on that negotiations would be fruitless and the SNC had no connection to (or loyalty of) any rebel forces in the field.
  • Graffiti of the Resistance: The start of the Spring in Syria is attributed to a brutal overreaction of Assad's security forces to a bunch schoolkids spraying pro-Spring graffiti in Daraa, and the resulting ire of the public. They became the collective icons of the uprising that followed, which soon devolved into the brutal civil war it is today.
  • A Lighter Shade of Grey: The YPG, than again when your list of opponents includes a genocidal terrorist organization and a Dictatorial government that used chemical weapons on it's own citizens it's not that hard to be morally superior to them.
  • Sitcom Arch-Nemesis: While the actions of Russia and the United States are based on important calculations and objectives and are quite serious (and deadly) in their effect on the situation on the middle east in general and Syria in particular....the media in both countries has, with varying levels of glee, taken to depicting the Obama-Putin relationship in this manner because of the Syrian conflict.
  • Soft-Spoken Sadist: Bashar al-Assad is notoriously softspoken and comes off as very cold in interviews, especially given the direction of the war these last few years.
  • Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters: The almost word for word refrain of Syrian rebels as to why they tolerate Al Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, Jabhat Al-Nusra, to the consternation of the US and Europe.


  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Tunisia is thus far the only nation that went as far as to overthrow its pre-Spring government to actually come out okay without devolving into Civil War like Libya or going into Full-Circle Revolution like Egypt.
  • Icon of Rebellion: The death of one young merchant became the signal that started the revolt in Tunisia and then across the region.


  • Anarchy Is Chaos: The revolt against President Saleh distracted the military enough that there is now a four way war between Al-Qaeda, the Houthis, the Southern separatists, and the government.
  • Defiant to the End: If you are a northerner or Houthi-supporter in the south, do not expect to win over the locals. On the flipside, don't expect the denizens of Sana'a to support you after bombing them into submission, regardless of their political beliefs. As a national cliche as well, Yemenis are known to be this to any outsider in general.
  • Enemy Mine: Before his ouster from power Saleh and the Houthis had been at each others throats. After he lost the Presidency he allied with them, and brought the military units still loyal to him to fight for them, the results were their rapid advance across the country. The same can be described for Hadi's loyalists and the southern seperatists, with the former only being able to stay on the battlefield because of the latter's willingness to fight, while the latter was only able to hold out because of the former's supplies and money.
  • Middle Eastern Coalition: The Gulf Cooperation Council (consisting of the Gulf monarchies and Jordan and Morocco) created a Multinational Team of the regional militaries to assist the Hadi government and local anti-Houthi militias in the civil war. This task force numbers anything from 4,000 to 10,000 strong and, if successful, may lead to the formalization of this force to protect the Arabian Peninsula. Only Oman has opted out (while non-GCC members Egypt and Sudan have opted in).
  • Puppet State: The Hadi gov't, even after Aden was liberated by the Saudis, still operates in exile from Riyadh. Indeed, one of the primary reasons the Houthis give for their rebellion (the others being anti-terrorism and anti-corruption) is that the government is this.
  • Rock Beats Laser: The Houthis in particular have managed to pull this off for years, even before the Spring, but they really showcased this when they managed (with help from Saleh, their former foe) to continue a massive advance into hostile southern Yemen while Saudi Arabia was bombarding almost no effect. It was only when the Saudis and Emiratis sent in their own troops into the fray that any headway was made at all.
    • Even his own supporters are only using him for resources (since he's the one getting money from the Saudis)
  • The Quisling: What many, if not most, Yemenis view President Hadi as, especially since the Saudi air campaign began.

The Arab Spring in fiction:

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    Live-Action TV 
  • NCIS: Los Angeles:
    • The episode "Deadline" featured the team trying to track down a Libyan nationalist who was broadcasting pro-rebel television spots. Ironically, by the time the episode aired (October 11, 2011), Gaddafi had been overthrown two months earlier, and was killed a little more than a week later (October 20).
    • Another episode featured industrial espionage in the form of Turkey attempting to steal tech for communications satellites, apparently spurred on by fears the Arab Spring could spread to Turkey (they were hoping to derail such grassroots movements by interfering with communications).
  • The Castle episode "Pandora" states that Dr. Nelson Blakely's used his "linchpin theory" (finding a small event that will set dominoes falling on a larger one) to start the Arab Spring.

    Web Original 
  • An as-of-yet unpublished prequel to the YouTube series The Road Gypsy stars an inexperienced Francis Easton and Cecil Banning as they travel to Egypt just before the uprising, then find themselves trying to get out before they are killed.

Alternative Title(s):

Middle East Uprising 2011