The Arab Spring After Ten Years: Where the Middle East Stands Today

It has been a full decade since Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire outside the provincial headquarters of Sidi Bouzid. On December 17th, 2010, Bouazizi, who was regularly harassed by local police into conceding commission and merchandise, acted out of “sheer desperation,” says Thessa Lageman of Al Jazeera, in protest against corruption and injustice. Within a matter of days, an unprecedented revolutionary movement took flight across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), as protesters demanded the downfall of longstanding authoritarian regimes. Referred to today as the Arab Spring, demonstrators hoped that this period of heightened social and political instability would amount towards a democratic future for the region.

Looking back however, the Arab Spring produced very limited democratization and overwhelmingly failed to establish prolonged peace. Of the dozens of MENA states that experienced anti-government protests, regime change has only been possible in Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, and Egypt, with Tunisia being the lone state to successfully democratize. Meanwhile, Libya and Yemen have been devastated by civil wars as a result of power vacuums created in the absence of the Gaddafi and Saleh regimes. In Egypt, the new Al-Sisi government has severely cracked down on free speech and become notorious for jailing and executing outspoken critics of the state. 

Another consequence of the Arab Spring has been the decline of already compromised economic conditions in several MENA states. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, poverty rates have skyrocketed over the last decade due to the lack of economic opportunities, which has consequently renewed protests in some cases. The combination of high unemployment and widespread violence generated by unrest has decimated civilian life across the region, and has resulted in tens of millions of refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced peoples. Nowhere has this been more prevalent than in Syria, which has experienced a prolific civil war since March 2011 when Bashar Al-Assad retaliated at demonstrators with military force. World Vision has reported that nearly 12 million Syrians are in immediate need of humanitarian assistance, at least half of whom are children, due to the destruction of healthcare centers, schools, utilities, and sanitation systems throughout the state. Human suffering has been perpetuated by the ensuing proxy war between the United States and Russia, and at this point in time, no U.N. mandated ceasefire has successfully implemented lasting peace. 

In the Gulf region, conservative monarchies undertook a variety of approaches to strengthen their political legitimacy as the Arab Spring threatened their power consolidation. This involved increasing levels of state repression and imposing tighter security measures on civilian populations, which have subsequently quelled dissenters and made mass mobilization unfeasible. The United Arab Emirates stripped civil societies of their political platforms, and Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, like Egypt, silenced opposition through mass arrests and executions. Gulf regimes have also relied on their wealthy oil economies to “patrimonialize” potential dissenters, which in turn has gifted authoritarians an opportunity to further solidify their divine authority. According to Georgetown University’s Mehran Kamrava, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia increased civil servant salaries in February 2011 to appease their population as a means of curbing rising unrest. Kuwait additionally provided citizens a cash handout of $3,200, and Saudi Arabia promised to build 500,000 units of low-income housing. As a result, Gulf states largely succeeded in suppressing anti-government uprisings, and are arguably more politically secure than they were before the Arab Spring. 

With the convoluted effects of the Arab Spring being so well documented, questions remain regarding the future of MENA relations, especially after the election of Joe Biden. For the last decade, the United States has failed to adequately support democratization efforts in the region, and the incoming Biden administration brings an opportunity to revamp American foreign policy towards the MENA. On his first day in office, President-elect Biden must publicly pledge the United States’ support for democracy striving political dissenters, while also making it clear that authoritarian regimes who impede democratic processes will be held accountable. Specifically, the United States must discontinue arms sales to states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, where human rights are all but disregarded by those in power. Biden must additionally demand the release of all imprisoned political opposition figures and ensure that victims of government abuses receive proper compensation and justice. 

These actions will not reverse the decade of violence that has persisted in the wake of the Arab Spring, but they will set the region on a path towards healing and rehabilitation. Over time, it is possible for effective democratic institutions to develop in states that for generations have been governed by highly oppressive rulers. Biden has the opportunity to lead the way on this initiative and must do so immediately following his inauguration.

Peter Koenigsbauer