The Year of Revolts

The miraculous uprising which swept the whole region should be seen in the context of political, economic, demographic and technological backdrop of the region, not in continuation with any past movement.

Immanuel Wallerstein, the known social scientist, views the Arab spring as a continuation of the unfinished movement of 1968 which, after becoming a worldwide movement, did not achieve its goals. The current surge in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), to him, is the reincarnation of the same movement, trying to recapture the unfinished business of the sixties.

The MENA movement, however, entails a different scenario in terms of its strategies, objectives and global outreach. Originating from the most unexpected region of the world, it has now become a worldwide movement and in this sense it is the first global movement of its kind supported by the world audience who is watching it through electronic and social media.

These revolts should be seen as a logical outcome of political, economic, demographic, global and technological contexts of the 21st century.

Political Factors

The Muslim world has been in the clutches of dictators for the last 60 years in the form of complete or partial autocratic systems in different countries. These dictators have been surviving using internal oppression on one hand, and support from external powers, on the other.

In the countries where a complete dictatorial system exists, the legitimate political structure is absent and human rights are denied. Monarchy or a pseudo democratic structure has been in place by ruling elites and industrialists. Syria, Saudi Arabia, Libya under the Kaddafi regime, and Iraq before the U.S. invasion, are some examples of complete autocratic systems. Autocracies gained power in these countries because of these factors:

  1. Power is consolidated through controlling natural resources where petro dollars remain a major source of power for these regimes. Ruling elites control profits of natural resources which are conveniently distributed among selected groups.
  2. The total grip on economic, social and political structures is based on the absence of political process, denying basic human rights to people, and imposing severe restrictions on freedom of expression.
  3. Monarchy is justified through religious legitimacy in some countries. In Saudi Arabia, for example, a system of political and economic control has been legitimized by the religious clergy who support the rulers and their system.

In the countries, on the other hand, where a system of partial dictatorship prevails, some rights have been given to the masses denying their participation in a genuine political process. Media are free to some extent, business activities are allowed, and education is provided but the electoral drama is played to elect the same dictator again and again. Here, people are denied of their democratic rights by efficiently keeping them away from the political process.

Any resistance to change the system is dealt with a brutal force using police and armed forces. In this system of half-democracy and half-dictatorship, however, the real power lies with dictators, who rule the masses in collaboration with the armed forces, industrialists and the oligarch while masses are forcefully kept away from the genuine political process. Egypt under Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia under Zainulabedein Bin Ali had the same, half-and-half democracies.

These two administrative structures in the region have also survived for over half-a-century because of external powers that have several benefits in keeping these dictators. They use them in regional administrative arrangements to keep their control and ensure the oil supply which is so vital for their economic survival.

The so-called doctrine of “gradualism” was introduced to legitimize a prolonged support to dictators in the region. The absurd doctrine promotes the idea that democracy can be gradually introduced in the region with an assumption that people are not ready for a complete democracy in these countries yet. The youth movements, however, have proved the doctrine wrong.

Demographic and Economic Factors

The same Muslim nations that have been suffering at the hand of their dictators are facing wide range of unemployment, economic disparities and exploitation of business and ruling classes. These societies, however, offer some demographic dynamics that ultimately played against the current political setup and demanded a profound and meaningful change.

Youth is a large proportion of the region’s population which is growing faster than any other age group. A Brookings Institute Report says the proportion of youth in the Middle East is between 27% and 34%. The population of 15-29 age groups in Egypt is currently 29% while in Libya, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia it is 28%. The same population group in UAE, West Bank and Gaza is 27% while it is 30% in Jordan and Yemen. In Algeria and Syria it is 31%, and in Qatar 34%.

The youth unemployment rate in the region is alarming. According to ILO, unemployment figures for youth are twice the rate of the general population. It also indicates an obvious gender gap where unemployment rate for young men is 22.7 percent as compared to the 31.7 percent for young women. While more than half of the female population in the region is illiterate, the Arab world has the lowest participation of women in the labor force in the world, 25 percent.

In an article published in Viewpoint in 2010, I predicted a possible youth surge in the region in these words “Equipped with unemployment, gender inequity, lack of political empowerment and illiteracy this young-and-restless segment of the population could easily become a source of political chaos and civil unrest” (Middle East on a Shopping Spree for Higher Education, Viewpoint, July 23, 2010).

When the Tunisian youth came out to streets in early 2011, they were demonstrating the same dissatisfaction against the prevailing conditions in their society with a hope to change their system. The youth uprising intends to achieve these objectives besides other goals:

  1. Establishing a legitimate political system where people can participate in a genuine democratic process.
  2. Introducing a new economic system on the basis of equality.
  3. Establishing a pragmatic foreign policy to restore national sovereignty.
  4. Restoration of basic human right of people.
  5. Equal opportunities of education for all.
  6. Equal participation of women in social, economic and educational fields.

Overall, the youth struggle that started in early 2011 is different from previous movements in the region. First the movement has a global perspective. Global news media exposed brutalities of government forces on unarmed protestors and supported their struggle in these countries.

Unlike other political movements of the past, the current uprising does not have an apparent leadership. The ocean of protesting men, women and youth, does not have a single charismatic leader but several young leaders organizing protest rallies.

Not exaggerating the use of social media, whose role in the movement has been over emphasized, the young leaders who are more educated and technologically savvy, widely used social media to unite the core group of leaders. Undoubtedly, social media, the internet, TV and satellite technologies gave this movement a global face. In this sense, although the technology provided the movement a moral justification supported by the worldwide audience, the real credits goes to the youth who managed and used it effectively.

The miraculous uprising which swept the whole region should be seen in the context of political, economic, demographic and technological backdrop of the region, not in continuation with any past movement.


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  3 comments for “The Year of Revolts

    February 9, 2012 at 4:50 pm

    if the Arab Spring sought to overthrow tyrants who were ripping them off shouldn’t we have a American Spring in which we purge our country of politicians and all who buy their influence? Why have a revolution here? Is is not true that in our national politics democracy has been subverted: highjacked by money and twisted by big media? It is beyond time to say no to the system and those who hide behind it

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