The Arab Spring was set in motion by the actions of a single man, Muhammad Bouazizi, in Tunisia on December 17, 2010. The man set himself ablaze in response to the Tunisian government confiscating his stand a day before. Like many men in the Middle East, he worked humbly as a vendor – his stand being the only source of income for his family. When the government had confiscated his livelihood without justification, he reacted radically.
The strife experienced by him is unfortunately common in this region. His thread was one of many in a broader narrative – one resonating with a majority in the Middle East at the time. This is evidenced by the events that would eventually comprise the event widely recognized as the Arab Spring. This singular event, occurring on a routine day in Tunisia, would spark a broad range of protests across the region.
Ten days after the immolation of Bouazizi, Tunisian President, Zin El Abidine Ben Ali was forced out of office by massive public protests and went into exile in Saudi Arabia. Less than a month later Egypt’s President, Hosni Mubarak, was expelled in the same fashion. This became a common narrative across the region. Eventually the Libyan regime would follow suit, becoming displaced in 2011. Similar protests took hold in Syria, eventually disintegrating into a civil war. Even the monarchies would be challenged. For example, King Hamad of Bahrain was met with significant civil unrest calling for the end of his regime.
The sheer scale of these events begs an important question: how is it possible that the single act of a man in Tunisia could result in something so massive?
The answer may be relatively simple: the droves of men and women within the region had grown weary of being subjected to totalitarian rule, they desired their voices be heard. The Arab Spring was largely characterized by two aims: to challenge the authority of totalitarian regimes across the region and to democratically empower the people. While there were some notable successes stemming from the efforts of the Arab Spring, most notably in Egypt and Tunisia, the movement has seemingly fizzled out.
The potentiality of establishing democratic rule was the ultimate promise of the Arab Spring. This is evidenced within the movement itself, as the myriad of protests comprising it were not necessarily ideologically or politically driven. These protests were driven by an apparent hunger for dignity and autonomy – all else was subordinate to these aims. Much of the initial success of the movement stemmed from the ability of the people, through the vehicle of organized protest, to effectively impose their will on the regimes in question. Unfortunately, this momentum was not sustained.
Though the initial promise of the Arab Spring was actualized, the aim of establishing democracy throughout the region fell short. This is due in large part to the fact that the notion of democracy is still relatively new to many of the populations participating in the Arab Spring. Though an empowering and mobilizing idea, the implementation of democracy across the region proved quite difficult.
This was particularly true in Egypt, where two military coups had ensued between 2011-2014. The first taking place in 2011 to pave the way for the eventual election of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi. However, this was short lived as the Islamist regime was immediately challenged by secular forces, resulting in the coup of 2013. Following the second coup another election ensued, this time putting Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in power. This too was not without controversy, as el-Sisi’s election has been described as “free but not necessarily fair.” The rationale behind this example is too demonstrate the earlier point that democracy is not established overnight. The struggles of Egypt have certainly been echoed across the region, as many participants in the Arab Spring have found that establishing and maintaining legitimate democratic regimes is easier said than done.
Though the promise of the Arab Spring has not yet been realized, I would argue that hope still exists. Yes, democracy is difficult to establish and it is certainly not a “one size fits all” institution, however strife does not necessarily equal failure. Moreover, it is important to keep in mind that this movement is the first time the people have had the momentum to assert their will and to have a tangible impact on the societies they inhabit – growing pains are to be expected. Much of what has passed has been characterized by trial and error and this will likely be true of the future. Therefore, it is important to frame the Arab Spring as an evolving work in progress rather than a static event.