Preliminary Theoretical and Empirical Deliberation

By Philipp O. Amour

The purpose of this section is to sum up the concept of revolution and to distinguish a revolution from different forms of social disturbances.



Grounds for a revolution in Arab States

The different Arab Spring uprisings had different triggering incidents, yet the broad parameters were similar: a political, economic and social plight.

A mix of these underlying factors increased public dissension towards the political elite and constituted a common ground for revolutionary actions at different levels.

In the second half of the 20 th century, Arab states came out of an era of colonialism into the status of independence that brought a spirit of many expectations for Arab polities.

Revolutionary leaders, i.e., heads of state such as Gamal Abdel Nasser and Muammar Gaddafi, set their own domestic and foreign policies, which had essential implications on their own polities.

Initially, revolutionary leaders and succeeding head of states made promises to their polities regarding social justice, good governance, and welfare. However, the rulers did not keep their promises regarding political and socio-economic changes.

Instead, rulers often applied tyranny, wasted national resources on self-serving affairs, suppressed their own people and rewarded their high-ranking supporters, the exploiters of their own people. Political grievances stand behind the Arab Spring movement.

Moreover, the structural challenges besetting the Arab states during the 20th century came into play in the Arab Spring movement. Arab states have been going through rapid and chaotic social change.

Populations have been growing and becoming more urbanized. The birth rates continued to rise in Arab states with major socio-economic implications. At the same time, the production of goods and services did not grow along with the population.

As a result, not enough local food was available; prices increased; and the majority of the people could not afford the increasing prices of basic goods. Due to the global 2008 financial crisis, most Arab states faced economic crisis and could no longer sustain the subvention of prices as they used to.

Uprisings and grain riots in previous decades in the Middle East are examples of peoples’ opposition against their own conditions/bad governance. The absence of incomes or low incomes, in addition to high levels of inequalities, were implications of such structural problems.

Lower-income states in the Middle East became increasingly dependent on international funds (e.g., International Monetary Fund) that conditioned their financing on neo-liberal reforms.

The rise of the neoliberal economy in many Arab states was promising in the beginning. However, at a later stage, economic liberalization resulted in an increase in the pre-existing social inequality, increased poverty and political conflict.

Failed economic reforms increased the already widespread frustration and disappointment among the younger generations and encouraged demands for political reforms. An exclusive circle of politicians and businesspeople controlled national resources and maximized their benefits to the disadvantages of the majority of the polity.

Corruption was endemic. Such a policy of economic liberalization created rivalries among the political elite and businesspeople, who became potential supporters for a prospective revolution.

One further aspect is important. Due to the dependence of lower-income states on their international patron/funder, they frequently followed a foreign policy that was not in harmony with national objectives or transnational issues. Such a foreign policy course estranged rulers from their citizens, which decreased public support.

These socio-economic insufficiencies were indissolubly linked with and empowered revolutionary attitudes and actions in the wake of the Arab Spring movement.

Apart from socio-economic and political grievances, one further aspect must be mentioned. Globalization has spread information and communication technologies, Hollywood and Bollywood movies, and liberal values around the Middle East and in the Arab states.

Modern technologies have shown old and young Arabs novel perspectives, alternative life styles and political realities; they have demonstrated how people elsewhere are living in welfare and democracy.

The younger generation is growing up with expectations of social equality, the right to job opportunities and a better future, and basic respect and decency – similarly to generations elsewhere.

These factors explain to a certain degree why people went to the street in different states in the Middle East and demanded socio-economic and political changes.

Over the decades, public discontent toward the authoritarian leadership style of rulers has been increasing. Citizens in opposition wanted to put an end to the decades of political suppression and economic hardship.

The Arab Spring movement delivered such a context. In contrast to previous turmoil, the protagonists of the Arab Spring movement are not only the young but also the educated.

The unifying beliefs for many protesters were social justice, good governance and job opportunities. The vision was a better future. In the initial phase, the Arab Spring uprisings were leaderless and did not sweep out of oppositional political parties.

Carriers of prospective revolutions encountered a severe disequilibrium against domestic socio-economic and political conditions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria.

This level of opposition seems to distinguish the quality and nature of these specific uprisings and their outcomes from those of other cases. Revolutionary brokers and public groups, such as pre-existing NGOs and political opposition groups, contributed to the expansion of revolutionary actions into large-scale cases.

Internet networks and social media applications delivered carriers of revolutionary actions with tools to coordinate their revolutionary energy.

The role of the Aljazeera channel and social network applications seems to have been important in spreading the revolutionary funk across borders and mobilizing people for collective actions.

Large-scale activities lasted long because the military refrained, in the cases of Tunisia and Egypt, from taking sides. With time, more political and public figures alienated themselves from the authoritarian ruler.

In Yemen and Libya, too, large-scale revolutionary activities took place. However, Saleh and Gadhafi had time to prepare themselves for potential revolution; their security services stood on their side, which stalled the progress of revolutionary actions.

In both cases, however, regional contexts were favorable for a shift leading to an end of Gadhafi’s (NATO intervention) and Saleh’s eras (regional mediation).

The cases of Syria and Bahrain reveal a further pattern of revolutionary processes by which the army took the side of the regime, along with regional (Iran and Hezbollah in the case of Syria and the GCC in the case of Bahrain) and international allies (Russia in the case of Syria).

The matrix of Syria’s political relations to Iran and Russia go back to the Cold War, in addition to its delicate geopolitical position that makes regional and international indifference unlikely. Thus, the Syrian regime proved less dispensable than others in the region.

This analysis presents the empirical regularities of the factors behind the occurrence of the abovementioned Arab Spring uprisings. Such factors may explain why particular would-be revolutions occurred.

However, they do not illuminate why would-be revolutions did not arise in other states in comparable contexts or even in Arab states with more far-reaching socio-economic and political hardships than those in the cases involved.

Why did the Arab Spring movement fail?

As the transformation theory demonstrates, the revolutions with a high level of success potentiality are those based on the elimination of the causes of uprisings including social injustice, unemployment, and poverty.

Thus, the post-authoritarian elites in the Arab Spring states had to lead the state into social justice and good governance and create job opportunities and improve the economy within a shorter period of time to gain public support and leverage over the established old guard.

In retrospect, this has proven a hard task bearing in mind the inherited challenges and the performance of the newly elected political parties.

The legacy of authoritarianism during the second stage of would-be revolution proved too great; deep-rooted socio-economic structural problems challenged post-authoritarian elites.

In such transition states, dysfunctional state institutions were incapable of withstanding endemic socio-economic challenges within a short period of time; weak – if not absent – NGOs could not aid the success of the prospective revolution.

Nota bene, election and a resultant shift in state leadership set Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen on a democratic path; however, such developments are not a guarantee for a successful revolution (or a transition period).

Such a process (if it proceeds without breaks) requires generations. It is now clear that the transition periods of the potential revolutions in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen could not easily or quickly overcome the obstructive structural legacies of the states’ authoritarian systems, including the role and dominance of the army and old guard, in addition to regional and international dependency.

The Arab Spring movements in these states have dismantled the state leadership; they have disrupted and weakened the old regimes to different degree. However, they did not put an end to them. In these states, the military did not step back from the economy and from politics.

The old guard, including high-ranking officers in the army, remained to enjoy social privileges and economic profits. Evident cases in these states demonstrate that the novel leadership elite had to withstand the traditional and conventional elite including the old guard and their conspiracy/cooperation with regional partners for self-serving rationale. Yemen and Libya are two examples.

The old guard including officers from the army did not attempt to stabilize the transition period by backing up the newly elected political elite.

At the same time, the inexperienced novel political elite could not win the support of the people and establish a weight against the old guard due to their lack of know-know of socio-economic transition and good governance, among other reasons.


Philipp O. Amour is Assistant Professor of International Relations (IR) and Middle East Studies (MES) at Sakarya University’s Middle East Institute.


The Source: Chapter 8 in ‘The Middle East Reloaded Revolutionary Changes, Power Dynamics and Regional Rivalries Since the Arab Spring’. Philipp O. Amour (Ed.). Academica Press. London-Washington.


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