This post is part of IPSA‘s pre-conference blog series.
The topic of this year’s annual IPSA conference, REVOLUT!ONS: People, Politics and Change, was almost certainly chosen in light of the political and social changes occurring in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Given the importance of these events to our conference discussions, I will use this blog post to provide an overview of the MENA movements and to share some supplementary materials.
On December 18, 2010, Tunisians organized a protest calling for the restoration of their national constitution, which had been suspended under President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. This event marked the start of a wave of other movements in countries across North Africa and the Middle East, now collectively known as the Arab Spring.
Since the start of the Arab Spring there have been protests in more than 18 MENA countries, with some movements receiving more support and realizing greater success than others. In four Arab nations –Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen – citizen movements succeeded in toppling their oppressive dictators, often times through violent struggles. In other countries like Syria and Bahrain, protestors and opposition groups have been less successful, as they have been aggressively suppressed by state forces, resulting in numerous civilian casualties.
Governments in Saudi Arabia and Morocco have gone out of their way to appeal to the population by promising to increase spending on their citizens. In countries like Mauritania, Sudan, and Western Sahara, protests have occurred on a relatively smaller scale, and yet often receive significant support. (See map above and click on the links below the image to learn more about the protests in each country.)
Though each movement has been shaped under unique political contexts and in response to varying grievances, they all share a common theme –citizens demanding to shift power away from dictators in order to have more influence in the political sphere. As it turns out, the Arab Spring embodies a larger global historical trend toward relatively less powerful dictators. As a Cornell Professor explains in an NPR report, “It’s not only that there are fewer dictators, but there are virtually no dictators left who don’t talk the language of democracy and turnover of executive power.”
Holding on to power has gotten much harder for dictators in the past decades. Through social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, opposition leaders are able to mobilize and organize protests at unprecedented levels, with less effort, and in less time. Moreover, digital mass media allows for instant dissemination of information, often in the form of powerful video footage or pictures. These images have the potential to make dictators less popular by exposing oppressive and inhumane practices; thereby increasing the likelihood for support or intervention on the part of local allies and the international community (which as we have seen in Syria, only works in some cases).
Though it may take some time to reach political stability in some parts of MENA, in the long-run, the success of the Arab Spring movements will depend on the degree to which people’s lives improve under the new systems of governance. Some argue that in order for a stable democracy to succeed in these countries, political institutions must emphasize the inclusion of ethnic and religious minorities. Others are more concerned that these nascent democracies may elect radical anti-west Islamists into power, limiting people’s freedoms even further. Regardless of how these events play out, the MENA movements will undoubtedly have lasting and profound political, social, and economic effects on the countries of that region and the rest of the world.