Why it’s Time to Retire the Term 'Arab Spring'

Published March 19th, 2019 - 03:06 GMT
Protests in Algeria in March 2019 (AFP/FILE)
Protests in Algeria in March 2019 (AFP/FILE)


“We are at the dawn of an Arab Spring,” columnist Charles Krauthammer once exclaimed in the pages of the Washington Post.

“The first bloom of democracy in Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine and throughout the greater Middle East,” is flowering. Another prominent thinker praised “the tsunami of freedom...[has] swept away the belief… that freedom is simply not possible,” in the Middle East.

These thoughts were not expressed in 2019 or even 2011, but in 2005 when neo-conservative policy makers and analysts thought the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq would spark a cascade of organic democratic movements throughout the region to topple authoritarian regimes.

Though the movements never materialized, the term ‘Arab Spring’ stuck.

Then 2011 happened and the term Arab Spring was deployed to describe a spontaneous, overwhelming wave of protests that took the world by storm.

Similarly spontaneous, cross-regional protests are again breaking out in 2019 in Algeria, Sudan, Syria, Jordan and Palestine among other, which has prompted many commentators to herald these movements to be yet another Arab Spring.

As this label is used each time, and will likely be used ad nauseum to describe popular movements in the Middle East, it’s worth pausing and questioning its utility.

The grievances around which these protests are organized—austerity, corruption, rising cost of basic food and utilities, have been served as a rally cry for movements in the region for the past half-century. Calling each an “Arab Spring” belies the cyclical, repetitive nature of these problems and simplifies the demands of the protesters.

It may be time to drop the catch-all term ‘Arab Spring,’ it relies on an ahistorical understanding of political upheavals in the Middle East.


Breaking Down What is Happening in the Arab World Right Now

Mass protests in Algeria are ongoing as of March 2019 (AFP/FILE)

In Dec 2018, the tripling of bread prices and cuts of pension funds drew thousands of protesters onto the streets of Sudan’s major cities demanding the fall of the government led by Omar al-Bashir, who has ruled for 30 years.

A few months later, hundreds of thousands of Algerians amassed to demonstrate against the country’s ailing president seeking a fifth term in power.

All the while, Jordanians have taken to the streets of Amman, demanding economic reforms including more public sector job opportunities, tax reform and an end to austerity measures related to bread, oil and energy subsidies.

Smaller protests have broken out as well. In March 2019, hundreds marched through Deraa, Syria, the first city that protested against the Syrian regime in 2011, to protest the re-erection of a statue memorializing Hafez al-Assad, the former ruler of the country.

A subtler protest too has caused controversy in Egypt: Moataz Matar a popular TV host, accused the state of kidnapping two of his brothers and their families. Dissidents then wrote, “You are not alone Moataz, I swear to god. More than 50 million Egyptians are with you. Don’t be scared,” on Egyptian banknotes.



Demonstrations against Hamas’ corruption and violence in Gaza broke out as well, prompting a brutal crackdown from the extremist group that has ruled over the besieged territory for more than a decade.

Commentators have wasted no time comparing this wave of popular movements to the ones that changed the face of the region in 2011.

“Are we witnessing a new wave of the Arab Spring?” Asked David Hearst of the Middle East Eye. “Is a new Arab Spring on the way?” pondered Ishaan Tharoor in The Washington Post. “Will corruption, cuts and protest produce a new Arab spring?” posited The Guardian. The pieces collectively frame these movements to be foreshadows to a much larger and ambitious project to instill democracy and accountability in the troubled region.

The temptation to draw the comparison has some substance. In 2011, demonstrators explicitly demanded the end of regimes ruling over their respective countries, and the same is happening today.

Moreover, both in 2011 and 2018-19, the protesters seem to be emboldened by the ongoing movements in other countries. Stephen McInerney, the executive director for the Project of Middle East Democracy (POMED), explained that “certainly what happens in one Arab country is seen elsewhere, and there are common frustrations shared across the region.”

“As we saw most vividly in 2011, when popular movements appear to gain traction in one country, it emboldens citizens in other countries,” he added.


It’s Time to Retire the Term “Arab Spring”

Ongoing protests in Khartoum, Sudan in March 2019 (AFP/FILE)

It’s natural that boiling tensions inside countries and ongoing protests are giving way to the overarching claim that a new Arab Spring is underway. But that simplistic framing misunderstands the nature of political grievances and upheavals in the region. After all, they are similar to the protests in 2011, just as the 2011 protests are similar to those that happened in the decades before, and will be similar to those that happen in the future.

Since 2011, it has become the discursive norm to label each and every individual protest a sign of a much-mythologized ‘Arab Spring 2.0’ designed to finally achieve what those in 2011 did not. Unrest in 2016 and 2017 were ordained to be the forewarnings of a new Arab Spring. Expanding the term into a global catch-all for protests, Venezuela was called the site of ‘The New Arab Spring” in 2014.

A ‘Spring’ implies in its history and usage, the new flowering of a spontaneous, overwhelming grassroots revolution that permanently changes the sociopolitical landscape of the countries and even the region. It paints a picture of a people awakened to the oppression they face and marching through the streets to demand justice. This hopeful, empowering framing lends the ‘Arab Spring’ to be a compelling, attractive term.

Adorning each wave of protests with the title ‘Arab Spring’ seems to be an attempt to do those movements justice, to empower them, to support their causes and to tie their struggles to the same ones that captured the world’s imagination in 2011.



But Arabs have been ‘awake’ to the corruption, misuse and abuse regimes have enacted upon them for decades, and have organized against it accordingly.

“The various immediate causes and grievances—rising prices, unemployment, or the failure of governments to ensure that basic services such as electricity and trash disposal are adequately provided—all have their roots in the nature of corrupt authoritarianism that dominates the regimes of the region,” McInerney of POMED argued. Many of these regimes have existed for decades and replaced similarly-styled authoritarians before them.


A Spontaneous Spring or a Decades-Long Struggle?

Egypt during the 1977 bread riots (Wikimedia)

Hikes in bread prices, one of the major push factors in the 2011 Arab Spring and a hallmark feature of regimes financially struggling, has resulted in political instability for decades. In 1983-84, waves of protesters stormed through Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco only to be violently put down.

A few years later in 1988-89, thousands more demonstrated against bread pieces in Algeria and Jordan: they too were met by state violence.

More recently, the same protests and chants that can be heard in Jordan and Sudan were yelled in the beginning of 2018. At both times and in both countries, the government cut bread and fuel subsidies in order to comply with loan conditions set by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Egypt in 2017 also saw thousands take to Twitter and the streets to protest against similarly price hikes in bread following a government removal of subsidies, though the IMF continually insists it did not recommend these governments cut subsidies servicing poor and working class families.

“The global fight for social justice and economic self determination is an ongoing process,” said Sara Ababneh, Assistant Professor at the University of Jordan's Center for Strategic Studies.

“It was at the heart of the Arab Uprisings of 2011-12 and it is at the heart of protests now. In the age of globalization, people around the globe are trying to resist the negative impacts of neo-liberalism and the precariousness in which it has left them.”



To look at these continual mobilizations and isolate the movements happening now as an “Arab Spring 2.0” ignores the continual, inter-generational struggle for economic and political rights that has pushed continuously at the doors of old regimes. In their place, an alternate history is given whereby Arabs were resting, and were woken up.

“I don't know if I would call these protests a resurrection of 2011. I also don't know what benefit it would have to think of this as a resurrection, discursively,” Ababneh said.

Deeming them a new ‘Arab Spring’ also papers over the fact that many of the protests happening now are occurring in countries whose regimes escaped relatively unharmed from 2011. “I am skeptical of the idea of a regional ‘resurgence,’” said Heiko Wimmen, project director of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon for the International Crisis Group.

“In Algeria, Jordan, and Sudan the regimes managed to dodge the original 2011 wave. The confrontation was avoided but popular discontent was not crushed, and the reasons for it not addressed. So this will continue to come back, until either a showdown happens or things change.”

In other words, the core grievances that inspired protests in 2011 were never addressed, meaning it was only a matter of time before protesters expressed them again. It is less an ‘Arab Spring 2.0’ than a continuation of 2011’s protests, which were in themselves continuations of protests that occurred in the years before.

If we were to announce these movements as the Arab Spring 2.0, we would doubtless need to declare their successor-movements the Arab Springs 3.0 and 4.0, until it becomes too unwieldy a sequence to maintain.

To call each iteration of protests in the region a new “Spring” oversimplifies both the current protests’ roots and the nature of political movements in the Middle East, imbuing each with optimistic imagery of the masses yearning for secular democracies without ever getting to the heart of their grievances that are often economic in nature, and have been the source of much of the region’s popular movements since the region gained independence from France and Britain.

These movements and the slogans of poor and working class Arabs have persisted through decades of regime rule: their continuation into 2019 speaks to both the perseverance of the region’s downtrodden people and the endurance of the powerful elite behind the policies against which millions have rallied.

Ending practices of corruption and cronyism requires movements that aren’t framed as spontaneous ‘Springs’ of youth but as constituent parts of a broad-based, durable intergenerational call for justice from below. 

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