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. 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.
- 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 an 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 is currently ruled by a provisional government with the date for the next election pending indefinitely. 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. Al-Sisi then massacred 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.
- Iraq: While not experiencing the 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. Currently, Iraq is cautiously recovering, with the state of emergency being lifted in 2019.
- 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 is currently besieging Tripoli to force it to surrender.
- Sudan: Following the same example as Algeria, uprisings also began at earnest because of the austerity policies caused by South Sudan's independence, which costed billions of dollars to Sudan losing three quarters of oil fields to their southern counterparts. The responses were considerably more violent and repressive, causing far more deaths than in Algeria, but the Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir announced he wouldn't seek re-election in 2015 to calm the protesters down. Despite the promises, the protests continued though they were largely covered up by the Sudanese government and returned in full force on 2018 because of the rise of bread prices which escalated into a military coup that removed al-Bashir who had been in power since 1989. The military junta that followed was locked in a standoff with the protesters for several months, until they reached an agreement for a transition and the date for the next election in 2019.
- 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 firing 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 radicalized and Islamist, 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 became 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 2019, after the deaths of over 400,000 people, note the war appears to be very nearly over. Al-Assad's government, with heavy aid from Iran and Russia, has 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). 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 of the country completely. As a result, Rojava, who up until that point had little contact with al-Assad, had no choice but to call him for help, bringing it under the Syrian government's supervision.
The war is also notable for having a massive international impact. A whopping six million people 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. Some also went to Europe and the debate regarding what to do with them (and refugees in general; the Mediterranean refugee crises unfortunately also happen around the same time) has been cited as a factor for the rise of the far right 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 is currently 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 is actually poorer than it was when Ben Ali was in power, though Tunisians are generally proud that they are no longer ruled by a dictatorship.
- 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 thousands of people. As with Syria, 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. The Houthis meanwhile routinely send missiles at Saudi Arabia's southern cities, though they mostly deal little damage. By 2019, the war is effectively on a stalemate, with the Gulf alliance being unable to breach the Houthis' defenses in spite of their superior air power. 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:
- 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.