Islamic Studies Arab Spring
Martin Bunton
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 August 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0131


Over the course of 2011, the authoritarian order of the Middle East was shaken by waves of protest that swept across the region. Often referred to as the Arab Spring, millions of people took to the streets and public squares to protest economic stagnation and official abuse, nepotism, and extortion. Across national boundaries, and fueled by social media, Arabs united under the rallying cries of dignity, peace, bread, and social justice. By year’s end, however, it was clear that the revolutionary moments in each country confronted their own complex balancing of various interests, as well as stiff resistance from counterrevolutionary forces. Dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen had fallen, but the transitions to a new constitutional order still had a very long way to go. Bahrain forcibly quelled popular protests, while most of the rich Gulf monarchies sought to buy time, showering their populations with subsidies and clamping down on any sign of dissent. In Syria, the regime’s desperate and violent attempt to cling to power pushed the country into a protracted civil war.

Initial Reflections

Although the peaceful uprisings were overtaken by regional violence, it is important to recall the exhilaration captured by the immediate reflections on the dramatic events, when each day suggested new scenarios and trajectories. Dabashi 2012 and Bamyeh 2012 express optimism while also acknowledging the events as open-ended works in progress. Gause 2011 reflects on why academic specialists were caught by surprise, Khouri 2011 weighs the terminology used to describe the events, and Goldstone 2011 and Bayat 2013 draw comparisons with other revolutionary moments.

  • Bamyeh, Mohammed. “The Tunisian Revolution: Initial Reflections.” In The Dawn of the Arab Uprisings: End of an Old Order? Edited by Bassam Haddad, Rosie Bsheer, and Ziad Abu-Rish, 49–58. London: Pluto, 2012.

    An engaged assessment both of the grievances felt by the citizens of Arab countries and of the emotional energy that was engulfing the region.

  • Bayat, Asef. “The Arab Spring and Its Surprises.” Development and Change 44.3 (2013): 587–601.

    DOI: 10.1111/dech.12030

    Considers the Arab Spring distinct from other revolutionary moments because of its preoccupation with reform; coins the term “refo-lutions.”

  • Béchir Ayari, Michaël, and Vincent Geisser. Renaissances arabes: 7 questions clés sur des révolutions en marche. Paris: Éditions de l’Atelier, 2011.

    A collection of essays responding to what the authors identified at the time to be the seven key questions that needed to be addressed in order to understand the unfolding protests.

  • Dabashi, Hamid. The Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism. New York: Zed Books, 2012.

    Reflects the euphoria of the revolutionary moment, with its focus on the visible crafting of new identities and the evident dissolution of old divisions.

  • Gause, F. Gregory, III. “Why Middle East Studies Missed the Arab Spring: The Myth of Authoritarian Stability.” Foreign Affairs 90.4 (2011): 81–90.

    A political scientist reexamines the assumptions on which many studies of Arab politics have been based.

  • Goldstone, Jack A. “Understanding the Revolutions of 2011: Weakness and Resilience in Middle Eastern Autocracies.” Foreign Affairs 90.3 (2011): 8–16.

    A specialist in the history of revolutionary movements places the Arab uprisings in a comparative perspective.

  • Khouri, Rami G. “Drop the Orientalist Term ‘Arab Spring’.” Daily Star, 17 August 2011.

    Argues against adopting the metaphors inherent in the term “spring,” noting that the demonstrators themselves refer to “revolutions” (or thawra, in Arabic).

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