Could the Arab Spring have been predicted?

Foreign Committee Policy Paper



arab spring pic


There is a general sense of shock seen in academia related to the Middle East that emerged in the aftermath of the Arab Spring in 2011; yet is it evident that there various reasons as to why Middle East scholarship “missed” the warning signs that something was to come (Jones, 2012). However, looking further into the unrest and development of events that occurred in the region it is unlike anything the Middle East has ever experienced before and therefore the Arab Spring was completely unpredictable. It is interesting that it became a multi-dimensional and multi-regional revolution which proved scholars had previously undermined the interconnected nature of the region (Jones, 2012). This paper will seek to first define the concept of the Arab Spring itself and then consider the possible reasons as to why it was unforeseeable. The very fact that the Arab Spring was not predicted stands to the sheer continuity and endurance of this movement. Therefore this paper, in line with the above question, argues that the Arab Spring was undeniably unpredictable.

It seems fitting to begin by examining and briefly explaining the Arab Spring itself as a concept. In short, the Arab Spring was a series of revolutions which began in Tunisia and continued throughout the Middle East. When looking to explain the Arab Spring it is important to note that the revolution is not one thing. No one narrative can be superimposed in order to define or explain it. Firstly no one country involved is the same; each one has a unique history, culture, economy, and system of power, and therefore has a different direction in the Arab Spring. Hence in order to form policy towards the Arab Spring, the West must look at each country individually. Egypt is certainly not the same as Libya, as Egypt requires gradual reform rather than basic state building necessary in Libya. Likewise, Tunisia cannot be put under the same single narrative of the Arab Spring as Syria; both revolutions began and continue to be different. Totten’s main argument is that when we look to explain; why, how and if the Arab Spring was predictable we cannot rely on single narratives that over simplify an immensely diverse group of countries (Totten, 2014). This paper seeks to do just that.

One of the main and most significant reasons as to why the Arab Spring was not predictable is the very fact that while countries appeared to be able to provide an opportunity for a more fair and democratic system of government in the region which, the majority of countries, had issues about wealth distribution and high unemployment levels among young university educated people (Jones, 2012). The unpredictable nature of the Arab Spring itself is reflected in the diversity of unrest and mobilization levels in countries with monarchies and authoritarian regimes. Thus, the Arab Spring cannot be simplified to a rebellion against forms of undemocratic government and wealth inequality, or in a more general sense of a social revolt as monarchies had seen limited mobilisation and unrest yet are also undemocratic methods of government, (Gause, 2011).

This has brought about a surge of literature which has narrowly focused on the idea of ‘monarchical exceptionalism’ as a by-product of the Arab Spring. However, it is clear that in terms of the institutional differences, there appears to be a general trajectory which is a main factor in differentiating between the survival of a majority of monarchies, as opposed to authoritarian regimes, where the concentration of public funding suppressed most of the unrest. It is interesting to note that as a result of better social conditions, from public funding due to high rent revenues or material aid from neighboring countries, appears to have played a large role in the level of unrest experienced; and yet, this is not just a monarchical trait. This is equally found in countries that received financial aid from wealthy Arab countries like Saudi Arabia. This is seen in Oman, a region on the Gulf Peninsula, which was able to adopt a common form of ‘soft repression’ by using financial support from Saudi Arabia which was redistributed to domestic challenges. (Bank et al, 2015). Equally, this type of redistribution policy is found in Yemen and other Arab monarchies which allows one to infer that rent revenue is a main factor of monarchical survival, yet, other scholars are not convinced that is the sole reason behind the differences experienced by monarchical Arab regimes in comparison to their authoritarian counter-parts (Bank et al, 2015).

Further to this, in 2015, the book release of Former CIA Deputy Director, Micheal Morrel, confirmed what many had feared, that the way America and Western superpowers handled the uprisings in the Middle East at the time of the Arab Springs and have done so since has led to, “a spring for al-Qaeda” (Durac and Cavatorta, 2015).  At the time Western intervention was too hasty in demanding that Authoritarian rulers in the region step down and activists did not have time to come up with a political alternative, giving room for radical alternatives to progress in the political sphere. This created further instability and worsening socioeconomic conditions by doing this without an in-depth knowledge of the situations for each state. An example of how Middle Eastern youths feel that the West has not learned from this is how the uprisings are still referred to by academics and mass media as the Arab Spring which they feel denotes our inability to accept that these rising are not seasonal and that they should be referred to as the Arab generation (Durac and Cavatorta, 2015). Furthermore, Middle Eastern people still feel that the West is not listening to them or taking their politics seriously (Durac and Cavatorta, 2015). If we cannot look back, and learn from the mistakes made, for example including natives of the region in discussions about their countries, then how can we say that we would have been able to predict these uprisings with even less input from those people.

Finally, on this point, academics are convinced that education and its connection with the economic environment deserve significant consideration when examining the Arab Spring. There is a very large body of evidence that shows people with higher level education are considerably more likely to participate in political activities such as voting and participating in larger scale political demonstrations. This is particularly acute when high education levels is met with poor labor market conditions (Campante and Chor, 2012). Indeed, before the Arab spring, there were observers that suggested that the high levels of third level education attainment in the Middle East and poor labor markets could make for “a combustible mix of conditions” and spill over into political violence (Campante and Chor, 2012). Indeed, it is very easy retrospectively to consider these factors when examining the Arab Spring. However, the very fact that these were not considered and noticed before the outbreak of these revolutions shows that the Arab Spring was indeed unpredictable.

Another reason why the Arab Spring can be described as unpredictable is the significant surge in the use of social media. It has been argued that while the invention of social media was going to bring a desire for greater freedoms in the Arab world, due to them being able to see and envy the freedoms that Western democracies had, it would was impossible to tell when this would have taken place as the nature of how and when an item of information goes viral is often a random chance (Alaimo, 2015). This idea stands to us as humans by our very nature, we always want to better our conditions and also desire things which we do not have. Further to this, the use of social media made protests easier to plan and made information on these protests more widespread than ever before in the Arab world. A clear example of this is the Facebook page “We Are All Khaled Said” which was a significant factor leading to the Arab spring events in Egypt. It was used by Egypt’s young population as a source of knowledge of the abuses of power by the Egyptian authorities that in the past would have been covered up by state and local media (Alaimo, 2015). Through the examination of this mechanism of communication and also considering its use in real life, it can be undeniably argued that social media contributed to the unpredictable nature of the Arab Spring.

Further to this, the role of human development was a fundamental influence in triggering the “waves of protests, uprisings and insurrections” (Kuhn, 2012) that surged across the Middle East and became known as the “Arab Spring” and indeed has added to the unpredictable nature of this series of events. Many statistics throughout the readings have given a clear indication that a combination of human development, technological advancement, and rising expectations were a direct cause for the Arab Spring. Using tables that span a period of 30 years, it is made abundantly clear that not only had men and women in the Middle East began to eat more…but they were also improving the mortality rates of children, their standard of health care and arguably most importantly, many of these states were witnessing vast improvements in the standard of education (Kuhn, 2012). With life expectancy also rising drastically in the last three decades, current generations had now begun to expect a constant process of improvement. This greatly intensified an urgency to create opportunity and employment. Not only was this generation more educated, but they were also equipped with the platform to express their views and feelings with mobile phones and laptops. All of this combined to create a society that would no longer tolerate these blatant forms of injustice. Mohamed Bouazizi who committed suicide in Tunisia by burning himself alive in the streets of Sidi Bouzid, was seen as the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Another argument which complies with the overall line of reasoning of this essay, that the Arab Spring was unpredictable, is that there is proof that many key approaches to the study of Civil Society in the Middle East could not have predicted the Arab Spring (Durac and Cavatorta, 2015). The five main approaches which have examined include a liberal, Eurocentric approach which sees religion as limiting choices and which rejects the idea that religion can liberate, thus leading to the undemocratic states we see today in the region. This approach sees the Middle East as a region which is perpetually undemocratic and repressive due to strong religious influences, therefore it was unable to foresee the uprisings being so widespread in the region. A neutral view of civil society activism in the MENA, is concerned with the impact of small associations in the region, it observes that regimes can often give civil society groups a small amount of what they want but this never actually leads to political change. This maintains a culture of division and suppression as groups which are meant to question and oppose the regime are interested in the political environment remaining stable to benefit from the regime, another approach which did not predict that these groups would rise up against regimes all across the Middle East. GONGO’s are an example of the civil society groups, which have the view that society is a regime tool, investigates. With the approach that activist groups are created by the regime to help them appear open and democratic to the rest of the world, there was no view that there would be an uprising considering that all of the groups which normally would have pushed for regime change are believed to be run by the government itself. The fourth approach which failed to predict the Arab Spring is theorised by Jamal (2007), whose starting position is that the regimes cannot be toppled so we must look at converting the Authoritarian leaders to being democratic. Which of course is not what the risings were about as the civil societies wished to overthrow their rulers, not just change their political ideologies. The only approach to have the potential of foreseeing the uprisings is in which citizens are seen to be one of the driving forces, and not the civil societies, as was the cause with the self-immolation in Tunisia which has been seen as a catalyst for the Arab Spring.

Another factor which argues that the Arab Spring itself was unpredictable is the lack of a free economy for those operating within the Arab Spring countries should be considered a direct cause of the revolution (Martin, 2012). Though the media ignored the economic factors, the economist Hernando de Soto researched the situation faced by Mohammad Bouazizi and linked the obstacles he faced in operating in the informal economy and eventually getting all his products confiscated with his act of immolation. The obstacles Bouazizi faced were faced by thousands within the Arab Spring countries and Martin posits that these daily restrictions and micro aggressions against small business people essentially lead to the Arab Spring, which was a “laissez-faire revolution”. The Economic Freedom of the World Report in 2009 ranked Egypt as 93rd and Tunisia as 94th out of 141 countries, Martin uses this to highlight the problems with authoritarian governments dealing with their countries economy (Martin, 2012).

Further on this point, it can be argued that in this sense the Arab Spring revolution is only a one-time event. There were many economic causes, first the high rise of unemployment which can lead to political revolt against political and social regimes. This created a reaction of uncertainty for both the public domain and the international trade domain. This created undesirable corruption and civil wars to occur. Political participation improved after the Arab Spring as the Arab people sought to solve the autocratic rule. They became more aware of their democratic and property rights. Political stability helped to introduce new basic equality rights. This created a better transition of democracy and a better outcome for the people affected by the Arab Spring. However, again, considering this in relation to the above question, it can be seen that had these factors had been considered prior to the Arab Spring, then it could have been predicted but the very fact that they weren’t proves the point that the Arab Spring was unpredictable.

In addition, with the slow economic success in markets, it was evident that the trade between other countries such as the United States and Europe was slow. When civil wars broke out especially in the Arab countries, there was a clear outline on how different countries are viewed, in the case that Yemen was seen as poor whereas, Libya was richer. It showed that the World Bank and The International Monetary Fund played a vital role in the Arab countries’ economic market. It was evident that there was unequal sharing of the economic growth and trade surplus across the Arab countries. Even though, markets were well connected, the civil war and conflict was damaging towards the process. Markets and companies were badly run under the international trade and ethics laws. It is clear that in order for an Arab country to succeed, a vital but strong socio-economic platform is required. The Arab Spring was not a great mechanism for the economic or political aspects of the Arab Market. In reference to the above question, the consideration of these issues could have helped to foresee the Arab Spring. However, since these factors were not considered, it can be undeniably argued that the Arab Spring was unpredictable.

This policy paper has considered several factors which have led to the fact that the Arab Spring was unpredictable. This paper first began by examining the Arab Spring itself as a concept before considering the socioeconomic issues which existed leading up to and during this time. This paper then continues to consider the effect of social media on the Arab Spring and indeed how this added to the unpredictability of this series of events. Furthermore, the impact of human development and civil society on the Arab Spring and its unpredictable nature were considered. This was followed by a discussion of the economic factors which added to the unpredictability of the Arab Spring. On a concluding note, this foreign committee policy paper of group 7 strongly argues that the Arab Spring and its effects were unpredictable and undeniably took the region by absolute storm.


This group Article was written and edited by:

Sorcha Quinn –

Grace Power –

Conor Rock –

Neil Mullholland –

John O’Toole –

Kevin Lynch –

Lauren Pounch –

Òrlaith O’Reilly –

Patrick Prizeman –





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