The Arab Spring’s complexity

Last December, it was ten years since Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire, which sparked a series of revolutions across the MENA region. Looking back at the developments in the last decade, it might be tempting to take stock of the current situation and to conclude that the ‘Arab Spring’ has failed. But it would be unfair and unwise to do so.
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Jan 21, 2021

By Mark Snijder

It is unfair because in complex systems, like Middle Eastern politics and societies, we cannot ‘blame’ the outcomes at a certain point in time on one element or one actor only. Complex systems involve large numbers of interacting elements and are highly dynamic: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Developments in such systems emerge from constantly changing circumstances. After decades of autocratic regimes, and confronted with harsh (international) geopolitical realities, we cannot blame the protesters at Tahrir Square, in the Syrian town of Dera’a or the Libyan city of Benghazi for not having fulfilled their dreams. As the Libyan author Hisham Matar strikingly phrases in his novel The Return (2016): ‘The calamity that followed the fall of Qaddafi is more true to the nature of his dictatorship than to the ideals of the revolution’.

It is unwise to declare the Arab Spring as having failed because it prevents us from learning. What circumstances contributed to the emergence of the Arab Spring? What happened during the events, and what happened after? And what does this mean for the (political) choices we have to make today?

Butterfly effect

Learning starts with recognising that the Arab Spring is not a one-off historical event which suddenly appeared and after some time just ended. The Arab Spring is often referred to as a ‘black swan’: a highly unpredictable and improbable event which has potentially severe consequences. I can understand why. Like many people, I was pretty surprised by the timing, rapidity and spillover effects of the events taking place in the MENA region from December 2010 onwards.

But from complexity theory, we know that the development of a complex social system can have unforeseen U-turns and highly disruptive deviations. Complex systems often have non-linear behaviour, which means that small initial changes can have unexpected and disproportionate large consequences. This phenomenon is known as the ‘butterfly effect’: the flap of a butterfly’s wing in Brazil could set off a tornado in Texas. This doesn’t mean the butterfly actually caused the tornado. But it does mean that if this particular butterfly hadn’t flapped his wings at that specific moment, the tornado might never have formed.

The self-immolation by Mohamed Bouazizi had such a butterfly effect. Bouazizi didn’t cause the Arab Spring himself. But if he hadn’t set himself on fire on that specific place and that particular moment, the Arab Spring might never have happened the way it did.

From this, we might think that the Arab Spring is a random event, which happened out of the blue without any warning signs. But there is some logic in the butterfly effect. At least in hindsight, we can trace the links between the (sometimes minor) changes and developments which ultimately resulted in a high impact event such as the Arab Spring. Historical events do not take place randomly. Therefore, I believe the Arab Spring can be seen as a somehow logical consequence of long term developments and trends which were there already many years before 2010, even going back to the era of European colonialism. And the impact of the events in 2010/2011 can still be seen until this day, which means they shape current reality as much as they did ten years ago. The Arab Spring is still with us.

Not random, but highly probable

Looking back at the Arab Spring events in 2010/2011, we can easily identify multiple trends and circumstances leading up to the massive demonstrations. Much has already been written about this in recent years, referring to important elements such as the high and persistent (youth) unemployment, widespread corruption, the lack of political freedom, failing social services, the rising cost of living, the demographic situation (‘youth bulge’), and the role of social media. Some researchers point out we could have foreseen the revolutions, or claim they actually did, by carefully analysing relevant data such as rising food prices. A large-scale youth survey conducted prior to the events in 2010/2011 argues it already revealed an image of a ‘generation on the cusp of change’.

The main question is not whether we could (or should) have predicted the dramatic events which took place across the region. Because of its complexity, we can never fully predict a historical event in all its details. Nobody could have foreseen that the desperate act of Mohamed Bouazizi set the stage for the Arab Spring. Nine months before, another Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire to protest the government. But have you heard of him?

But at the same time, the Arab Spring did not take place randomly. It was sparked by a highly spontaneous event, acting as a catalyst. But it was also the result of persistent long term developments and structural circumstances. Although most of us were highly surprised by the timing and the details of the unexpected catalyst, we couldn’t be surprised by the underlying conditions, since ‘these were well known and written about for years’ (Wilson Center). Instead of a black swan, the Arab Spring could be considered a ‘gray rhino’: a high-impact event (or threat) which is highly probable, if we do not ignore its warning signs.

Why is it important to acknowledge that there is some logic in the butterfly effect, and that the Arab Spring did not take place randomly? Because it demonstrates that our acts, and the choices we make, indeed play an important role in the emergence of future events. Moreover, it makes us think about what we can learn from our experiences in the past. Although history doesn’t repeat itself, it often rhymes.

Three lessons

A careful analysis of trends and patterns will help us to imagine potential scenarios which are likely to emerge. And it will help us to make our (political) decisions accordingly. When looking at the MENA region, I believe there are three lessons we should take into consideration.

First, there is a need to look beyond short term incidents and accidents. We need to unravel the fundamental patterns and developments which lie underneath. They might be somewhat hidden, but they are of utmost importance for truly making sense of what is happening in the MENA region, and how we could relate to this. A quick look at this region might tell us there is only brutal violence, corrupt regimes and disillusioned young people. But a more careful look would reveal the persistent calls for a renewed social contract, increasing pressure on the ‘old elites’ and promising experiments with (local) democratic decision-making. As Dutch scholar Laila al-Zwaini recently stated when referring to the developments in Iraq: ‘Where many see instability, I see a persevering movement towards a civil state’. 7 We should acknowledge these trends and judge them by their true merits, even if short-term developments might hint in another direction. The Arab Spring is an event of first-order political importance, as clearly put forward by Harvard Law School professor Noah Feldman. Its significance ‘must not be overlooked or played down simply because the exercise of political agency in Egypt and Syria later went seriously awry’.

Second, since there was a multitude of circumstances together contributing to the emergence of the Arab Spring, we need a holistic approach in our policies regarding the MENA region. All elements in a complex system are constantly interacting and mutually influencing each other. Because of this, it is impossible to have significant impact by addressing one element only. Therefore, we need to make sure that our various efforts (foreign policy, development cooperation, migration policies, humanitarian aid, international trade, intergovernmental cooperation) do not contravene each other and, preferably, mutually reinforce each other.

Finally, since we are talking about long term trends and developments, we need to make political choices based on a long term perspective, rather than on short term interests. This means that the pursuit of (short term) stability can never be the main driver for our foreign policies regarding the MENA region. Foreign policies based on a long term perspective should first and foremost take into account the position and needs of the young generations in the Middle East, who eventually will shape the region’s future.

Military exports

In July 2020, the Dutch government issued a licence for the export of military equipment to Egypt (worth 114 million euros). The Ministry of Foreign Affairs claims there is no reason to assume that this military equipment might be used either in the civil wars in Libya and Yemen, or in the violent crackdowns of domestic protests. 11 This could be true. But the question is whether this particular political decision is appropriate given the underlying developments in Egyptian society; whether it is consistent with other policy choices we make regarding Egypt; and whether it contributes to our long term perspective for Egypt and the Middle East. Imagining a new future for the MENA region is more than merely daydreaming. It also means being accountable for the choices we make today.

This article was first published in Idee, the magazine of the Mr. Hans van Mierlo Stichting.