The Arab Spring that began in late 2010 shocked the global community. Observers of the region could have explained the factors contributing to a generally frustrated and restless civilian population, but it is fair to claim that very few anticipated their true strength in number and their ability to mobilize on a mass scale against the best efforts of ruthless and well-organized authoritarian regimes. For the Arab population has a rich history of protest on anti-colonial, anti-imperialist, and anti-authoritarian grounds—the kicker only lie in the established precedent that the protests would tend to be isolated, thwarted brutally, and conclude with minimal concessions won at the expense of the particular actor subjugating the many. The Arab Spring uprooted this relatively stable consensus, and thus it is necessary to identify what distinguished the Arab Spring from other attempted protests that yielded far fewer gains.
Perhaps the greatest distinguishing factor is that these uprisings were able to galvanize such a broad coalition of support. Indeed years of preparation through street politics, particularly on the part of the young left, greatly contributed to the organization of the protests themselves, but it was the inclusivity of the movement that contributed to the numbers defying precedent and regional norms. “Bread, freedom, and social justice” is in line with historical leftist orthodoxy, but fundamentally it did not have to necessarily be construed as leftist. When peoples of all walks of life realize the same collective grievances—in this case, food shortages, unaffordable food, and severely limited political rights—a protest can transcend traditional ideological coalitions so as to rally against a common enemy.
Thus, the expected coalition of rebels young and old, students, and leftist farmers and factory workers turned up, but they were joined by professionals, artisans, non-leftist farmers and factory workers, and friends and family who may well identify as apolitical outside of the question regarding whether people ought to be given freedoms and opportunity. Slogans like “poor first” and calling for a national minimum and maximum wage sound leftist in nature, but again when 44% of Egypt, for example, is poor, these are sentiments that transcend the ideological spectrum. And once on the street, well-aware of the solidarity shown by one another in opposition to their collective grievances, protestors were able to exchange ideas freely—engaging in the nuances of religion, television, politics, and sport that establish one’s self-identity that, for better or worse, tends to place people in competing factions. But overall, it was the power of collective sentiment that united these populations in protest, and the strength of this collective sentiment is a testament to the ill-received practices of the authoritarian regimes in the region that will be considered henceforth.
The demands of the protestors, in my estimation, were ultimately three-pronged: social or political demands, economic demands, and security state demands. Expectedly, a number of the specific demands are interrelated to one another and spill over into two or all three of the, also interrelated, given categorical labels, but nonetheless I will try to place each demand into its primary category for the sake of presenting them in a cohesive manner.
Beginning with social demands, all the specificities fall under the umbrella of a call for more representative and democratic political systems and institutions. At the top of the list were the need for a free and independent press, the need for free elections that time and again fell victim to rigging and corruption, and limits on executive power that would put an end to authoritarian rule. Arab populations were privy to the fact that the regimes and their mouthpieces were denying them basic civil liberties that all mankind ought to be afforded. And naturally, if the current regime is preventing democratic regime change, then mechanisms need to be instilled to change this. It is outside the scope of this paper to give a full analysis of social issues, but suffice it to say that safeguarding human rights translated to specific calls for domestic social development in the forms of guaranteed paid sick and family leave, confrontations of sectarianism and sexual harassment, base health and welfare standards tackling pollution and water scarcity, and, in Egypt’s case, guaranteed rights for the marginalized Coptic population.
An authoritarian regime’s best friend is a strong economy as swathes of people can look the other way on social injustice when they and their families have full bellies. The Arab Spring, in contrast, presented such fertile grounds for protest because, in addition to an unrepresentative political system, the economy had been hit by global recession and showed little signs of recovery. Lack of jobs was cited in the literature as the most pressing issue of all for Arab youth, and it is a long line of economic measures implemented by regimes in the Arab world that precipitated the citizenry’s backlash. It is the familiar foe of neoliberalism, from the vantage point of the underclass, that concentrated profits in foreign and domestic capitalists at the expense of labor. At the request of the United States and other Western markets, regimes abandoned labor in the 1990s, and the result was nearly two decades of wealth transaction from ordinary citizens to affluent pockets.
Neoliberal reforms dwindled the social safety net, took farm lands, fisheries, and grazing areas out of a command rotation system and placed them in state or private investor ownership, and, given state-owned enterprises’ history of borrowing from state banks, at present they now require public investment or privatization—either scenario further hindering the worker—to become financially viable. These developments were able to take place so swiftly due to government-controlled unions—in essence defeating the very purpose of a union that, in theory, stands to push back at corrosive private corporative or governmental practices.
All of these developments prompted protestors to call for the cessation of privatized entities laying off workers, wages to keep pace with skyrocketing food prices, employers to refrain from withholding pay, and, arguably most importantly as it comes up in the literature constantly, to put an end to government-controlled unions. With wealth and power concentrated in the hands of the few, it was a disciplined or “regulated” capitalism that protestors ultimately wanted. As it stood in 2010 and 2011, only low-wage service sector jobs were available, the social safety net was ravaged, and basic commodities were unaffordable to the masses who did not have the privilege of being the select winners of the neoliberal reforms that made housing affordable for few, ended agricultural rent controls, and eliminated tenants’ security.
If civic and economic malpractice were not enough to bring about mass protest, then certainly the third category of security state practices creates a melting pot of mistreatment that was destined to boil over. Unsurprisingly, amidst a climate where unpopular economic and social projects were undertaken, regimes resorted to creating a strong internal security force to guarantee enforcement and stymie dissent. The demands of the protestors were rather simple: put an end to police brutality, repression against strikes, disappearing, torture, and indefinite detention. Rather than allowing security forces to act with impunity, they ought to be held accountable, and to do this protestors called for independent oversight of security abuse. Facing effective military rule, protestors called for civilian rule. Security abuse was symbolic of the culmination of corruption and injustice carried out by the regimes, and their prominence in society reaffirmed the premise that the abuser was too powerful to be effectively combatted by the abused. Protestors knew they would have to reduce the influence of the overzealous internal security apparatus for any of their demands to ever be realized.
This analysis only begins to scratch the surface of the factors that led to the marvel that was the Arab Spring. Little time could be devoted to the roles of U.S. imperialism and Zionism that surely contributed to a sense of Arab civilian solidarity against the puppet governments that allowed American interests to flourish at the expense of their own. Hosni Mubarak’s pro-Israeli Gaza policy scored him no points in the court of public opinion, and the U.S.-British invasion of Iraq settled the debate for many Arabs that their regimes were not looking out for them or the Arab World at large. In conclusion, political repression and an unforgiving economy paved the way for the Arab Spring and its protestors to send a resounding message the world over. Further yet, peoples in many parts of the world are shouting closely related messages five or so years on.