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MENA: After 10 years, Arab Spring re-run unlikely

Table of Contents

  • The Arab Spring, now ten years on, generally had a greater positive impact in Arab countries that weren’t touched by protests than those that were.
  • Middle- and low-income Arab states have been unable to make large strides addressing youth unemployment, which was one of the principal drivers of the protests.
  • Governments have grown better at policing and Arab publics have grown more skeptical of change, both of which dampen the prospect for a return of large-scale protests.

Ten years ago this month, millions of Arabs flooded into the streets to protest their governments. Led by youths changing “No fear!” and “The people demand the fall of the regime!” protesters—and observers—believed that the region was on the brink of a once-in-a-century transformation.

The protestors’ ambitions were met in no Arab country, and three—Syria, Libya, and Yemen—continue to smolder in civil war a decade after anti-government protests began. Egypt is back under the control of retired generals, and the army and security services are even more tightly in control of political and economic life than they were in 2011. Tunisia is the sole example of a dictatorship that yielded to democracy, but politics have been divisive, the economy continues to struggle, and violent protests are once again on the rise.

Ironically, the Arab Spring may have caused the most positive change in countries that it only indirectly touched. Saudi Arabia, for example, has no history of protest movements, but the example of the Arab Spring helped spur the urgency behind Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 Plan, which is squarely directed at the youth demographic that took to Arab streets ten years ago. His MISK Foundation is similarly directed at young people, and the Kingdom’s aggressive development of entertainment venues and events clearly seeks to provide healthy, apolitical diversions to a population that often struggled with boredom and frustration.

The Arab Spring also spurred the United Arab Emirates to create a conscription program for young males that trains them for a year to develop reservoirs of patriotism, counter-radicalization, loyalty, and workforce readiness among a population that the leadership believed was increasingly adrift.

Both countries, as well as other wealthy states in the region, are investing heavily in economic diversification. They hope to invigorate their private sectors to create engines of employment that do not depend on government revenues, which are likely to shrink over the coming two decades as hydrocarbons are increasingly decoupled from economic activity. They not only have the money to train their population, but they can subsidize local businesses to hire nationals in the workforce. Even so, youth unemployment remains stubbornly above 30% in Saudi Arabia, as young people resist taking jobs that they see as not prestigious, insecure, or otherwise undesirable.

Middle- and low-income countries in the region have far fewer resources to invigorate their private sectors, and their results have generally been disappointing. In a recent youth survey in the Arab world, 87% of young Arabs polled said they were concerned about unemployment, but only half had confidence in their government’s approach to the problem. Their ambitions are part of the problem: according to the survey, almost half of young Arabs seek a government job, while just under a quarter seek to work in the private sector.

Long-term unemployment of young people is a persistent problem. Throughout the region, young people spend an average of two years between when they end schooling and when they get their first job. It creates an extended period of boredom and alienation that helped fuel the 2011 protest movements.

Governments throughout the region are unsure what caused the Arab Spring, so they remain unsure how to prevent another one. Governments have reportedly invested handsomely in software to monitor social media, and several governments have teamed with social media influencers to help shape young people’s perceptions. Similarly, internet communications are routinely monitored.

Security services also have less tolerance for protest than they exhibited in the past. Press regulations have been tightened, and the operators of internet sites are increasingly held responsible for what appears on their sites, including in the comments sections.

An even larger inhibitor of large-scale protests, though, is an assessment of the fruits of the efforts a decade ago. While youth protestors had high ambitions, only a tiny number in Tunisia were able to transition into mainstream politics. Some have gone into exile, and others have dropped out of public life. Egypt was, in many ways, at the heart of the idea that revolution could be contagious. On the issues important to Egypt’s revolutionaries – captured by the slogan “bread, freedom, social justice” – most Egyptians feel the country has moved backward and not forward.

Protest movements have emerged again in places like Lebanon and Iraq, and there have been sporadic protests in Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, and Tunisia. Even so, the protestors seem consciously to be seeking evolutionary and not revolutionary change, and even supportive populations are restrained in their support.

The Arab world has not found a solution to the problems that gave rise to the Arab Spring. There seems to be agreement among most young people, however, that more revolutions are not the answer.

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MENA: After 10 years, Arab Spring re-run unlikely

The Arab Spring, now ten years on, generally had a greater positive impact in Arab countries that weren’t touched by protests than those that