Globe, the Graduate Institute Review
04 May 2021

The Historical Legacy of the Arab Spring

Not to be read in terms of current affairs, the Arab Spring is rather a historical work in progress. 

Ten years ago, a wave of unprecedented political protests swept across the Arab world.

Starting in the countryside of Tunisia, following the police beating of a streetside fruit seller, popular movements – often led by disenfranchised youth groups – demonstrated for months on calling for the fall of the autocratic regimes that had led these countries for decades.

The “Arab Spring”, as the series of revolts came to be known, brought to an end the presidencies of Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, and, later on, Yemen’s Ali Abdallah Saleh.

As the regimes cracked down on protestors, unleashing police and armies, a similar nascent movement in Bahrain was brought to a halt courtesy of a Saudi military intervention, and civil wars ensued in Libya, Syria and the Yemen.

The conflicts and political transitions that followed became engulfed in the complex and frustrating travails of societal transformation, with many round the world turning from enthusiasm to doubt about the fate of these democratisation processes.

As extremists of all hues became inevitably involved and violence spiralled, the revolutions were decreed failed by many a naysayer. Lost in such ahistorical impatience, unrealistic judgments and sterile binaries of failure or success were sober long-term assessments of what the “Spring” was fundamentally about, namely the massive and spontaneous region-wide rejection of postcolonial authoritarianism.

For here was the people’s jury standing out 50 years after decolonisation and holding to the regimes’ face their utter failure in building new, independent and accountable states. In slow motion, the revolutions did continue throughout the decade, marred by the growing pains of the struggle for liberalisation.

By the early 2020s, talk of an Arab Spring 2.0 was on as similar largescale demonstrations came to force political change in Algeria, the Sudan and Lebanon – again invariably followed by disenchantment. Instead of reading the Arab Spring in terms of current affairs, the events should be understood as a historical work in progress.

The legacy of the Arab Spring is threefold, playing out at national, regional and international levels.

Firstly, the uprisings introduced a new cognitive outlook on domestic politics in Arab society. Secondly, the movement embodied, regionally, the substantiation of ethics of democracy, which it also legitimised lastingly. Finally, the movement represented the forceful advancement of modern epistemic social struggle at a global level – one whose “children” are Los Indignados, Occupy Wall Street, the Gilets jaunes and Black Lives Matter.

This article was published in Globe #27, the Graduate Institute Review | Spring 2021