The Arab Spring is a collective term for a series of political protests that began in late 2010 in Tunisia. Over the next few years, a number of countries saw their political situation greatly affected as protests broke out across the Middle East and North Africa against the corrupt and authoritarian leaders that were typical of the region. While Arab peoples live in very different states, the protesters were united by a feeling of alienation from political power. Despite this, it is unclear whether the Arab Spring events will lead to more democracy in the region. That is, there has been no uniformity in what subsequently occurred. In some cases, old dictators remain in power, while in others new leaders acquired power via the ballot box. In Egypt, things are more complex still as there have been several changes of power. What is clear is that rebellions occurred that have reshaped the region. Libya’s Gaddafi regime was overthrown by rebels aided by international intervention in the form of a NATO bombing campaign. There were also major political upheavals in Syria and Yemen and smaller, though still noteworthy, expressions of dissent in other states such as Bahrain, Algeria and Morocco.
The events of the Arab Spring highlighted the importance of stability, security and regime longevity. They also directed attention to the prospects for democratisation and economic and social improvements for ‘ordinary’ citizens. The pressing question is whether governments can deal with the challenge of fast-growing populations demanding more jobs and improved welfare. This is almost certainly the key concern of the tens of thousands of people in the Middle East and North Africa who were active and vocal in the Arab Spring protests. Such people – like their counterparts elsewhere in the world – expect political change that improves their lives. However, while Arab peoples have been lumped together in accounts of the Arab Spring due to their apparently common political and economic plight, it is important to note that widespread divisions characterise the region. This involves conflict between different religious expressions, including intra-Muslim struggles (Iraq, Syria, Bahrain) and Muslim–Christian (Tunisia, Egypt) tensions. Despite the coming together of people of all faiths in the Arab Spring protests, sectarian tensions and conflict have followed. The stand-out case here is Syria, which in 2011 spiralled into a deeply polarising sectarian conflict that has since been fuelled by regional (Iran–Saudi Arabia) and also global (US– Russia) rivalries. The conflict has caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands and the displacement of millions. It represents the extreme edge of what was unleashed by the Arab Spring.
Not since the end of communism a generation ago has the role of religion in democratisation and post-authoritarian political arrangements been so centrally and consistently to the fore. The Middle East and North Africa are regions often characterised as places where religion – especially Islam – is a key component of demands for political and social change. However, it is not obvious what the role of religion has been in the Arab Spring. Across the Middle East and North Africa, identifiable religious actors have been, and continue to be, conspicuous in anti-authoritarian and pro-democratisation movements. But there appears to be no clear pattern in terms of outcomes related to democratisation. What we do know is that rebellions in Egypt and Tunisia unseated incumbent governments and initially ushered in recognisably democratic elections which, in both cases, Islamists won. Yet, we saw an apparent transition to a recognisably democratic regime only in Tunisia. In Egypt, the primary struggle was between democrats and nondemocrats. Over time, this shifted to a fight between secularists and the Islamists who had triumphed in a popular election. As things became polarised the military felt emboldened to crack down on the Islamists, who were perceived by the secularists as following a more extreme version of political Islam than was tolerable for Egyptian society at large. Eventually, the elected president Mohamed Morsi was ousted from power in a coup led by military chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Sisi was subsequently elected as president via the ballot box in June 2014, receiving a popular mandate.
Overall, evidence suggests that the likelihood of the Arab countries of the Middle East and North Africa taking a clear path to democratisation is currently poor and the chances of widespread democratic consolidation still worse. In this midst of the picture is the serious proliferation of transnational terrorism that is explored in the next chapter. The unwelcome but most likely outcome is a gradual slide into entrenched and long-term political instability culminating in some cases in state failure, with serious ramifications for regional and international instability. The plight of Syria is a worrying case in point. In this context, the voices of the people of the Arab Spring can be seen to have had a very mixed set of results.