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The Reasons for the Arab Spring

The Root Causes of the Arab Awakening in 2011

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What were the reasons for the Arab Spring in 2011? Read about the top ten developments that both triggered the revolt and helped it confront the might of the police state:

1. Arab Youth: Demographic Time Bomb

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Arab regimes have been sitting on a demographic time bomb for decades. According to the UN Development Program, the population in Arab countries more than doubled between 1975 and 2005 to 314 million. In Egypt, two-thirds of the population is under 30. Political and economic development in most Arab states simply could not keep up with the staggering increase in the population, as the ruling elites’ incompetence helped lay the seeds for their own demise.

2. Unemployment

The Arab world has a long history of struggle for political change, from leftist groups to Islamist radicals. But the protests that started in 2011 could not have evolved into a mass phenomenon had it not been for the widespread discontent over unemployment and low living standards. The anger of university graduates forced to drive taxis to survive, and families struggling to provide for their children transcended ideological divisions.

3. Ageing Dictatorships

The economic situation could stabilize over time under a competent and credible government, but by the end of the 20th century most Arab dictatorships were utterly bankrupt both ideologically and morally. When the Arab Spring happened in 2011, Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak had been in power since 1980, Tunisia’s Ben Ali since 1987, while Muammar al-Qaddafi ruled over Libya for 42 years.

Most of the population was deeply cynical about the legitimacy of these ageing regimes, although until 2011 most remained passive out of fear of the security services, and due to an apparent lack of better alternatives or fear of an Islamist takeover).

4. Corruption

Economic hardships can be tolerated if the people believe there is a better future ahead, or feel that the pain is at least somewhat equally distributed. Neither was the case in the Arab world, where the state-led development gave place to crony capitalism that benefited only a small minority. In Egypt, new business elites collaborated with the regime to amass fortunes unimaginable to the majority of the population surviving on $2 a day. In Tunisia, no investment deal was closed without a kick-back to the ruling family.

5. National Appeal of the Arab Spring

The key to the mass appeal of the Arab Spring was its universal message. It called on the Arabs to take back their country away from the corrupt elites, a perfect mixture of patriotism and social message. Instead of ideological slogans, the protesters wielded national flags, along with the iconic rallying call that became the symbol of the uprising across the region: “The People Want the Fall of the Regime!”. The Arab Spring united, for a brief time, both secularists and Islamists, left wing groups and advocates of liberal economic reform, middle classes and the poor.

6. Leaderless Revolt

Although backed in some countries by youth activist groups and unions, the protests were initially largely spontaneous, not linked to a particular political party or an ideological current. That made it difficult for the regime to decapitate the movement by simply arresting a few troublemakers, a situation that the security forces were completely unprepared for.

7. Social Media

The first mass protest in Egypt was announced on Facebook by an anonymous group of activists, who in a few days managed to attract tens of thousands of people. The social media proved a powerful mobilization tool that helped the activists to outwit the police.

8. Rallying Call of the Mosque

The most iconic and best-attended protests took place on Fridays, when Muslim believers head to the mosque for the weekly sermon and prayers. Although the protests were not religiously inspired, the mosques became the perfect starting point for mass gatherings. The authorities could cordon off the main squares and target universities, but they could not close down all mosques.

9. Bungled State Response

The response of Arab dictators to the mass protests was predictably awful, going from dismissal to panic, from police brutality to piecemeal reform that came too little too late. Attempts to put down the protests through the use of force backfired spectacularly. In Libya and Syria it led to civil war. Every funeral for the victim of state violence only deepened the anger and brought more people to the street.

10. Contagion Effect

Within a month of the downfall of the Tunisian dictator in January 2011, the protests spread to almost every Arab country, as people copied the tactics of the revolt, though with varying intensity and success. Broadcast live on Arab satellite channels, the resignation in February 2011 of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, one of the most powerful Middle Eastern leaders, broke the wall of fear and changed the region forever.

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