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The ‘Arab Spring’ in Global Perspective: Social Movements, Changing Contexts and Political Transitions in the Arab World (2010–2014)

Part of the Palgrave Studies in the History of Social Movements book series (PSHSM)


The objects of this chapter are to investigate the pertinence of the use of the concept of ‘social movement’ for analysing the developments that the Arab world has been the theatre of during the last few years and, through a critical reading of such developments, to re-frame the role of such movements in comparison with other determinants. The definition of a social movement adopted here relates to the existence and action of a network of individuals and groups that share a certain sense of collective destiny and collectively ask for social and political change though various forms of protest. The interpretation of what happened in the Arab world since 2010 is, however, a highly delicate operation, as the processes initiated by social movements often turned into civil wars, coups d’état and/or conservative political developments. Both local claims and international geo-strategy are also entangled in the determination of the various chains of events and so it is difficult to judge the precise role of social movements in sparking the events that led, or not, according to the place, to regime change. The more time passes after the events the more investigators are becoming suspicious regarding the role of social movements. It seems that the season of revolutionary romanticism that accompanied and immediately followed the events is becoming the object of much more circumspect interpretations. A further difficulty is added by the fact that the perception of the existence and characteristics of a civic sphere in the cultural context of the Arab world has been the object of lasting culturalist clichés. The very existence and role in society of expressions coming from the civic sphere is thus to be analysed historically and anthropologically in order to assess the nature of contemporary protests. In this chapter I argue that one of the conditions necessary in order to explain the logics of mobilization of social movements is to re-evaluate the historical dimension of the civic sphere in the region. Contemporary social movements, but also their evolution since 2011, cannot be understood without a look at the history of mobilization in this cultural context. I will thus study here the roots of the civic dimension in the Arab world and follow its developments and limits throughout the events which marked the region since 2010.


  • Civil Society
  • Social Movement
  • Regime Change
  • Arab World
  • Civic Action

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  1. 1.

    See Dieter Rucht’s Chap. 2 in this volume.

  2. 2.

    On this dimension, see: Katerina Dalacoura, ‘The 2011 Uprisings in the Middle-East: Political Change and Geopolitical Implications’, International Affairs 1 (2012), pp. 63–79. See also: Hamid Dabashi, The Arab Spring (2012). The End of Postcolonialism (London: Zed Books, 2005), p. 272.

  3. 3.

    On such a necessity, see also: Augustus R. Norton (ed.), Civil Society in the Middle East (Leiden: Brill, 2005), p. 353.

  4. 4.

    For a presentation of these events: Leila Dakhli, ‘Une lecture de la révolution tunisienne’, Le Mouvement Social 3 (2011), pp. 89–103. For a reflection on the actual nature of the initial incident that sparked the unrest: Abdelhamid Largueche, ‘Cette gifle qui n’a jamais eu lieu … en hommage à Fadia, fille de Sidi Bouzid’, L’autre 12, (2011–2012), pp. 216–217.

  5. 5.

    On these events: Dina Shebata, ‘The Fall of the Pharaoh: How Hosni Mubarak’s Reign Came to an End’, Foreign Affairs 3 (2011), pp. 3–10.

  6. 6.

    See: Vincent Durac, ‘Yemen’s Arab Spring: Democratic Opening or Regime Maintenance?’, Mediterranean Politics 2 (2012), pp. 161–178.

  7. 7.

    This historical parallel has been explored by: Kurt Weyland, ‘The Arab Spring: Why the Surprising Similarities with the Revolutionary Wave of 1848?’, Perspectives on Politics 4 (2012), pp. 917–934.

  8. 8.

    For a such a discussion: Gilbert Achcar, Le peuple veut. Une exploration radicale du soulèvement arabe (Paris: Errance, 2013), p. 432.

  9. 9.

    On such developments: Stephan Rosiny, ‘The Arab Spring: Triggers, Dynamics and Prospects’, GIGA Focus 1 (2012), pp. 1–8.

  10. 10.

    For a reflection on the immediate history of the Arab Spring: Mathieu Guidere, ‘Histoire immédiate du “Printemps arabe”’, Le Débat 168 (2012), pp. 129–145.

  11. 11.

    On the Arab Spring as the expression of a new vision of political action: Sari Hanafi, ‘The Arab Revolutions: the Emergence of a new political subjectivity’, Contemporary Arab Affairs 2 (2012), pp. 98–113. On the role of the youth: Michael Hoffmann and Amaney Jamal, ‘The Youth and the Arab Spring: Cohort Differences and Similarities’, Middle-East Law and Governance 1 (2012), pp. 168–188 and Emma Murphy, ‘Problematizing Arab Youth: Generational Narratives of Systemic Failure’, Mediterranean Politics 1 pp. (2012), pp. 5–22.

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    For theoretical explorations dealing with such difficulties: Olivier Fillieule, Eric Agrikoliansky and Isabelle Sommier (eds), Penser les mouvements sociaux. Conflits sociaux et contestations dans les sociétés contemporaines (Paris: La Découverte, 2010), p. 327. See also: Holger Albrecht (ed.), Contentious Politics in the Middle East: Political Opposition under Authoritarianism (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2010), p. 252; Martin Beck, Cilja Harders and Annette Jünemann (eds), Der Nahe Osten im Umbruch. Zwischen Transformation und Autoritarismus (Wiesbaden: Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, 2009), p. 333; Jerome Beinnin and Frederic Vairel (eds), Social Movements, Mobilization and Contestation in the Middle East and North Africa, (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011), p. 308.

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  14. 14.

    Researchers have illustrated how political Islam used mobilization and networking methods inspired by social movements. See, for example: Quintan Wiktorowicz (ed.), Islamic Activism: A Social Movement Theory Approach (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), p. 316.

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    Mounia Bennani-Chraibi and Olivier Fillieule, Résistances et protestations dans les sociétés musulmanes (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2003), p. 424.

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    Zeinab Abdul-Magd, ‘Occupying Tahrir Square: the Myths and the Realities of the Egyptian Revolution’, South-Atlantic Quarterly 3 (2012), pp. 165–172; Emad El-Din Shahin, ‘The Egyptian Revolution: The Power of Mass Mobilization and the Spirit of Tahrir Square’, The Journal of the Middle-East and Africa 1 (2012), pp. 46–69.

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    Laurent Bonnefoy, ‘Les révolutions sont-elles exportables? L’effet domino à la lumière du cas yéménite’, Mouvements 66 (2011), pp. 100–116.

  31. 31.

    See Britta Baumgarten’s Chap. 22 in this volume.

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    Barrington Moore, Injustice: the Social Bases of Obedience and Revolt (London: Sharpe, 1978), p. 540.

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    Michael Bechir Ayari, S’engager en régime autoritaire: gauchistes et islamistes dans la Tunisie indépendante, (Institut d’études politiques d’Aix en Provence/IREMAM, PhD, 2009); Larbi Chouikha and Vincent Geisser, ‘Retour sur la révolte du bassin minier: retour sur les cinq leçons politiques d’un conflit social inédit’, L’Année du Maghreb 6 (2010), pp. 415–426; Amin Allal, ‘Trajectoires révolutionnaires en Tunisie’, Revue française de science politique 32 (2012), pp. 821–841.

  34. 34.

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    Habibul H. Khondker, ‘Role of the New Media in the Arab Spring’, Globalizations 5 (2011), pp. 675–679.

  36. 36.

    Michael B. Ayari, ‘Non les Révolutions tunisienne et égyptienne ne sont pas des Révolutions 2.0’, Mouvements 66 (2011), pp. 56–61.

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    Marta Severo and Thimothée Giraud, ‘Nouveaux regards sur le cyber-activisme: une cartographie de la blogosphère des révoltes arabes’, Proceeding of the conference: Mouvements sociaux en ligne, cyber activisme et nouvelles formes d’expression en Méditerranée (Tunis: IRMC, 2011).

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    Delphine Pagès El-Karoui and Leila Vignal, ‘Les racines de la révolution du 25 janvier en Egypte: une réflexion géographique’, Echogéo online Journal (2011).

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    Romain Lecompte, ‘Révolution tunisienne et internet: le rôle des médias sociaux’, L’année du Maghreb 7 (2011), pp. 389–418.

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    Olfa Lamloum, Al-Jazira: miroir rebelle et ambigu du monde arabe (Paris: La Découverte 2004), p. 143.

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    Stephan Malthaner, Mobilizing the Faithful: Militant Islamist Groups and their Constituencies (Frankfurt: Campus, 2011), p. 273.

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    Carrie Wickham, ‘The Muslim Brotherhood and Democratic Transition in Egypt’, Middle-East Law and Governance 1–2 (2011), pp. 204–223.

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    John Bradley, After the Arab Spring: How Islamists Hijacked the Middle-East Revolts (London: Macmillan, 2012), p. 256.

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  66. 66.

    Valentine Moghadam, From Patriarchy to Empowerment: Women’s Participation, Movements, and Rights in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia (New York: Syracuse University Press, 2007), p. 266; Nadje Al-Ali, ‘Gendering the Arab Spring’, Middle-East Journal of Culture and Communication 1 (2012), pp. 26–31; Eva Gondorova, The Arab Spring in Tunisia: the Role of Women in Social Movements and Decision-Making Processes, MA Thesis 2013 (G. Yurdakul and N. Lafi supervisors), Middle-East Technical University Ankara and Humboldt Universität zu Berlin.

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Further Readings

Further Readings

Literature about the Arab Spring and the role of social movements has been overwhelming since 2011. Many of the most important contributions have been evoked in the chapter. They concentrate on specific aspects of what happened in the region, pertaining to gender, social media, mobilization networks, passive and active resistance against repression and the complex relationship between social movements and rebellions, as well as on the articulation of scales between local events and geopolitics.

Part of the literature has focussed on the mechanisms of protest and of mobilization triggering. As Asef Bayat states, the Arab Spring was not only a surprise, as very few observers had predicted its possibility, it also invited researchers to come to surprising conclusions compared to what they thought earlier of both the region and the social movement theory (‘The Arab Spring and its Surprises’, Development and Change 3 (2013), pp. 587–601). A few years after the start of the events indeed, and as many countries are still struggling with their often traumatic consequences, authors reflecting on social movements in general have begun to revise their opinions of what the Arab Spring illustrated. As triggering factors, apart from the study of previous low-intensity mobilizations in countries like Tunisia and Egypt that served as basis for the movements, many authors have underlined the importance of geopolitical implications. It is what Ghia Nodia calls ‘The Revenge of Geopolitics’: Journal of Democracy 4 (2014), pp. 139–150. Scholars are now insisting also on the importance of such factors in the spreading of the rebellions from Tunisia and Egypt, where mobilization happened against dictatorships backed by the United States, to Libya and Syria, dictatorships backed by Russia. Research, however, is still limited by the lack of access to primary sources as for the study of the work of possible agents provocateurs and of the manipulation of armed factions by foreign powers. Jean-François Bayart (‘Retour sur les Printemps Arabes’, Politique Africaine 133 (2014), pp. 153–175) insists on the link between geopolitics and logics of repression, an interpretation that Bülent Aras and Richard Falk suggest to explore further too (‘Authoritarian “Geopolitics” of Survival in the Arab Spring’, Third World Quarterly 2 (2015), pp. 322–336). In other words, the more the years pass after the mobilizations, the more scholars lose their innocence in interpreting what happened, due to a difficulty in distinguishing between spontaneous movements and geopolitical manipulations. In order to avoid the impasse of such a dichotomy, researchers focused on the global context of the events. Analyses of the impact of globalization and liberalization, for example: Imad Salamey, ‘Post-Arab Spring: Changes and Challenges’, Third World Quarterly 1 (2015), pp. 111–129, and Amin Allal, ‘Retour Vers le Futur: les Origines Économiquesde la Révolution Tunisienne’, Pouvoirs 156 (2016), pp. 17–29, insist on the importance of the transformations local societies were submitted to in the 1990s and 2000s. Other scholars insist, to the contrary, on more constant factors in local societies, influences that historical anthropology and sociology might explain: Raymond Hinnebusch, ‘Historical Sociology and the Arab Spring’, Mediterranean Politics, 1 (2014), pp. 137–140. As for violence, in the case of Egypt, the existence of groups of young men potentially becoming violent and potentially used by political factions (and/or provocateurs of the regime or of foreign powers) has also been underlined as expressing an historical constant. In present days, this dimension is expressed by the blured boundaries between football fans, groups of hooligans, political activism and street violence: Khaled Adham, ‘Urban Injustice, Urban Violence and the Revolution: Reflections on Cairo’, in Ulrike Freitag, Nelida Fuccaro, Claudia Ghrawi and Nora Lafi (eds), Urban Violence in the Middle East (Oxford: Berghahn, 2015), pp. 265–286. The understanding of this kind of mobilization/counter-mobilization is key in understanding the nature of the social movements and of their impact in society.

The more time passes, the more scholars grow critical of early enthusiastic visions of social movement mobilization processes in a digital age. Manuel Castells is one of them: Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2012). In his conclusion to this book, Castells reflects on the role of digital media during the Arab Spring in this quite pessimistic parabola: ‘the life and death of networked social movements’ (p. 244). Various denunciations of a wave of ‘facile analyses’ of the role of new media in the mobilizations of the Arab Spring have been voiced, with critical remarks about the social clichés this vision embodies, see Miriyam Aouragh, ‘Social Media, Mediation and the Arab Revolutions’, in Christian Fuchs and Vincent Mosco (eds), Marx in the Age of Digital Capitalism (Leiden: Brill, 2016), pp. 482–515. This trend is part of the general critical re-examination of belief in the performing power of mobilizations through the internet: Tim Markham, ‘Social Media, Protest Cultures and Political Subjectivities of the Arab Spring’, Media, Culture and Society 1(2014), pp. 89–104; Zeynep Tufekci, ‘Social Movements and Governments in the Digital Age: Evaluating a Complex Landscape‘, Journal of International Affairs 1 (2014), pp. 1–16. In order to avoid to only focus on a ‘digital élite’ and on factors of ‘emotional mobilization’ (Anita Breuer, Todd Landman and Dorothea Farquhar, ‘Social Media and Protest Mobilization: Evidence from the Tunisian Revolution’, Democratization 4 (2015), pp. 764–792), Peter Snowdon proposed a reappraisal of the role of ‘vernacular video’: ‘The Revolution Will be Uploaded: Vernacular Video and the Arab Spring’, Culture Unbound 6 (2014), p. 401–429.

The question of repression has also been at the centre of the attention dedicated by scholars to the aftermaths of the revolts. Deciphering the ‘lineages of repression’: Jason Brownlee, Tarek Masoud and Andrew Reynolds, The Arab Spring: Pathways of Repression and Reform (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014) that characterized the development of the events in the region between 2010 and the present day has been one of the ways used by scholars to distantiate themselves from positivist narratives. Understanding the logics of power and repression has become a major stake. This is also what Choukri Hmed proposed as for his reading of the Tunisian revolution ‘Répression d’État et situation révolutionnaire en Tunisie (2010–2011)’, Vingtième Siècle, Revue d’histoire 128 (2015), pp. 77–90.

This kind of reading also poses the question of the existence of a counter-revolution in some countries of the region, Egypt for example. Following reflections on the trauma of the confiscation of revolutions by religious conservative movements (in Egypt and Tunisia for a short period, for example; see Cilja Harders, ‘Revolution I und II. Ägypten zwischen Transformation und Restauration’, in Annette Jünemann and Anja Zorob (eds), Arabellions, Politik und Gesellschaft des Nahen Ostens (Wiesbaden, Springer, 2013), pp. 19–42, and Tarek Chamkhi, ‘Ennahda as a Neo-Islamist political Party in Power (2011–2014)’,, academia is concentrating on the understanding of the severe disenchantment that saw armed fanatics, foreign interventions and/or new dictatorships confiscate the struggle for democracy. Saudi Arabia as promoter of counter-revolutionary regimes and the fundamental ambiguities of Western pro-democratic discourses are among the most discussed issues, see: Hassan Oz, ‘Undermining the Transatlantic Democracy Agenda? The Arab Spring and Saudi Arabia’s Counteracting Democracy Strategy’, Democratization 3 (2015), pp. 479–495.

But in this situation of fundamental doubt and need for scholars to deconstruct the ambiguities of the period, some authors still think that what happened in the Arab World since the end of 2010 illustrates new modes of mobilization that are worth being inserted into a revised typology of social movements in spite of the traumatic context. David West (Social Movements in Global Politics, New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2014) is among them. For him, beyond aspects of failure, confiscation and instrumentalization, the Arab Spring has been a source of vitality and has participated in the present renewal of the evaluation of the potential role of social movements in political change. For Frédéric Volpi furthermore, revolutionary movements should not be seen only as for the nature of the political proposals they carried, but also as for their capacity of eclosion of new social practices (‘Framing Political Revolutions in the Aftermath of the Arab Uprisings’, Mediterranean Politics 1 (2014), pp. 153–156). Under this perspective, the Tunisian case is surely the one that supports best visions of hope, in spite of the huge challenges and difficulties that confront the country. Social movements have not only been able to boost political change in the country where it all started in 2010 and even before: they were also able to throw their weight behind the process of constitutional reform and, in general, support the diffusion into society of a renewed culture of civic debate (Mohamed Kerrou, ‘Société Civile et Compromis Historique’, IEMED Quaderns, 2015). Souheil Kaddour is among the scholars who insist on this dimension (‘La Gouvernance des Droits de l’homme en Tunisie post-révolutionnaire: état des lieux, difficultés et opportunités La revue des droits de l’homme 6 (2014), pp. 2–15). Others have focussed on a reading of the transformation of public spaces by mobilizations since 2010, illustrating how the logics at work had long-lasting consequences (Raffaele Cattedra, Francesca Governa, Maurizio Memoli and Matteo Puttilli, Al Centro di Tunisi, And even debates on the restoration of the old regime through processes of economic reconstruction (Leyla Dakhli, ‘Entre fidélité et réconciliation: quelle place pour la politique dans la Tunisie révolutionnaire?’, Pouvoirs 156 (2016), pp. 7–16) insist on the existence of a new civic sphere that is vigilant against possible abuses. In Tunisia, a new dimension of civic life and social movements has, in spite of all ambiguities and difficulties, been achieved in the aftermath of the revolution, see Mohamed Kerrou, ‘New Actors of the Revolution and the Political Transition in Tunisia’, in Clement Henry and Jang Ji-Hyang (eds), The Arab Spring (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), pp. 79–99. Hopefully such a dimension will also emerge in other countries in spite of wars, foreign manipulations, repression mechanisms and counter-revolution.

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Lafi, N. (2017). The ‘Arab Spring’ in Global Perspective: Social Movements, Changing Contexts and Political Transitions in the Arab World (2010–2014). In: Berger, S., Nehring, H. (eds) The History of Social Movements in Global Perspective. Palgrave Studies in the History of Social Movements. Palgrave Macmillan, London.

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