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.

General Overviews

The growing literature on the Arab Spring reveals a wide range of analysis, much of which necessarily focuses on specific factors in individual countries. Comprehensive overviews of the Arab Spring offer opportunities to draw connections and engage in comparative analysis, and thus can be a useful place to start.

Newspapers and Online Forums

Throughout the Arab Spring, the Internet has been the first port of call for most observers: the websites of newspapers such as The Guardian and The Economist deliver well-informed reports from the field as well as helpful interactive media; Middle East Research and Information Project provides independent analysis of key developments; organizations such as International Crisis Group (Middle East & North Africa) and the Carnegie Middle East Center, based in Beirut, Lebanon, provide insightful analyses by top researchers in the field; and openDemocracy, Bidayat Magazine, Jadaliyya, and Al Jazeera provide articles in Arabic as well as English.


In the ever-expanding number of published texts that provide an overview of the revolutionary wave of protests, some of the early texts remain very useful: Brynen, et al. 2012; Filiu 2011; Gelvin 2012; Noueihed and Warren 2012; and Lynch 2012 provide immediate but thoughtful and clear explanations of the revolutionary events. More-recent work on the challenges of the transitions includes Brownlee, et al. 2015.

Edited Collections

Edited volumes that provide a wide spectrum of voices, while covering broad thematic and regional studies, include Haddad, et al. 2012; Haas and Lesch 2012; Amar and Prashad 2013; Kamrava 2014; Lynch 2014; and Sadiki 2015. Gerges 2014 stands out in terms of the prominence of the scholars, while al-Saleh 2015 is notable for its concentration of personal stories.

Historical Background

The common backdrop for all protest movements was the glaring failure of authoritarian regimes to meet the expectations of bulging youth populations. All the previously mentioned books consider to some extent the political, social, and economic factors that underlay the protests, but these sections provide more in-depth analysis.

Authoritarian Regimes

In the immediate wake of the uprisings, political scientists such as in Anderson 2014 and Bellin 2012 reflected on how regimes that once appeared so robust to political scientists were shaken so suddenly. Owen 2012 shows how regimes that first rose to power decades ago on the promise of meeting the socioeconomic demands of the population became increasingly nepotistic and reliant on the brutality of a security apparatus as well as rigged elections.


As the ruling regimes grew older and more predatory, their populations were becoming younger, poorer, more dynamic, and more aware. Their frustrations are examined in detail in Khalaf and Khalaf 2011 (especially in the chapter by Diane Singerman), while the role played by youth movements in launching the uprisings is studied in Cole 2014. The significance of gender roles in the revolutionary (as well as counterrevolutionary) movements is covered in al-Ali 2012, Johansson-Nogués 2013, and Hafez 2014. Beinin and Vairel 2013 offers perspectives on the history of a broad range social movements, including Islamist organizations.

Political Economy

A thorough examination of the impact of the regimes’ economic reforms—which aimed at liberalizing their state-run economies by reducing social programs and selling off state assets to friends—is provided in Cammett, et al. 2015, as well as in Armbrust 2012 and Haddad 2012. The crucial issue of food security is examined in Zurayk and Gough 2014 and Johnstone and Mazo 2011.

  • Armbrust, Walter. “The Revolution against Neoliberalism.” In The Dawn of the Arab Uprisings: End of an Old Order? Edited by Bassam Haddad, Rosie Bsheer, and Ziad Abu-Rish, 113–123. London: Pluto, 2012.

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    Describes the broad outlines of Egypt’s neoliberal political economy, scrutinizing the roles played by military officers and technocrats, in addition to the regime’s friends and cronies.

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  • Cammett, Melani, Ishac Diwan, Alan Richards, and John Waterbury. A Political Economy of the Middle East. 4th ed. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2015.

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    This popular, comprehensive political-economy textbook has been fully updated to cover the Arab Spring.

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  • Haddad, Bassam. “Syria, the Arab Uprisings, and the Political Economy of Authoritarian Resilience.” In The Arab Spring: Will It Lead to Democratic Transitions? Edited by Clement Henry and Ji-Hyang Jang, 211–227. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

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    Combines a broad comparison of the political economies of the region, with an description of the complexity of the Syrian situation and an assessment of the resilience of its regime.

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  • Johnstone, Sarah, and Jeffrey Mazo. “Global Warming and the Arab Spring.” Survival: Global Politics and Strategy 53.2 (2011): 11–17.

    DOI: 10.1080/00396338.2011.571006Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The authors locate climate change, and the consequent rise in food prices, in the chain of events leading to the outbreak of protests in 2011.

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  • Zurayk, Rami, and Anne Gough. “Bread and Olive Oil: The Agrarian Roots of the Arab Uprisings.” In The New Middle East: Protest and Revolution in the Arab World. Edited by Fawaz A. Gerges, 107–131. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

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    Underlines how rural poverty and the politics of food production were significant factors in the uprisings of Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and Syria.

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The Revolutionary Moment

The protests themselves consisted of acts of mass resistance that unified, if only momentarily, the Arab public sphere. Tripp 2014 shows how Arab demonstrators reclaimed ownership and sovereignty over public space. El-Ghobashy 2012 and Pearlman 2013 explore the conditions under which people defied authority, while Colla 2012 and Swedenburg 2012 look at the roles played by poetry and music in bringing various segments of society together. The role played by modern communication technologies is examined in Castells 2012, Ghonim 2012, and Howard and Hussain 2013.

Country Studies

Shared grievances against similar power structures resonated widely across the Arab world in the spring of 2011. But the navigation of successful political and economic transitions has required a complex balancing act of various revolutionary interests in each individual country.

Tunisia and Egypt

Many of the overviews listed in this article place their analyses of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings into a comparative perspective: in addition to being the first two regimes to fall, both these countries have long-standing and functioning state structures (bureaucracy, army, etc.). Gana 2013 and Perkins 2014 provide more in-depth analysis on Tunisia, while Willis 2012 provides perspective on North Africa as a whole. For Egypt, a wide range of articles can be found in Korany and el-Mahdi 2012; Sowers and Toensing 2012; and Tschirgi, et al. 2013, while Kandil 2014 offers a book-length analysis of the interactions of the military and security forces and Sedra 2013 explains the rise of sectarianism.


The violent response by the Assad regime to the Syrian protests resulted in a violent civil war. The bitter stalemate operates also as a proxy war for outside actors. Lesch 2013 and Scheller 2013 provide crucial insights into Assad’s regime, while Lefèvre 2013 focuses on its struggle with the Islamist opposition. Robinson 2012 and Hashemi and Postel 2013 consider international responses to the intractable conflict.

Libya and Yemen

The protests in Libya and Yemen were complicated greatly by regional rivalries and international intervention. Hilsum 2012 and Vandewalle 2012 provide well-informed background to Muammar Qaddafi’s deposition in Libya, and Gazzini 2011 weighs the legitimacy of external intervention. On Yemen, International Crisis Group 2011 gives a contemporaneous assessment of the unfolding revolution, while vom Bruck, et al. 2014 reflects back on how the trajectory of the transition was determined by the power struggles among the elite, and Yadav 2013 provides a comparative perspective on Islamist politics.

Gulf Monarchies

The younger generations in the Gulf countries represent the same demographic challenges as elsewhere, and, as Welsh 2012 shows, Bahrain was wracked with protests. However, as Gause 2011 explains, the Gulf monarchies hold certain advantages, not least the ability to deflect opposition by spending money. Al-Rasheed 2011 and Wehrey 2014 provide useful guides to how counterrevolutionary strategies in the Gulf also rely heavily on the politicization of religious differences and the development of sectarian politics.

Regional Reverberations

The complex interconnections between the uprisings in the Arab countries (Tunisia and Egypt, Syria, Libya and Yemen, Gulf Monarchies) with other Arab and non-Arab countries have been the subject of much analysis. Pelham 2012 and Ryan 2011 examine the response of the two non-Gulf monarchies, Morocco and Jordan. Al-Ali 2014 analyzes the ever-increasing sectarianism in Iraq in the shadow of the Arab Spring, and Brown 2011 assesses the significance of the Arab Spring for Israel and Palestine. Ayoob 2014 focuses on the dominant role Turkey and Iran play in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, and Tuğal 2013 places Turkey’s own Taksim demonstrations into a comparative perspective.

International Implications

Equally taken by surprise, the United States and Europe have been forced to reconsider their engagement in the Middle East and North Africa. Kahl and Lynch 2013 identifies the challenges facing US foreign policy, and Hollis 2012 evaluates European Union (EU) policy. Dodge and Hokayem 2014 offers a more global perspective.

Political Islam

In the years since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Islamist politics has become one of the most enduring Middle Eastern phenomena. As shown in Cesari 2014, Hamid 2014, Masoud 2014, and Wickham 2013, the strongest, if not always united, opposition faced by the authoritarian Arab regimes came from Islamists (either as militant radical minorities or, increasingly, as moderate centrists). Their participation in the post-revolutionary transition, however, has subjected Islamist movements to new external challenges and internal tensions. Brown 2012, Hamid 2014, Ramadan 2012, and Wright 2012 consider the possibilities as Islamists join the electoral process. Maréchal and Zemni 2013 examines sectarian tensions (which are also studied in the works listed in the country studies, cited under Tunisia and Egypt, Syria, Libya and Yemen, and Gulf Monarchies).

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