Arab Spring

Beginning in early 2011, mass public protests swept much of the Arab world, bringing a mix of hope, sadness, and foreboding for the future, this became known as the “Arab Spring”, and sometimes as the “Arab Spring and Winter”, “Arab Awakening” or “Arab Uprisings” even though not all the participants in the protests were Arabs.

While the demonstrations sent several long-serving presidents out of their countries, other rulers mobilized their security forces and inflicted high civilian casualties to retain their grip on central power. Decades of political stagnation and top-down control across a wide swath of Arab countries fueled the anger of activists, who took to the streets and to social media, determined to oust the occupants of the presidential palaces. From Tunisia and Egypt, revolutionary zeal spread to Oman, Jordan, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, and Libya. However, these movements and their targeted regimes took different trajectories. Developments are on-going and the future is open-ended and uncertain. Nevertheless, it can already be discerned how the uprisings are beginning to transform the political landscape and, in particular, how they may affect the prospects for democratization in the Arab world and perhaps sub-Saharan Africa. Each one of the 2011 Arab uprisings must be treated on its own merits but, for the purposes of exploring the prospects for democratization, they can be divided into three 22 broad types or categories. In the first, mass civic revolts led to the peaceful overthrow of powerful dictators; this was the case of Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. In the second category, uprisings led to internal fracture, violence and even civil war. In the case of Libya, revolt invited foreign military intervention and ultimately led to the overthrow of Muammar Gadhafi. In Bahrain, the uprising was brutally suppressed. In Yemen, there has been political confrontation and a simmering crisis. In Syria, a popular revolt is continuing but the regime is attempting to suppress it. The third category comprises Arab states which did not experience major upheavals. The partial exceptions are Morocco and Jordan where ruling monarchs, faced with a degree of popular challenge, tried to forestall an even bigger one by offering political concessions. The reasons behind the uprisings and the factors which determined their success or failure are closely linked to making judgments about political change.1


The Role of the Army

The army is usually well treated in Africa and not only in dictatorships. It successfully quashes any revolt that threatens the regime. It is usually well represented in governments. Yet in the case of Egypt and Tunisia, it joined the protests.

In Tunisia and Egypt, it is only when armed forces backed the people that the dictators left. In Côte d’Ivoire, in 2000 the army disobeyed its leader and stopped shooting, reversing the balance of power. There is a critical point when the army feels that things have done too far: the rioters are too many and repressing them would result in a bloodbath, and/or the revolution is irreversible; or the army is in danger itself, especially if some of its forces have joined the rioters. This was the case in Madagascar in 2009 or in Côte d’Ivoire after the controversial October 2000 elections.2

In Egypt, after 17 days of expanding unrest, the army which has been holding power since the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 also felt that the time had come for Mubarak to go and told him so probably because they were afraid of going down with Mubarak.3

The Role of Religion

The Arab spring caught most, if not all, observers by surprise. There is great religious diversity in the region, much more than is often recognized, so it is difficult to generalize, but one could say that religion has had a lesser role than might have been anticipated.

In Tunisia, the Ennahda Movement took 41% of the seats; in Morocco, the Justice and Development Party more than doubled its number of seats in the Assembly of Representatives to 27%; and in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi Al Nour Party won 69% of the seats and the Muslim Brotherhood have eventually won the presidential elections.4

The Role of Social Media and Technologies

Modern technology penetration is deeper in North Africa than in Sub Saharan Africa. Average Internet penetration is 11.5 percent, with a high 30 percent in Nigeria, West Africa’s economic powerhouse to a low 3.7 percent in Cameroon. Who owns a computer in Sub– Saharan Africa? Educated people from the small African middle class, either with the ruling party or in the opposition can afford a computer. Young people, who account for about 40 percent of the population in Sub – Saharan Africa go to Internet cafes rather than surfing from home, making it more difficult for them to organize around a cause.5

The Governance System in Algeria and Egypt

In both Egypt and Algeria, the governance system was one that suppressed opposition. In Algeria for instance, riots broke out in October 1988, marked by a series of street-level disturbances and riotous demonstrations by Algerian youth, which indirectly led to the fall of the country’s single-party system and the introduction of democratic reform, but also to a spiral of instability and increasingly vicious political conflict, ultimately fostering the Algerian Civil War. After the riots of 1988, the Algerian government had moved towards democracy, holding free elections.

However, when the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won the best war first free parliamentary election in 1991, the military staged a coup d’état, voided the election results, declared a state of emergency which remained in force until 2011, and arrested the FIS leadership. This led to the founding of the Armed Islamic Groups (GIA) and the ten-year Algerian Civil War, in which an estimated 150,000 people were killed.6


Security concerns following the Arab Spring have intensified. The situation in the West African sub-region has particularly been complicated by the fall of the Qaddafi regime. The fall of the Qaddafi regime has given rise to territorial and geopolitical instability and has enabled terrorist groups and drug traffickers to reinforce their position in Mali. Arms have proliferated and now circulate even more easily across Mali, which has fallen into the hands of terrorist groups and drug traffickers. The terrorist groups include Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Boko Haram in Nigeria, etc.

Another case of concern with regards to the security implications of the Arab Spring for Africa is Instability through Gun-running (smuggling and sale of arms and ammunition); narcotics; human trafficking; money laundering.

The North African Spring has without any doubt influenced politics in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). Since the beginning of 2011, bemused Africans have seen “permanent” dictators such as Ben Ali or Mubarak fall. Gadhafi used to be, if not an admired figure, at least a feared leader not only in his country but also in SSA where he financed a number of investments (as well as coups and revolutions).

According to Boka (2012), Gadhafi’s demise may weaken some dictators who benefited from his financial and military support. Opposition movements and pressure groups in SSA have immediately seen the opportunity arising from all these changes and are trying to organize people, with some success in some countries.7

The influence of youth organizations and artistes on SSA organizations cannot be denied, as evidenced by the Y’en a Marre (“We’re fed up”) movement in Senegal, modeled after Egypt’s Kefaya (“Enough!”) and other movements such as April 6, initially a Facebook group in support of a strike that took place in 2008. Mid-February 2011, Dakar online published an article titled “the demise of Mubarak puts an end to Wade’s dynastic ambitions”. From then on, the

Senegalese press enthusiastically followed Mubarak’s fall, drawing a parallel between Gamal Mubarak and Karim Wade, the alleged successor of his father, President Abdoulaye Wade. Opposition leader Niasse wished “the same for Senegal”.8

In Angola, an anonymous group in March via the Internet called for a protest against President Eduardo dos Santos, the attempt was nipped in the bud but artiste Brigadeiro was arrested. In Zimbabwe, students were arrested for watching an Al Jazeera and BBC video showing the “uprisings that brought down autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt”. The Zimbabwe Independent also drew a parallel between Robert Mugabe and Hosni Mubarak.9


  • 1 Dalacoura, K. (2011). Democratization: Uprising, Violence and Reform. London School of Economics and Political Science
  • 2 The Ivorian Crisis. Available online at
  • 3 Boka, L. (2012). Impact of the North African Revolutions on sub-Saharan Africa. Open Society AfriMAP.
  • 4 Zaman, M (2011). The Role of Religion in the Arab Spring. Available online at
  • 5 Christophe, B. RFI, (2011). Available online at
  • 6 Richards, C (1995). Algeria Uses Emergency Laws to Fight Islamic Group. The Independent London.
  • 7 Boka, L. (2012). Impact of the North African Revolutions on sub-Saharan Africa. Open Society AfriMAP. Available online at
  • 8 Dakar online, 2011 as cited in Boka, L. (2012). Impact of the North African Revolutions on sub-Saharan Africa. 
  • Open Society AfriMAP. Available online at 
  • 9 Makombe, 2011 
  • Boka, L. (2012). “Impact of the North African Revolutions on sub-Saharan Africa”. Open Society AfriMAP.
  • International Policy Digest –

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