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Beyond the uprisings: Pragmatic lessons from the Arab Spring

  • Farea Al-Muslimi

    Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme

    باحث مشارك، برنامج الشرق الأوسط وشمال أفريقيا، تشاتام هاوس

  • Basem Mahmoud

    Programme Manager, Chatham House

  • Hayder Al-Shakeri

    Research Fellow, Chatham House

    زميل أبحاث، تشاتام هاوس

Nearly 15 years after the Arab Spring, the countries that experienced those uprisings have either slipped back into the grip of authoritarian leaders or are grappling with significant instability. For those individuals at the forefront of protest movements that advocated wide-ranging reforms, the inability to realize the goals of the uprisings has triggered a process of reflection.  

To better understand the perspectives of those who participated in protest movements across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, Chatham House organized a series of dialogues over the past year. These discussions convened a dozen activists, both currently and previously active, alongside researchers, various young leaders, and civil society representatives from countries that were part of the Arab Spring. 

While recognizing the differences between each context, the discussions identified three common lessons that future movements in the region should learn in order to increase the chances of attaining their goals towards more inclusive models of governance, both now and in the future. First, protest movements failed to translate into sustained political participation, especially of youth. Second, the protest movements neglected economic policy and its relevance to the daily life of citizens. Third, the movements shied away from critical discussions relating to the security sector. The failure to effectively and collectively engage in these areas left a legacy of missed opportunities that is keenly felt to this day. 

A lack of sustained political engagement by young people 

A critical failure of the Arab Spring was that young leaders’ engagement in the protest movements did not carry them through to sustained political participation beyond the street-level protests. While youth were prominent in the protests, their involvement in post-uprising governance was minimal. In Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference and Sudan’s transitional government, for example, youth representation was largely symbolic, which significantly limited their influence on the wider political landscape. In Egypt, the youth movement, initially a driving force, was eclipsed by more organized groups like the Islamists, traditional elites and the military. This was in part because youth groups were divided along all kinds of fault lines, but was also due to their condescending attitude towards politics. 

The reluctance to engage in everyday politics was a fundamental flaw of the Arab Spring movements. Young leaders often misjudged the historical nature of their situation, underestimating the necessity of addressing mundane governance issues on a daily basis. Engaging in everyday politics was often dismissed as ‘dirty politics’ that were beneath the protest movements’ revolutionary goals. The failure to engage allowed traditional elites and/or militias to seize the initiative, steering events in their favour.  

For example, in Egypt during the 18-day sit-in at Tahrir Square, which lasted until Hosni Mubarak resigned as president on 11 February 2011, numerous meetings took place between youth leaders and key Egyptian and international figures. One such meeting happened in the Arab League building overlooking Tahrir Square, where the then Secretary-General, Amr Mousa, advised the group to go down immediately and start forming a political party out of the massive mobilization. However, the ‘revolutionaries’ dismissed this advice, asserting that this was a time for revolution, not for politics.  

Neglecting the everyday economic concerns  

The gap between the forward-looking transformational ideas of the protest movements and the everyday economic circumstances in which citizens found themselves was vast. The protest movements had a lack of answers to immediate challenges, which undermined their effectiveness in political debate. For example, the political parties formed in the wake of the 2019 protests in Iraq failed to present alternative economic strategies to the country’s bloated public sector. Due to politically sanctioned corruption, the number of public civil servants – many of whom contribute minimally in terms of the actual work they do – has since surged by almost 1 million. This increase has only added to the already cumbersome rentier and bureaucratic state structure, further straining Iraq’s economic system. 

Nor did the protests’ political agendas pay enough attention to other issues that clearly affect the populations of these countries. Not a single movement made climate change a priority, despite its severe impact, killing and displacing tens of thousands across the MENA region. None has proposed a vision that includes climate change in its political literature for the future, nor have any movements adopted a mitigation and resilience-building strategy at negotiation tables in countries that are going through peace processes. Although not a prominent demand of protesters, the impact of climate change on people’s lives is more evident today than ever before. 

To create lasting change and truly resonate with the needs of their societies, future revolutionary movements should adopt a multifaceted approach that prioritizes people’s economic and social concerns, a focus often absent in past political movements. Some examples include gradual and sensitive economic reforms, combating corruption by creating strong laws and oversight structures, public services policies, social safety policies, incorporating and supporting informal economies, climate change and sustainability issues, and solutions for inflated state bureaucracies. These concerns were frequently overlooked as previous movements focused exclusively on civic and political reforms, missing the broader spectrum of changes needed to foster sustainable development and genuine societal improvement. 

By addressing these key areas, future revolutionary movements could develop a comprehensive reform agenda that not only tackles the root causes of discontent but also builds a broad base of support among citizens. This approach could help to ensure that the movement remains relevant and is capable of effecting lasting, positive change. The next generation of political leaders must focus on such practical problems, including those concerning governance and policymaking, to build a stable and democratic future. 

Failure to reshape citizens’ relationship with the security sector  

One of the most significant oversights of the protest movements in the region was their failure to engage in discussions about the security sector. This oversight was manifested in two key ways: first, the genuine need for security within communities was underestimated; and second, the protesters failed to develop a comprehensive plan for gradual and meaningful security sector reforms.  

In Egypt, during the early days of the uprising, protesters targeted and dismantled many key security buildings and police stations. However, they made a critical error of only proposing a vague roadmap for security sector reform instead of a concrete plan to redefine the public’s relationship with the police. The youth movements mistakenly believed that communities would remain supportive of the protest movement and its abstract ideals, despite enduring a state of chaos. By contrast, the elected government led by the Muslim Brotherhood prioritized control of security institutions over reforming them, a decision that ultimately had severe consequences.  

In Tunisa, the catalyst for the uprising was a tragic incident involving police abuse, which prompted a local citizen to set himself on fire in protest. Despite this stark illustration of the need for security reform, the police and security sectors in Tunisia remained among the least-reformed throughout the country’s transitional governments. This lack of progress persisted until the 2021 coup by Kais Saied, which has ended up dismantling one of the Arab Spring’s most progressive democracies in the very country that sparked the regional movement. Hence, the lesson here is that security reform is essential for the sustainability of any movement aiming for long-term and robust freedoms and political change.  

Looking forward 

Of course, none of this is to underestimate the array of factors that contributed to the faltering of the pro-reform movements during and since the Arab Spring. Interventions by regional authoritarian regimes played a significant role. Additionally, the weak state structures that easily crumbled further exacerbated the instability and complicated transitional efforts.  

However, the three lessons above reinforce the simple fact that revolutionary movements, despite being radical by design, cannot become disconnected from the concerns and interests of the wider population if they are to succeed. As one activist who participated in the 2011 protests put it: ‘we were busy debating Marx and Adam Smith while regimes and religious groups were discussing sewage system problems in poor neighbourhoods’. For any protest movement with ambitions of transforming political systems, ignoring everyday issues comes at a cost.  

The activists’ reflections on the lessons of the last decade and their willingness to embrace more sustained and pragmatic approaches open up a series of opportunities for continued advocacy for reform, particularly in key policy areas such as the impact of climate change, minorities’ inclusion, governance, and economic issues. Future Chatham House dialogues with activists will seek to explore how such policy advocacy can and should be pursued across the region.