This article is a summary from Democracy in a Day, Capitalism in a Decade: the Arab Spring as a Two-Stage Political, then Economic Revolution, written by Conner Hoke.

Beginning in 2010, the entire Arab world was rocked by unprecedented popular protests and uprisings that upended the region’s political equilibrium. Relying on what is known as the authoritarian bargain, Middle Eastern autocrats heavily subsidize their populations with oil and natural gas revenue to guarantee their sovereign authority and ensure political docility. However, this governance method has become increasingly economically and politically untenable as Arab populations continue to swell with bulges of highly-educated, hard to placate, socially connected youth facing staggering unemployment and demanding increased political participation.

Protestor in Tahrir Square, Cairo during the Egyptian Revolution in 2011. (MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/GettyImages)

While the Middle East has historically been an authoritarian stronghold, these protests, known collectively as the Arab Spring, shook the regional social contract to its core, forcing leaders to reckon with the uncomfortable unsustainability of their precarious grasps on power. Traditionally compliant Arab populations throughout the Middle East were beginning their experiment with democracy and trying to influence change in order to bring about representative government. While many protests fizzled due to the onset of proxy conflicts, political Islam, economic stopgaps, and brutal civil wars, the revolts in five countries – Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, and Libya – escalated into full-scale revolutions. Of those five, Syria, Yemen, and Libya devolved into civil wars that spawned some of the worst humanitarian and refugee crises in human history and still remain active war zones today. However, Tunisia and Egypt were both able to depose their respective despotic leaders, though each country currently faces drastically different situations. Even though the rest of the Arab world has remained largely politically stagnant in the decade since the original uprisings, the Arab Spring protests still represent a turning point for democratic ideals in the Middle East.

While the Arab Spring might appear over, many underlying factors suggest that this pause may have only delayed the inevitable. The Arab Spring is not a movement born out of spur-of-the-moment yearning for democracy. Rather, the Arab Spring is a decades long awaited culmination resulting from unsustainable economics, political repression, lack of opportunity, historical division, severe social conservatism, and changing demographics that has combined to form a movement with the potential to reshape the modern Middle East. 

Even today, Tunisia and Egypt are still dealing with the aftermath of the Arab Spring’s dramatic changes. Tunisia is busy sorting out democracy’s many growing pains by working to restore much needed faith in government institutions while slowly developing their government’s competency and legitimacy. In Egypt, authoritarian rule returned after a brief experiment with democracy that was ultimately unable to withstand the pressure from previous authoritarian institutions and a bout with political Islam. 

Creating a survey of the Arab Spring, the report lays out compelling evidence that the Arab Spring is far from finished based on a comprehensive investigation into several underlying factors that explain what caused the region wide revolts. It explores why the movement occurred when it did, what happened specifically in the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, and analyzes their subsequent attempts at democratic state-building. In examining these cases, the report argues that the Arab Spring is a two-step transformation, consisting of a successful political revolution preceding the initiation of necessary economic reorganization. Completion of these two sequential and codependent stages will take several years as new governments haltingly establish their capacity to govern, yet they are the critical checkpoints signaling the establishment of a viable economic, political, and social foundation. Furthermore, the report identifies historical and geopolitical culprits responsible for the civil wars in other revolting states, creates a contextual basis for the Arab Spring in the contemporary Middle East, and establishes parameters for successful Arab Spring revolutions that provide insight into the Arab democratic movement’s potential for continued success.

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