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GIGA Focus Nahost

The Arab Spring: Misconceptions and Prospects

Number: 4 | 10/2016 | ISSN: 1862-3611

The Arab Spring of 2011 is acknowledged as a turning point for the Arab world. While there were high expectations at the outset regarding the democratisation of the region, at present pessimistic assessments predominate, given the numerous wars and the return of authoritarian rule. At least four misconceptions about the Arab Spring can be identified, and these provide information important for a more realistic appraisal both of the likelihood of future democratic reforms and of the challenges to lasting stability in the region.

  • Many Western observers were surprised by the Arab Spring, despite numerous indications of deep dissatisfaction among the people of the region, and even though most of the deficiencies of authoritarian rule and of economic underdevelopment had been recognised for decades.

  • The expectation that the Middle East would democratise based on a Western model ignored the fact that democratisation was not a priority for most protestors, partly because of the Janus-faced use of the term “democracy” by Western actors in the region.

  • Despite some shared characteristics among the region’s countries, the Arab Spring was not a homogeneous movement. Aside from similar structural problems and some general demands on the part of demonstrators for dignity and justice, the protests took a different form in each country.

  • As a result of the electoral success of moderate Islamists and the rise of violent jihadist actors, some observers postulated an “Islamic Winter” sweeping the region. But this perspective has proven to be somewhat flawed, as the increasing level of confrontation between Sunnis and Shiites and between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists, as well as the proclamation of the ISIS caliphate, have plunged political Islam as a whole into an identity crisis.

Policy Implications

Contrary to the initial hopes for a fundamental reform or even a revolution vis-à-vis existing conditions, the Arab Spring has left in its wake a region that ­evinces deep cleavages and that is characterised by violent conflicts. Nevertheless, Western countries must not revert to their pre-2011 political approach, ­alleging that the pursuit of regional stability justifies supporting the ­reinvigorated ­authoritarian regimes.


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The German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA) – Leibniz-Institut für Globale und Regionale Studien in Hamburg publishes the Focus series on Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and global issues. The GIGA Focus is edited and published by the GIGA. The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the institute. Authors alone are responsible for the content of their articles. GIGA and the authors cannot be held liable for any errors and omissions, or for any consequences arising from the use of the information provided.

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