Ten years ago, a wildfire of revolts touched off in the Arab world, leading to an unprecedented sequence of events that irreversibly changed the face of North Africa and had far-reaching echoes in the Middle East. The legacy of what was dubbed the ‘Jasmine Revolution’ is yet to be assessed even a decade later. The Jasmine Revolution started with the tragic self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a young martyr in Tunisia, before spilling over into the rest of the region. After swollen optimism turned into dashed hopes, the decade-old outcomes of the 2011 Arab uprisings unveil the deep unhealed wounds of countries that are still torn between repression, wars, and economic turmoil. 

A reflective insight into the political situation in the region reveals a bleak picture of the state of rule of law. Countries like Egypt, despite the historical events of January 2011 in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, toppled an oppressive regime only to replace it with an even more autocratic one. During President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi’s tenure, which started after he overthrew the government that emerged out of the Arab Spring by means of a military coup in 2013, human rights abuses and political imprisonments went from an estimated 10,000 in Hosni Mubarak’s final years to 60,000 and counting. Such a tight grip on individual freedoms has done nothing short of increasing the fear of reprisals and plunging populations into disillusion and defeat, further compounded by  high levels of poverty and unemployment crippling the country’s economy. 

A similar sentiment of defeat is shared in most of the countries that managed to overthrow their strongmen in the Arab Spring. One such case is Libya, which is now a colonial artificial creation resulting from disproportionate international interventions that gave rise to conflict between local renegade generals and foreign-backed forces. Hope also failed to blossom in Yemen, where the Coffee Revolution quickly evolved into a civil conflict before resulting in a war by proxy between the Iran-backed Houthi rebels and the internationally recognized government supported by Saudi Arabia. The disheartening outcome of this proxy war today qualifies as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Despite the poverty and economic hardships that the country is still grappling with, Tunisia stands as the only country that offers a glimmer of hope by achieving a successful transition to representative democracy.  

As for the autocratic regimes which escaped the 2011 uprisings, the pattern of political governance has brought about either a reinforcement of authoritarianism (textbook example of President al-Assad in Syria) or the provision of incentives to quell popular revolts along with a support of tyrannical governments in the region, so to avoid a spillover effect in case a new revolution erupts. The latter is more frequent in oil-rich countries such as Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates. Besides using oil wealth as payoffs to citizens to subdue the stirring of uprisings in 2011, petrodollar monarchs kept generously providing their citizens with services and government employment in return for political silence. Some of them even set their country on the path to modernization and conceded on some social restrictions such as Mohammad Bin Salman, the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince, who granted Saudi women the right to drive, all the while maintaining a firm grip on the country. 

There are however two weak spots to such a hybrid strategy of ruling: the ever-changing nature of oil prices whose shrinkage is currently being exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic and the eventual production of societies keener on securing a greater voice and demanding accountability as a result of a successful modernization process. The former will lead to a sharp reduction of aid towards less wealthy allies in the region such as Egypt or Jordan, all the while reducing the incentives to buy domestic political quiet. In the meantime, the latter will favor a long-overdue change in the political status quo of these regimes and increase the likeliness of further instabilities.  

In a similar vein, the socio-economic realm in the Middle East and North Africa region does not present a stellar picture of the past decade either. Structural changes to economic governance fail to materialize, as public debt continues to soar and dependence on capital inflows increase. Except for the Gulf countries, business competitiveness remains at a very low level, as demographic trends indicate a rapid expansion of the population in the region, which is expected to increase by an additional 120 million by 2030 according to World Bank’s estimates. One of the most crucial challenges of governments is consequently to generate employment, so as to keep pace with high demographic growth rates. 

From a holistic perspective, it is thus very tempting to endorse most analysts’ viewpoint that the past ten years constituted a lost decade for the Arab world, as political and socio-economic indicators portray backwardness rather than progress. Such a take is nonetheless simplistic, as it fails to extend the legacy of the Arab Spring to what it should actually be circumscribed in a longue durée scope. The short-term outcome of any successful revolution per se is regime change, which can have an immediate occurrence and is distinctive from its long-term aspirations of systemic change, which is subject to years or decades-long process of adjustments and incremental transformation. What happened in the Arab world in the past decade was the first stage on the path to systemic rupture and should not be dismissed or minimized, as it lays the foundations for political awareness and paves the way towards further structural transformation. 

The grand merit of the Arab Spring was to make citizens conscious of their power to provoke drastic change to the status quo, which in itself is already an asset. It behooves the leaders in charge now to fix a broken social contract and reestablish citizens’ trust in the role of the State impaired by deep-seated corruption and misgovernance. Failure to do so would infallibly result in a resurgence of former upheavals, just like volcanic magma repeatedly coming up the surface. The story of the decade-old Arab (r)evolution is not a story of failure or lost gamble. It is a story of resilience and reframing assumptions of what a suitable social contract in this part of the world should be, therefore an unfinished business. It may smell like sulfur for the time being, but the true scent of its legacy is still unbound.

Edited by Sandra Edelbacher; Photo credit: Alexandra Motica