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)’, researchrepository.murdoch.edu.au), 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, http://webdoc.unica.it/). 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.