Ideas and Movements behind the Arab Spring

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Shireen T. Hunter

In January 2010 in Tunisia, a youth set fire to himself and thus  sparked popular protests that not only led to the unseating of the  country's president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, but also spread to other  Arab states, most notably, Egypt. In Egypt, too, the  protesters eventually  forced the country's long-serving president Hosni Mubarak to  resign. Other Arab states followed, notably Libya, where the regime of  Muammar Qaddafi was toppled as a result of popular protests and  the Western military intervention in the form of NATO airstrikes. In  Syria, the anti-Bashar al-Assad movement led to a bloody civil  war, and in Bahrain an uprising resulted in a harsh crackdown by the  ruling  royal family, as well as military intervention by Saudi Arabia and the  United Arab Emirates in  support of the Bahraini government. These  protest movements and their outcome collectively came to be called the  Arab Spring.[1]

A major goal of the protesters everywhere from Tunisia to Bahrain and  Syria was to create more participatory and representative political  systems, a fairer economic system, and independent judiciaries. At the beginning, the success of protest movements in some Arab states ignited  hopes that these goals could be achieved, and that various groups united  against the ousted governments could develop democratic mechanisms to  settle their disputes and reach consensus on key issues facing their  respective countries.

These hopes, however, were not realized, and the success of the  protest movements in bringing down corrupt, repressive, and unpopular  governments did not result in the establishment of the  institutions and practices conducive to greater democracy, better  economic management, or fair and independent judiciaries. On the  contrary,  disagreements soon surfaced among various forces that had been united  in opposition to the existing regimes about the future direction of  their respective countries, the principles and philosophies that should  underpin the new institutions and practices, as well as over who  should yield power and through what mechanisms. Even worse, in many  cases, disagreements among various groups did not remain limited to the  more acceptable forms of electoral competition and verbal  skirmishes—they degenerated into violent clashes among opposing  forces.

This situation, in addition to demonstrating the formidable challenges  facing those who want to develop participatory, open, and non-corrupt  governments in the Arab World, meant that the successor governments  could not tackle their countries numerous, serious economic problems.  These problems have actually worsened in the last few years. 

Yet this outcome is not surprising. This is because the Arab World,  like most Muslim countries, is bedeviled by many societal fissures  and fault lines along economic, cultural, and ideological boundaries.  Moreover, many of these countries are also divided along ethnic,  regional and sectarian lines. For example, in Libya there are regional  differences that also translate into political disputes.[2] The Syrian conflict has a decidedly sectarian element to it as the country's Sunni majority resents the Alawite-dominated government of  Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile, Bahrain's Shia majority chafes under  the discriminatory rule of its Sunni royal family. 

Of all the divisions that bedevil Arab societies, those along cultural  lines are the most significant in terms of political ramifications. This divide is between the more westernized, secular segments of  Arab populations and those who remain religious and loyal to  the traditional Islamic culture of their societies. Politically, the  secular population desires a system more or less along the lines of  Western liberal democracies. By contrast, the traditional, religious  Muslim populations prefer a system that if not based entirely on  Islamic law is largely informed by Islam and its ethical values.

The importance of this divide has been demonstrated during the  post-uprising period, as most clashes and disagreements have erupted  between the proponents of a more secular system and those wanting to  establish an Islamic system. In fact, the political battle lines in the  post-uprising Arab states have been largely drawn along  Islamist-secular lines.[3] The  situation is further complicated by the divisions within the secularists and the  Islamists. For example, secular forces in places such as Egypt and  Tunisia comprise groups with leftist as well as liberal, nationalist  tendencies.[4] The Islamists,  meanwhile, are essentially divided between the more established and relatively moderate,  enlightened Islamic groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and  the Al Nahda in Tunisia, and the new, more conservative groups such  as the Salafis, which demand a political system based on a restrictive  interpretation of Islam.

This cultural divide is even reflected in disagreements among various  groups in the Arab World and elsewhere in the Muslim World about  the nature of the Arab uprisings and the primary ideational motivation  behind them. In fact, since the beginning of the Arab Spring, there  has been much debate about whether these uprisings were inspired by  Islam or by ideals of Western liberal democracy.[5] In reality,  however,  in terms of their demands and  desires, there is not much difference between Islamists and  secularists: all want political representation, all want  freedom of speech and other basic human rights and respect for their dignity, and all want an equitable socioeconomic structure.[6]

This is the reason why the mainstream Islamists also talk of popular  sovereignty, the people's rights, and social justice. The main reason  for this is that, over more than a century, Arab populations  have been deeply influenced by the major political ideas developed in  the West, most notably the ideas of popular rule and the rights of the  people, and socialism advancing the theory that society and the state  are responsible for guaranteeing social and economic justice for all. Consequently, today no political group can hope to win sufficient  popular acceptance without subscribing, sincerely or not, to these ethos.

The Islamists are no exception to this rule. They might claim  that Islam has already guaranteed such rights and provided the  guidelines for how to secure them, but they cannot deny their  legitimacy and importance. The main area of disagreement between the  secularists and the Islamists  relates to social ethics and cultural issues. The Islamists believe  that certain freedoms common in secular societies have no place in  majority Muslim societies. They believe that the freedom of choice of  individuals in Muslim societies is limited by the moral and legal  prohibitions imposed by Islam. To illustrate, according to the Islamists, a woman's freedom of choice in terms of her appearance is  limited by the Islamic rules of veiling (hijab) and modesty.  Similar limitations apply to other aspects of personal behavior.[7]

The Arab World's cultural divide also largely corresponds to its economic divisions. In other words, most religiously motivated citizens  belong to economically less-advantaged classes, while the secularists  are economically and educationally more privileged. The cultural fault  line also partially reflects the urban-rural divide in the Arab states,  with the urban population, particularly those of large cities, being  more secular than religious.

The Arab countries' societal divides, especially those related to  cultural, political, and economic areas, in turn reflect their  experience with modernity and its as-yet unfinished state and  its consequences, and the Arab societies' varied responses to these consequences. For  example, the rise of Islamism has in part been a reaction to  modernization and its outcomes. In fact, it could well be argued that  the Arab Spring and its aftermath is another stage in this evolving  process of the Arab world's modernization with its many twists and turns.

Therefore, to understand the Arab Spring and its aftermath, one must  look  at the movement in the context of the Arab World's encounter with  modernity, the ideas that accompanied modernity, and the dynamics that  this process set in  motion.

The beginnings of the Arab/Muslim societies'  introduction to modernity and the ideas and philosophies underpinning  it  dates to their encounter with the West in the late 18th century. In the  case of the Arab states, a good starting date for this first encounter  would be the landing of Napoleon Bonaparte's French troops in Egypt in  1798. This event would mark the beginning of the process of Western imperial  expansion into the Arab lands and their eventual colonialization.[8]

Napoleon's entry into Egypt, coupled with developments in other parts of the Islamic World, brought the  Arab/Muslim peoples face to face with the harsh reality of their  decline. This realization, in turn, set in motion a long process of soul-searching about the causes of this decline as well as efforts  to find ways of reversing it through the application of necessary reforms. And  this process of reform then set in motion dynamics that dramatically  altered the fabric of Arab/Muslim societies and gave rise  to new forces, ideas, and groups that have been affecting the evolution  of Arab societies for over a century.

Until the early 18th century, Arab/Muslim societies  had more or less equal status in terms of their scientific and  industrial development. Moreover, the moral and ethical foundations of  their societies were essentially also similar. This was so because until that time, both in the West and in Arab/Muslim societies, religion provided the moral framework and to a great degree the legal  framework of each society. In earlier times, the present divide between the West and  Arab/Muslim countries on these issues, especially as it relates to personal ethics, did not exist. However, this situation began to change  after  the dawn the Age of Reason/Enlightenment in Europe followed by the  Industrial Revolution.

The first development led to the secularization of the Western  societies and the rise of ideas, such as nationalism and  constitutionalism and the inherent rights of the people, and eventually  the idea of progress. The rationalist mind set also accelerated  Europe's scientific advance and also contributed to an acceleration of  Europe's industrial development. The end result of these developments  was a growing and still-persistent  gap between the power of the West and those of the non-European  countries. This discrepancy in power, coupled with he growing Western  belief in its own civilizational superiority, in turn led to the European imperial expansion into the Arab/Muslim world—which  resulted  in the defeat of Muslim powers by European  countries and their eventual domination by them.

The cultural changes that had led to the increase in the European  powers and resulted in their victory over the Muslim powers led many in  the Muslim world to conclude that cultural factors, notably the  excessive role of religion in Muslim societies, was responsible for  their decline and hence their defeat. A further conclusion was that to  remedy their decline, Muslims must adopt the Europeans' way of thinking  and doing. However, not all in the Muslim World agreed with this analysis and  attributed Muslims' decline to their distancing of Islamic values and  principles.

For nearly a century, European ideas and models  became the inspiration for Muslim countries' effort to change their  societies and acquire the scientific and other tools that would enable  them to at least narrow the gap in power that had emerged between them  and Europe and had led to their domination by the Europeans. The result  was the infiltration and spread of  European ideas of rationalism, secularism, nationalism,  constitutionalism, and above all, progress. Meanwhile, reforms in  educational systems of Muslim countries and in general the expansion of education created significant cultural shifts in the society.  However, since different segments of society were affected by these  reforms to varying degrees, these shifts had led to the fragmentation  of the cultural unity of Muslim societies. The shifts also led to the  emergence of a gap  between a still-limited Europeanized and secular elite and the majority  of the population, which had remained religious and traditional.  Despite several decades of development, this cultural divide has not  disappeared, as evidenced by the glaring secular-religious divide  apparent in the Arab Spring uprisings.

Educational and other reforms, meanwhile, also  resulted in a degree of economic development and the emergence new  professional and industrial working classes. An early consequence of  the modernization and development  process was that the economic and social position of the religious and  traditional classes eroded and further deepened the secular-religious  divide.[9] On the political front, by  the mid-20th century, at least  the  outward forms of European constitutional systems were adopted in those  Muslim countries that had gained their independence from the colonial  powers.

From the mid-19th century to the 1940s, the Muslim World's main  inspiration was Western Europe. However, by the 1940s, socialist ideas, especially from the Soviet Union, had also gained currency in the Muslim countries.  Moreover, the victory of the Bolshevik Revolution (the Russian  Revolution of 1917), and later the communist victoties in China and Cuba, had popularized the concept  of revolution as a vehicle for rapid change and progress among Arab/Muslim intellectual elites and the new professional and working classes.[10]  In  the Arab World, the influence of socialist ideas  had led to the development of local variants such as Arab socialism  (best embodied by Egypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser) and Baathism  (such as that of Syria's Baath Party); and by the 1950s had resulted in  revolutions in Egypt and  Iraq, and later in Syria and Libya.

Since the beginning of their reform movement, and  especially since the late 1940s when development became the main focus  of Muslim countries' peoples and governments, the Islamic World has  made significant progress in many areas. However, the level of most  Muslim countries'  development has not been sufficient to meet the rising expectations and  aspirations of their peoples. More seriously, the fruits of whatever  development has been achieved have been unevenly distributed among  various segments of the population, which has led to the growing  socioeconomic gap.

Meanwhile, the process of modernization and  development, most notably advances in education, have led to what in  the  development literature is referred to as the phenomenon of rising  expectations. Middle Eastern populations expected that after decades of  development their conditions should have been improved much more than it has, and the socioeconomic gap narrowed instead of widening. The  fact that in many places the overall conditions had somewhat improved  was not sufficient.

A very important consequence of this discrepancy  between the level of people's expectations and government performance  was that by the early 1970s the ideas connected with  various developmentalist projects—be they of free-market or socialist  type—had lost their validity in the eyes of a large part of  Middle Eastern populations. This disappointment in turn created a  need for a new discourse for dealing with the manifold socioeconomic  and other problems of the Arab and Islamic countries.

In view of the important place of Islam in the  Arab/Muslim peoples' identity and culture, it is not surprising that  when disillusioned by the results of development projects based on  foreign ideologies, Muslims tried to find a model suited to their  indigenous cultures and turned to Islam for guidance. Consequently, a  number of Muslim intellectuals and political activists began to look  to Islam to provide them with a road map to chart the Muslim  countries' path to socioeconomic development, social justice,  and fair governance.

The result of this endeavor was the emergence of  what has been called political Islam.  However, the term ideological  Islam would be more apt, since in the process of creating a  discourse  based on Islam, Muslim intellectuals turned Islam into an ideology.  This transformation of Islam into political ideology was a direct  result of the process of modernization, especially the expansion of education and Muslim intellectuals coming into contact with various  Western ideas, most notably socialism. Intellectuals such as Seyyed  Muhammad Qutub of Egypt and Ali Shariati of Iran developed their ideas  under the influence of Marxism. They both had studied (Shariati) or  spent time in Europe and the United States (Qutub), and  were well acquainted with Western ideas.

Political Islam was also the discourse of those elements of the society  that had remained traditional and religious despite undergoing secular  education, but felt politically marginalized and inadequately rewarded  by the existing systems. Rashid Ghannushi, the founder of Tunisia's Al  Nahda party, is a good example of such Islamist intellectual and  political activists.[11] However,  with the exception of the Persian,  non-Arab Iran—where the Islamic Revolution succeeded and led to the  establishment of an Islamic  government—Islamist forces were kept in check in the Arab countries.  But for three decades, the Islamists constituted the main  opposition  to the existing regimes. Now, in those countries where the old regimes  have fallen, these forces are competing with secular forces for the control of the levers of power and the shaping of their society's  future.

The Islamist movement has always had different local  varieties reflecting the peculiarities of various countries. For  example, Tunisia's Islamist movement was different from that of Morocco  or Egypt, while also sharing common features. In the last 15 years,  however, the movement has  also developed varieties based on their interpretation of Islam. This  has given rise to what is variously referred to as liberal Islam or  reformist Islam. Reformist Islam is an effort to synthesize Islam and  Western liberal ideology and try to make Islam compatible with notions  of democracy and closer to the international understanding of human rights.[12] Then there are moderate conservative Islamists, best  represented by the Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile, a new restrictive and  literalist form of Islam often  referred to as Salafist has also emerged, largely under the influences emanating form Saudi Arabia. During the Arab Spring, and especially  after the fall of the Arab regimes, this strain of Islamist discourse  has also been competing with other Islamist and secular forces.

The events known as the Arab Spring are a  consequence of the difficult and often-interrupted process of  development and modernization that the Arab/Muslim countries have  undergone for more than a century. During this process, which began as  a result of Western colonization of the Arab World, many foreign ideas, ranging from nationalism to liberal democracy and socialism—plus Islam  as the cornerstone of Arab identity and culture—have informed the  Arab peoples' efforts to develop their societies and to improve their  own living conditions. In the process, many of the basic ideas relating  to the right to a decent life, and to social justice and basic civil  and political rights (including the right to have a say in the running  of their societies) have developed a strong foundation in the Arab  countries.  Sometimes these rights are claimed on the basis of some foreign  ideology or political philosophy, and at other times on the basis of Islam's own principles. The important point is that these ideas have  grown deep roots in the Arab soil.

However, these societies still lack the  institutional mechanisms to achieve these goals. Moreover,  cultural and ideological differences within these countries are causing  difficulties in reaching agreement on goals and the means of  achieving them. In addition, other ethnic and sectarian  divisions, some the result of the Arab World's colonial past, further  complicate the creation of democratic institutions and practices.

Lastly, most Arab states are still subject to  external regional and international influences trying to shape their  evolution and that of the broader region, according to their own  preferences. One example of this is the NATO intervention in Libya,  the Saudi intervention in Bahrain, and Saudi, Iranian, Turkish, Qatari, and Western intervention in the Syrian conflict. In the  process,  these interventions only deepen the Arab World's already existing  divides. In short, the Arab Spring is unlikely to result in stable,  just, and democratic societies any  time soon. On the contrary, if  the turmoil in Arab societies continues, nostalgia for order might turn  the clock back and result in the emergence of new authoritarian systems  of government of either secular or Islamist variety, and in this  way perpetuate the cycle of dictatorship and rebellion in the Arab  World.


 [1] The origins of the term Arab  Spring refers to the liberalizing movement in 1968 in  Czechoslovakia known as the Prague Spring.

[2] Chris Stephen, "After Gaddafi,  Libya Splits into Disparate Militia  Zones," The Guardian/ The Observer,  June 9, 2012 at:;  also, Steve Hendrix, "Post-Gaddafi Libya Confronts Its Diversity," The Washington Post, March 31, 2012; also, Justin Hyatt, "The Secular Fret in New Tunisia," Global Issues, November 26, 2012,  at: 

[3] Christopher Alexander, "Suspicion  and Strategy in Free Tunisia,"  The  Middle East Channel, January 20, 2012 at:

[4] For a list of secular parties in  Tunisia see: Noha El Hennawy,  "Tunisia's Islamist-Secular Divide Gives a New Meaning to the Battle," Egypt Independent, February 5,  2013,  at:

[5] Robert Sibley, "Arab Spring Not  Islamist Uprising, Says Muslim Intellectual," Islam Today,  July 20, 2011 at:; also, Ahmad Bakhshi, "The Arab Spring Is an Islamic Uprising," Mehr News  Agency, February 4, 2011 at:

[6] Samir Khalil Samir, "Unfinished:  The Arab Spring's Islamic Winter," Asia, June 12, 2012 at:,  the author identifies the main impetus to the Arab Spring the peoples  desire for "…bread, work and dignity."

[7] See: Shireen T. Hunter and Huma  Malik (eds.), Islam and Human  Rights: Advancing a  U.S.-Muslim Dialogue, Washington, D.C.: Center For Strategic  and International Studies, 2005.

[8] For a discussion of these issues  see among others: Shireen T.  Hunter and Huma Malik (eds.), Modernization,  Democracy And Islam, Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005; also, Shireen  T. Hunter (ed.), Reformist Voices of  Islam: Mediating Islam and  Modernity, Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe Inc., 2008, pp. 6–17.

[9] For examples of this phenomenon  see various chapters in  Shireen  T. Hunter, The Politics of Islamic  Revivalism: Diversity and Unity, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1988.

[10] The idea of revolution,  however was not totally alien to earlier  generation of  Arab/Muslim elites. In the 19th century and the  early 20th century, Muslim intellectuals seeking constitutional  governments were inspired by the ideas of the French Revolution. This  was especially the case with Iran's 1905 Constitutional Revolution.

[11] See the chapter by Norma Salem  on Tunisia in The Politics of  Islamic Revivalism.

[12] See: Reformist Voices of Islam:  Mediating Islam and Modernity.

*Shireen T. Hunter is Visiting Professor at the Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding of Georgetown University in Washington DC, United States. She is also a distinguished scholar (non-resident) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC.

Source: ABC-CLIO's World History: The Modern Era Website

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*These views represent those of the author and are not necessarily Iran Review's viewpoints. 

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