How Tunisia Could still be the Arab Spring* Success** Story

25 August 2021, 1010 EDT

Everyone is (rightly) thinking about Afghanistan, but I’m still thinking of Tunisia.

Each fall I teach a Middle East politics class. And each fall I end our discussion on the Arab Spring with a debate over whether the Arab Spring actually mattered. Most students end up arguing that it didn’t, or that its overall effects were negative. But they exclude Tunisia from this gloomy picture; they see it as the success story.

This came to mind as reports have emerged that Kais Saied, Tunisia’s President, has indefinitely extended his emergency powers, which effectively concentrates all power in his hands. This comes a month after Saied dissolved parliament and removed the Prime Minister from power.

It seemed like Tunisia’s status as the Arab Spring’s success story–the only democracy to emerge from that wave of protests–has been erased. However, I remember my counterpoint to my students’ pessimism: even if the Arab Spring didn’t produce durable democracies, it did normalize social mobilization and regime accountability. While the events in Tunisia are discouraging, they still may represent the success of the Arab Spring, depending on how we define each of these terms.

*What was the Arab Spring

When protests erupted in Tunisia in late 2010, then spread throughout the region, many were cautiously excited. When Tunisia’s ruler fled, followed by Egypt’s, then Libya’s, many thought of the protests that swept through Eastern Europe beginning in 1988 and ending with the fall of the Soviet Union. Echoing earlier waves of pro-democracy protests, these Middle East protests became known as the Arab Spring.

Problems soon emerged with this terminology. It wasn’t one uniform wave sweeping across the region. Clear differences in the nature and impact of the protests became apparent. Despite initial regime transitions, the protests weren’t causing all authoritarian leaders to fall. Some attempted to reform and others dug in, while some states broke apart in civil war.

So scholars began using different terms. Marc Lynch referred to the events as the “Arab Uprising” or uprisings, and later used “new Arab Wars” to discuss the fallout. Jason Brownlee, Tarek Masoud and Andrew Reynolds referred to “pathways of repression and reform” to characterize the differing trajectories of protests.

The most accurate way to approach the Arab Spring, then, is not as a mass wave of democratization or unity among Arab peoples. Instead, it is an unprecedented increase in collective social mobilization against previously stable regimes. The durable authoritarianism of Middle East states involved not just their ability to stay in power, but their ability to control political discourse and effect compliance among their people. This can be seen in studies such as Wedeen’s Ambiguities of Domination. Those Middle East experts who attempted to conduct post mortems on their field’s inability to predict or explain the Arab Spring often pointed to this factor. Greg Gause highlighted, among other factors, “strong pan-Arab sentiments” and experts’ failure to identify earlier “communal waves.” Eva Bellin revisited her influential explanations for Arab authoritarianism, discussing the significance of emotions and identities leading to extraordinary mobilization.

Rather than approaching the Arab Spring as a wave of protests that threatened to bring down regimes, then, we should think of it as an increase in the extent to which Middle Eastern societies were able to engage in contentious politics against their states.

The impacts of the Arab Spring should be measured in terms of the social interactions it produced.

**What is “success?”

So that’s what I mean by the Arab Spring. What is success?

The common assumption is that the Arab Spring failed. Regime transitions in Egypt and Libya led to repression and civil war, respectively. Other states fell apart into enduring civil wars of their own, like Syria and Yemen. Others managed to reform and repress their way out of trouble, like Jordan and Morocco.

We can see this in some of the later books on the Arab Spring. I mentioned Lynch’s “new Arab wars.” Steve Cook wrote “False Dawn” in 2017 (which I assign in my class).

From the perspective of durable regime changes, that’s clearly the right framing. And since that was how policymakers approached the Arab Spring, it’s useful to point out their errors (which Cook did well in his book).

But from the perspective of a durable increase in contentious politics, the picture is different. Egypt’s military stepped in because a Muslim Brotherhood President was elected and significant segments of the population rose up to challenge him. Syria’s government may still be in power, but it is far from the stability it once enjoyed. Major protests have broken out in Algeria and Iraq.

That is, the collective mobilization that started the Arab Spring is still continuing. Lynch has noted this. He argued it is “wrong” to say the Arab Spring failed because many previously stable authoritarian states remain unsteady. More recently, he claimed the Arab Spring “never ended,” pointing to these ongoing mobilizations.

I have been working on a similar argument in some of my work. I received a grant from Notre Dame’s Global Religion Research Institute to study religious politics in the post-Arab Spring Middle East. The grant went towards building a social network dataset I can use to get a more dynamic sense of the impacts of the region. That is, instead of measuring changes in public opinion or regime type I am looking at changes in the nature and intensify of interactions across and within states. The impacts of the Arab Spring then, will be measured in terms of the social interactions it produced. (I haven’t published on this yet, as I’ve been working on my book manuscript, but I’ll be turning back to it soon; you can find working papers at my Researchgate).

We are seeing a transformation in the nature of Middle East politics; leaders cannot distract their people with revolutionary ideologies, tensions with Israel, or anti-Americanism. They will have to provide.

How could Tunisia still be a success?

So if we’re going to define success and the Arab Spring in this manner, how could Tunisia still be a success? It has to do with the nature of Saied’s coup.

This wasn’t a small military cabal or group of guerrillas overthrowing the government. It wasn’t even a mass revolt that was later captured by one ideological faction, as in the Iranian revolution. Saied’s coup was in response to massive protests against the government’s inability to keep the economy going or fight corruption. In fact, many Tunisians cheered his move. In some ways, this is similar to Morsi’s coup in Egypt, which was a response to widespread protests against the Muslim Brotherhood movement. They were both coups, and thus bad. But they were coups tied up with popular mobilization.

Remember, one of the surprising aspects of the Arab Spring was its increase in collective action. If post-Arab Spring authoritarian entrenchment is a response to public pressure, that suggests the collective action is continuing. This is the case even if leaders like Saied or Morsi cared little about the people’s demands. The people aren’t getting democracy, but they are forcing their leaders to acknowledge their demands, which is something.

I don’t necessarily think this is the first step in a long-term process towards democracy. And the fact that these protests tend to represent deep polarization–often between secular and Islamists elements of society–doesn’t bode well, as it could enable regimes to increase control over society in order to “protect” one side against the other. But I think we are seeing a transformation in the nature of Middle East politics (or at least a return to an earlier period), in which leaders cannot count on revolutionary ideologies, tensions with Israel, or anti-Americanism to distract people from the regimes’ failures. They will have to provide for their people, or face more protests.

Am I being too optimistic, giving too much ground? The works referenced here are narrow, are there other studies on post-Arab Spring Middle East politics I should have included?