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 dictator's resignation and exile...and the beginnings of a revolutionary wave not seen since the end of the Cold War.
Unlike the revolutionary wave at the end of the Cold War, though, none of the revolutions ultimately established democracy. note Indeed, a phenomena coined as the "Arab Winter" followed, with the resurgence of authoritarianism and sectarianism instead of democracy and liberalism, especially in areas that delved into civil war. 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.
Note that this page concerns a series of (not necessarily revolutionary) major crises that happened in the Arab world since 2011. Strictly speaking, the Arab Spring ended in February 2012, when Ali Abdullah Saleh, the-then dictator of Yemen, fell from power. The fallout that happened, including repression, sectarianism, violence, and war that frequently made headlines, fell into either the aforementioned Arab Winter or were unrelated events. With the resurgence of revolutionary wave that toppled the dictators of Algeria and Sudan, as well as protests in other places, some political analysts have begun referring to a "second wave" of the Arab Spring since 2019, although the stigma that has since been associated with the term means that it is not universally accepted.
- Algeria: One of the most delayed cases of this event in the list, protests actually began as early as the other ones in December 2010 against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika who had been in power for 20 years. The implications of a regime change were particularly troublesome due to the Algerian Civil War that erupted in the 90s between the Algerian government and Islamist rebels for similar conditions as the Arab Spring. However, protests were quickly contained and reforms were enacted to placate the dissidents such as limiting the number of terms that a president would serve. Because of this, Algeria did not undergo a regime change...
...until 2019 rolled around when Bouteflika announced his candidacy for another term despite his health issues (such as having suffered a stroke, being wheel-chair bound and no longer appearing in public) and advanced age, which put into question his ability to rule. The Algerian public had enough and via a series of peaceful demonstrations managed to pressure the military to make Bouteflika step down from power. The country held its post-Bouteflika election in late 2019, which was however boycotted by more than half of the population. Peaceful protests occasionally reoccur, with the demand being the resignation of the old ruling elite that have been running Algeria since independence.
- Bahrain: Opposition groups protested en masse in Bahrain, upset with the current regime. Many of the protesters were Shia Muslims who feel repressed, as even though they are the majority of the Bahrain's population, the royal family is Sunni Muslim. Beyond the sectarian disputes, King Hamad's rule has been fairly harsh and uncompromising. The protests gathered a lot of momentum and it seemed like the monarchy might be toppled, but Hamad hired foreign mercenary groups to come in and restore peace by any means necessary. Saudi Arabia and co. also sent support to the monarchy. Subsequent crackdowns have seen thousands jailed. Revolutionary fervor has significantly diminished since then, although protests against the regime have sporadically reoccurred.
- Egypt: Mass protests erupted in Tahrir Square early into 2011, with many inspired by the activists in Tunisia. The dictator Hosni Mubarak ended up resigning, handing the reigns over the military who, to their credit, did transition Egypt to democracy by holding democratic elections. Of course, the military very quickly reversed course when Mohammad Morsi, who was affiliated with the very divisive Muslim Brotherhood, won the election. It didn't take long for the military to overthrow Morsi's new government, replacing him with the director of military intelligence, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, in a rigged election. El-Sisi then massacred thousands of Islamist protesters who were demonstrating against the coup and has essentially become another President for Life, bringing the revolution in Egypt full circle and Morsi himself being thrown into prison and dying six years afterwards during a trial. To his credit, el-Sisi managed to restore pre-2011 stability and prosperity back to Egypt, though the government is still containing Islamist militias in the North Sinai governorate, which became a lawless land during the Morsi presidency.
- Iraq: While not experiencing the original Spring firsthand, it did get the spillover of the one in neighboring Syria due to the rise of Islamic State/Daesh, which ruled northern Iraq for three years and nearly broke the country at a time when it was recuperating from years of sectarian conflict since the American invasion. IS took advantage of the grievances the country's Sunni Arab population have; since the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the Ba'athists in 2003, the Sunni Arab minority have been marginalized by both Iraq's central government, now dominated by Arab Shiites, and the Kurds, both of whom had been persecuted by the Ba'athists beforehand. This allowed IS to take control of nearly every territory where Sunni Arabs are the majority, while forcing everyone else to flee. When the group was finally defeated in 2017, the insurgency had killed nearly 200,000 people, making it the second deadliest conflict of the Arab Spring.
- Libya: Tunisia's neighbor to the east did not have it as easy. Muammar Gaddafi, Libya's dictator, did not follow Ben Ali's example and resign, instead choosing to fight. Rebels seized the city of Benghazi and the military unsuccessfully tried to retake it. After that, all hell broke loose, launching a full-scale civil war. The US and friends led a military intervention as well, providing the rebels with air support. This has caused a lot of contention in the West. After a few months, Gaddafi was captured and killed and his regime fell apart.
However, the clean-up has not been so easy. The country was still wracked by civil unrest and violence as various factions tried to gain control. A nominally democratic government was set up, but in 2014 it was split again in a political squabble too complicated to handle here. All you need to know is that, as of 2019, the country is split between two major entities, the UN-backed Tripoli government and the Tobruk government, led by strongman Khalifa Haftar. Haftar has won plaudits among many Libyans for bringing order and pushing radical Islamists from the country's second largest city, Benghazi, though others accuse him of wanting to become the new Gaddafi. His government besieged Tripoli to force it to surrender, but did not succeed due to Turkey's intervention. In 2021, an agreement was made to form a provisional unity cabinet out of the previous two governments.
- Sudan: As with Algeria, a fairly delayed example. Protests that began as early as 2011, being triggered because of the austerity policies instituted following South Sudan's independence, which cost billions of dollars to Sudan losing three quarters of oil fields to their southern counterparts. The security forces' crackdown killed hundreds of people and prevented the dictator since 1989, Omar al-Bashir, from being toppled, though al-Bashir announced that he wouldn't seek re-election in 2015 to calm the protesters down. Nevertheless, small-scale protests continued for the decade, though they were largely covered up by the government. It returned in full force in 2018 and escalated into a military coup that removed al-Bashir. The military junta that followed was locked in a standoff with the protesters for several months before they reached an agreement for a joint military-civilian transitional council and the date for the next election in 2019. In 2021, the military head of the transitional council launched another coup just as his term was nearing its end, dissolved the council and dismissed the civilian government, before an agreement was later made to reinstate the overthrown premier Abdalla Hamdok. In January 2022, Hamdok announced his resignation amid anti-coup protests.
- Syria: Easily the worst off of the countries in the Arab Spring. Protesters took to the streets in 2011 due to government's strict regulation of the economy, limited civil freedoms, corruption, and persecution of the Sunni Muslims who make up the majority of the population (a reverse of Bahrain). This was further precipitated when the economy contracted the same year. The dictator of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, was not having any of this protesting business from day one, and ordered bloody crackdowns on civilian protesters, sending plain clothes secret police to gun down protesters. Many of the protesters then started coming armed, and soon gunfights were breaking out on the streets. In response, a part of the military chose to defect rather than fire on their own citizens, and a full-blown civil war broke out in summer 2012.
The war escalated in 2013, when the opposition became increasingly Islamist and radicalized (not helped by the fact that many of the more secular and moderate rebels had gotten killed by this point, meaning most of the remaining rebels were now controlled by fundamentalists), aided by the flow of guns and recruits coming in from other countries. The government went down a similar path, resorting to ever more brutal methods to put down the rebellion and accepting considerable support from foreign Iran-backed militias. The end of that year saw the Islamic State become the most powerful faction among the opposition (al-Qaeda being a close second), with the self-declared caliphate becoming an existential threat both to the government and to the remaining non-Islamist rebels. Foreign involvement, already present from the beginning, drastically escalated in 2014-2015 with several countries deploying large conventional forces to Syria. There are many parties to the conflict and nearly everyone have different visions regarding what to do with Syria's future. They are also backed by different foreign powers, including the United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia.
By 2020, the war has killed more than 500,000 peoplenote . Al-Assad's government, which was on the verge of crumbling in 2015, managed to shockingly come Back from the Brink with heavy foreign support from Iran and Russia, secured most of the country from the other feuding rebel groups and has entered into talks with the few remaining opposing factions. Meanwhile, the Islamic State, which once looked set to roll over all of Syria, was eliminated as a territory-holding entity by an American-led airstrike campaign complemented by ground troops from the Syrian Democratic Forces, the army of Syrian Kurdistan (also known as Rojava), with its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi being killed in a US operation in 2019. The only major bastion of rebel territory is the Idlib governorate (now mostly run by jihadists), which is planned to be demilitarized under a Russo-Turkish deal. This is after the latest twist of the war in late 2019, when Turkey and its Syrian rebel allies invaded Rojava, while the Americans not only did nothing to help, they decided to pull out. As a result, Rojava, which up until that point had had little contact with al-Assad, had no choice but to call him for help, coming to a political agreement with Damascus and bringing it under the Syrian government's supervision.
The war is also notable for having a massive international impact. A whopping six million people, or almost a third of its pre-war population (about 21 million), have fled the country since 2011, mostly to neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, all of whom (especially Lebanon) experience difficulties coping with so many people rushing to their border (though recently some of the refugees, especially those stationed in the neighboring countries, started coming back). Some also went to Europe and the debate regarding what to do with them (and migrants in general; the Mediterranean migrant crisis happened around the same time. Many of these migrants came from non-violent but economically and politically unstable African countries.) has fueled an increase in far right voters and defiance of the European Union in Europe. Foreign fighters (not attached to any state's military), both from nearby areas and from places as far-flung as China and France, became prominent among the Syrian opposition around the same time that Islamists did, constituting up to half of total rebel casualties. Then there was the Islamic State, which controlled swathes of Syria and, as noted above, Iraq from 2014 to 2017 and at their height inspired attacks in almost every corner of the world. There is also the use of chemical weapons in areas densely populated by civilians, whose actual culprit remains unknown. The blame game between the parties has been, uh, blamed for the strained ties between Russia and the United States, which back opposite sides of the conflict. Needless to say, everyone is miserable about it.
- Tunisia: Where it all began. Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian merchant, had all his goods confiscated by the police. With little left to live for, he opted to self-immolate as a final act of protest to the regime. Mass demonstrations followed and President for Life Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled not long after, dying while in exile in 2019. Tunisia became one of the few success stories of the Arab Spring, having managed to set up democratic government. Economically, however, it is suffering, as the political instabilities and the government inefficiency have put off investors. It actually ended up poorer than it was when Ben Ali was in power, though Tunisians have been generally proud that they are no longer ruled by a dictatorship.
In summer 2021 however, President Kais Saied, elected in 2019, effectively launched a "self-coup" after invoking emergency laws to dismiss the incumbent prime minister and suspend the country's parliament. This was condemned by Ennahda, the largest Islamist party in parliament, and supported by the Tunisian Armed Forces, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, while demonstrations also took place both in favour of and against Saied's actions. He later issued a decree solidifying his presidential powers, appointed a woman as the new premier, and supported a constitutional referendum which converted the country to a presidential system, and was passed overwhelmingly amid opposition boycotts. These events have been described by observers within and outside Tunisia as an erosion of democratic institutions in the country.
- Yemen: The second worst off of the countries in the Arab Spring. Protests started in Sana'a against the country's dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh. In 2011, he fled to Saudi Arabia after an assassination attempt, and the government was handed to his vice president Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi. Al-Hadi attempted to negotiate with the opposition, but he won some blatantly farcical elections in 2012 and set up a new government. The Shia Muslim Houthis in Yemen — who had been one of the main drivers for revolution in the first place — began to protest al-Hadi's regime, and low intensity fighting occurred. This became high intensity fighting when, in 2015, al-Hadi was forced to flee Sana'a and the Houthis took control. Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council (excluding Oman) decided to invade Yemen. Saleh returned to Yemen and cooperated with the Houthis until late 2017, when he was assassinated following a botched attempt to switch sides.
Yemen's civil war is ongoing and has killed nearly 100,000 people. As with the Syrian Civil War, there are many parties with differing visions in the conflict. The Gulf alliance have been accused of blockading Yemen and bombing its infrastructure, including schools and hospitals, to oblivion, leading to unprecedented outbreaks of disease and famine that claimed as many lives as those killed directly because of the war. The Houthis meanwhile routinely send missiles at Saudi Arabia's southern cities, though they mostly deal little damage. By 2020, the war is in a stalemate, with the Gulf alliance being unable to breach the Houthis' defenses in spite of their superior air power. Another side of the conflict was opened in 2018 when South Yemen separatists, which formed the backbone of native Yemeni forces supporting the UN-backed government, occupied their de facto seat of power, Aden, forcing the rest of the coalition to give them more power in a future government. Many of Saudi Arabia's allies, including the United Arab Emirates, have exited the war out of sheer frustration and Saudi itself is being pressured to leave amid mounting cases of human rights abuses.
The Arab Spring in fiction:
- Michael Bay's 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is based on the attack on the US embassy in Benghazi in the aftermath of the first Libyan civil war.
- The Square (2013) chronicles the events occuring between the first and second Egyptian revolutions.
- Last Men in Aleppo is a documentary film revolving around the Syrian Civil Defence, popularly known as the "White Helmets", an opposition-backed volunteer group who evacuated civilians during the Syrian civil war.
- The Syrian uprising serves as the backdrop in the Marie Colvin biopic, A Private War.
- 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.
- Madam Secretary references both sides of it repeatedly.
- "Another Benghazi" deals with an uprising outside the US embassy in Yemen ending in a bombing, similar to the Benghazi attack except the ambassador is successfully extracted by Private Military Contractors hired by Liz.
- "Catch and Release" prominently features an American-born member of Daesh, inspired by British-born Mohammed Emwazi.
- "Sea Change" has the Tunisian ambassador guilt-trip Liz regarding the fact that the Tunisian revolution actually succeeded and the US is neglecting them; Liz and Dalton ultimately make plans to replace a storm-damaged naval base in Bahrain with one in Tunisia.
- Messiah opens with the Islamic State making a resurgence and the titular character saving the people of Damascus from them by apparently summoning an sandstorm.
- As part of her backstory in Assassin's Creed Origins, Layla Hassan took a leave of absence from Abstergo and returned to Egypt in order to protest against the regime of then president Hosni Mubarak, helping her new friends foil government censorship by helping them communicate via social media and also in hacking digital devices despite her minimal fluency in Arabic.
- The RTS Syrian Warfare focuses on the Syrian Civil War.
- 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.
- An infamously tragic but heartwarming greentext from 4chan involves the tale of an anon encountering a rather vocal Arab player with a thick accent on Team Fortress 2, who would loudly issue commands in broken but understandable English. After defending the player from some abusive teammates, Anon was friended by him, and the two went on to play other games, all the while the player loudly issuing his commands and actually being quite effective. However, around the time of the Arab spring, the player suddenly disappeared, but not before leaving a message for Anon: "bad times friend ahead" "maybe no computer" "maybe no home" "i go away but we are two of soul" "i will return". Anon then notes that his friend was last online 615 days ago from that last message, leaving it unclear if he ever did return, though another Anon adds a humorous/awesome twist by imagining the player on a real battlefield, issuing commands as a squad leader to a group of freedom-fighters.