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The Arab Spring (AS)



The Arab spring was a series of protests and revolutions in the Arab world
that began on Saturday December 18th, 2010 in Tunisia.
Arab Spring demonstrations, outside the Libyan Embassy in London on February 22, 2011

To date, the government has been overthrown in:
  • Tunisia (14 January 2011)
  • Egypt (11 February 2011)
  • Libya (23 August 2011)

Protests in other countries have resulted in governmental changes, including: Lebanon, Jordan, Oman, Yemen, Bahrain, Kuwait, Morocco, Syria.1

The following wiki pages explores the Arab Spring revolutions in Egypt and Libya, examining how digital media tools aided the changes in government that resulted from these protests.

Key Findings

Tahir Square 2011, Photo by Jonathan Rashad
While characteristics of economic hardship were present in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya at the time of the revolutions these conditions had been present for many years, and were not the triggers for the movements seen in the Arab Spring. Professor Eva Bellin of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University has identified four key factors that were essential 2:

  1. An emotional Trigger, either positive or negative

  2. A calculation of risk that resulted in the belief that protest would not result in a lethal response from the armed forces

  3. The abandonment of the ruler by the military

  4. The use of social media to enable speedy organization of protestors and assist in global news coverage

Tunisian send their message to the world

Emotional Triggers

In the case of Tunisia two events in particular sparked mass participation:
  • The self-immolation of Mohamed Bonazizi
  • Lethal force used by the regime on protesters in December 2010

For Egypt there were several circumstances that sparked outrage:
  • The murder of activist Khaled Said, publicized on Facebook
  • The debilitated elections of November 2010
  • The mid winter price spike of basic food commodities
  • The success of the Tunisian revolution generated joy and hope and proved to be one of the emotional triggers with a positive sentiment

In Libya mass protest was triggered by:
  • The arrest of writer Jamal al-Hajji after he called online for demonstrations for greater freedoms in Libya, inspired by Tunisia and Egypt
  • Protest in Benghazi for the arrest of human-rights activist Fathi Terbil were broken up violently by police on February 15

Calculation of Risk

Once a demonstration reaches a certain size it tends to gain momentum as people perceive the risk of participation is low when the size of the protest is large. Further, once civilians are convinced that the military is hesitating or unwilling to back the regime the risk of protesting also declines significantly.2

protests.jpgIn Tunisia, on January 13, 2011, Rachid Ammar, the Chief of Staff of the Tunisian Armed Forces refused to follow the orders of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, then president of Tunisia, to shoot protesters, responding: "Agree to deploy soldiers to calm the situation, but the army does not shoot the people."3

In Egypt, by January 29 it became apparent that the military was more concerned with protecting government buildings that oppressing protesters, and on January 31 military spokesperson declared that "the military understood the legitimacy of [the protestors'] demands... the armed forces will not resort to force against our great people."4

In Libya, numerous senior military officials defected to the opposition, two Libyan Air Force colonels requested asylum in Malta after being ordered to carry out airstrikes against civilian protesters in Benghazi, and the commander of the Benghazi Naval Base along with senior naval officials also defected.

Military Professionalism

When a military defects mass protests gain momentum and ruling dictators flee. A military is classified as professional if it is not linked by blood or kinship to the ruler, and thus is not invested in the survival of the ruler. An order to fire on civilians is at odds with the military's imperative to defend the nation, and threatens its legitimacy and internal discipline. 2

The military in Tunisia has historically been removed from politics. The country's founder, Habib Bourguiba, put in place a small military that was removed from power. When the president ordered the military to open fire on civilians it was in a position to refuse, which resulted in Ben Ali's fleeing of Tunisia.

In Egypt, the military was not linked by blood or marriage to the family of Hosni Mubarak. However, the military had participated in the governing of Egypt and had strong links with the regime. Ultimately legitimacy and professionalism won over the military's investment in Mubarak, and its allegiance was declared to the youth of Egypt.

Social Media as an Agent for Change

Historically political protest in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya had been debilitated by societal collusion and state repression. Political activists were arrested and beaten, public gatherings were tightly controlled, and speech and publications were censored.

New media (in the form of Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, websites, and smart phones) provided a means of coordination and communication for thousands of people. Mass gatherings were made possible in the absence of traditional organizational infrastructure.

New media acted as a mobilization catalyst, allowing anonymous and spontaneous actions that could counteract the moves of repressive regimes. Even when the Egyptian government shut down the internet at the height of the mass protests, locations of new protest were submitted to Al Jazeera via cell phones and broadcasted across the country.

References and Resources

1. See summary of protests by country
2. Bellin, E., 'Lessons from the Jasmine and Nile Revolutions: Possibilities of Political Transformation in the Middle East?', Crown Center for Middle East Studies, Brandeis University, May (2011)
3. Samy, Ghorbal (16 January 2011). English Translation "Rachid Ammar, homme fort de la Tunisie : « L'armée ne tire pas »". Rue89. Archived from the original on 19 January 2011. Retrieved 19 January 2011
4. David Kirkpatrick, "Mubarak's Grip on Power is Shaken", New York Times, January 31, 2011