Five years on ‘Arab Spring’ dream is chaos

Freedom cry? Protesters in Egypt have seen two rulers deposed in the last five years. © PA

In January 2011, a wave of protests gripped the Arab world. A momentous democratic change appeared to be underway. Now the region is gripped by war and sectarian strife. Does hope remain?

On 14 January 2011, Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali went into hiding after 23 years in power. Protests which had begun when street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire the previous month had driven him out.

Within six weeks, similar demonstrations had broken out in ten other Arab countries and Hosni Mubarak had resigned as President of Egypt. Western commentators spoke excitedly of an ‘Arab Spring’ or ‘Arab Awakening’.

Five years later, the region is in chaos. Syria’s civil war is believed to have cost over 300,000 lives, while 4.3 million refugees have fled the country – many to neighbouring Lebanon and Jordan. Thousands have died in Yemen, Libya, Iraq and Egypt, as jihadist groups have exploited political instability to wreak havoc. Sectarian divisions between Sunni and Shia Muslims have frequently turned violent.

Free elections took place in 2011 and 2013 in Tunisia, and moderate constitutional concessions were also made in Morocco and Jordan. But elsewhere, governments have responded harshly. Earlier this month Saudi Arabia executed 47 political protesters; the wealthy Kingdom has also helped the ruling Khalifa family in Bahrain to suppress dissent.

Other authoritarian rulers have fallen. Colonel Gaddafi of Libya was removed and killed by a lynch mob after international military action against him; Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced out of office in Yemen; and both Hosni Mubarak and Mohammed Morsi have been deposed in Egypt. But none of those countries have witnessed a transition to democracy.

The phrase ‘Arab Spring’ – which was first used in 2005 – appeared to imply that the uprisings were a demand for democratic change. The word ‘spring’ described progressive uprisings against authoritarian leaders in the aftermath of the European revolutions in 1848, and a brief period of relative liberalisation in communist Czechoslovakia in 1968 was referred to as the ‘Prague Spring’.

Spring forward?

These five years have been a disaster, say some. As millions have suffered, the Arab world has become more unstable. The westerners who coined the term ‘Arab spring’ have been shown up as devastatingly naïve. Arabia has been dominated by sectarian Islamic and authoritarian cultures for centuries, and will continue to be so.

Not so fast, respond others. We should not be surprised that there have been five difficult years. Major change does not happen easily — the first ten years of the French Revolution saw regicide and a period of Terror, but are now viewed as the moment Enlightenment values became reality. The crackdowns and violence just show how scared authoritarians and Islamists are of their people’s natural thirst for freedom.

You Decide

  1. Do you think everyone should want to live in a democratic, free society?
  2. Could the ‘Arab Spring’ still be remembered positively in years to come?


  1. Write down five questions which you would now like to ask the people who took part in the Arab Spring protests.
  2. Choose one country affected by the Arab Spring and prepare a presentation explaining how the events of the last five years have changed it, and what concerns the people there have.

Some People Say...

“Freedom will always win eventually.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Does this only affect people in the Arab world?
No. The instability has allowed the rise of some religious fundamentalist groups, including terrorist organisations such as Daesh, who carried out the Paris attacks in November. Refugees are fleeing — mostly from Syria, but some from Libya, Iraq and Yemen too. There are also economic consequences of events in this volatile region; Saudi Arabia, in particular, has large reserves of oil, which is currently essential to the world economy.
Were these protests a cry for freedom?
The protests certainly showed that there was a great deal of opposition to some of the region’s autocratic governments. But one major source of debate is how far the people involved wanted democracy and how far they wanted to advance their own agendas, or other interests.

Word Watch

Mohamed Bouazizi
Bouazizi set himself on fire on 17 December 2010, in protest at police corruption and poverty.
Arabia includes the countries on the coast of north Africa (from Morocco in the north-west) and the Arabian peninsula. It does not include Iran, which is in Asia but which is the most significant supporter of Shia Islam.
Over 300,000 lives
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated that 320,000 had been killed in the conflict by June 2015.
Jihadist groups
These are groups dedicated to ‘holy war’ to enforce their version of Islam on others. The most notorious is Daesh (so called ‘Islamic State’).
The country’s Sunni regime put down protests early in 2011 with Saudi help. Thousands of political protesters have susbequently been jailed in a country with a Sunni regime but a Shia majority in the population.
Elections took place in Iraq, Saudi Arabia held its first municipal elections since the 1960s, women were given the vote in Kuwait, Egypt’s President Mubarak promised to hold free presidential elections and protests took place in Beirut.

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