The uprisings that began with pushing Tunisian autocrat Ben Ali from power in January 2011 have fostered dizzying levels of activism and a deluge of analyses. The changing times are exciting, though scary; the information intriguing, though often misleading.
Much of the current analysis revolves around myths that fail to hold up under scrutiny. Revisiting these myths sheds light on recent changes in the Arab world and on where the region may be heading.
Arabs and outsiders alike have heralded technology-savvy youth for engineering the uprisings. They argue that young Arabs used Facebook and Twitter accounts to mobilize people as never before. Certainly, youth-led social media played a role in the uprisings, but viewing the uprisings too narrowly in these terms overlooks the breadth and depth of the popular mobilization.
In June 2012, the Danish-Egyptian Dialogue Institute and the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies conducted a survey of 1,200 Egyptians, above 18 years of age, across 21 of the country’s sections but not including border governorates. It found that while citizens under the age of 30 were somewhat mobilized, they made up slightly less than half of protesters over 18.
Moreover, Egyptians 40 to 50 years old were highly mobilized during the revolution. Only about 12 percent of the respondents in this age group said they participated in demonstrations before the revolution, but about 20 percent joined the 2011 uprisings.
Similarly, a single-minded focus on social networking technology overstates its role. The survey found that just 8 percent of the general population claim to use Facebook, although 26 percent of protesters were Facebook users. Only about one-third of the protesters on Facebook say they regularly use the network for political purposes. Similarly, just over one-quarter of Egyptians that participated in the demonstrations during the revolution read blogs, as compared with 8 percent of the general population.
Social media played a role but Facebook and other Internet tools did not necessarily drive change. Indeed, most of the countries that witnessed the greatest mobilization in 2011 are among those with poor Internet coverage. Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen are six of the lowest-ranking Arab states in terms of Internet usage, according to the International Telecommunication Union.
Viewing the uprisings as the result of suddenly mobilized, Internet-savvy youth overemphasizes the role of the Internet and overlooks the role of older Arabs whose participation was critical. As Egyptian political scientist and activist Rabab El Mahdi notes — and others examining activism across the Arab world echo — this view “ignores a decade of contentious politics and mobilization in Egypt, which paved the way for the January 25, 2011 uprising.”
Analysts have also argued that economic problems are at the root of the crisis. According to many, neo-liberal reforms exacerbated longstanding economic problems by stripping citizens of safety nets and shifting profits to a narrower circle of elites close to the regime. These trends, combined with high youth unemployment and a frustrating inability to marry and start households, helped spur the uprisings, analysts argued.
Unemployment rates were and remain high, and inequality was palpable. Similarly, polls have found that Arabs’ support for democracy is often founded on economic considerations more than political ones. Amaney Jamal and Mark Tessler, in the January 2008 issue of Journal of Democracy, argue that “economic issues are central to the way that many Arab citizens think about governance.”
Yet, issues of dignity and identity also spurred the uprisings. Nearly half of Egyptian respondents claiming to have participated in the revolution did so for reasons related to freedom and social justice; a similarly large percentage did so to end corruption — a goal that combines issues of fairness and economic inequality. And 7 percent said they did so for the purely economic goal of ending unemployment.
Calls for dignity and freedom were as important as obvious issues. Debates over identity and freedom thus played a major role in the Egyptian presidential elections.
To date, there’s a great deal of variation in change. Tunisia and Libya had their former regimes removed. In Egypt the struggle remains intense. And in Yemen, one can question how much has ultimately changed with the unopposed election of Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. In each of these cases, and elsewhere, the long and tortuous transition processes continue. There is reason to caution against prematurely declaring the end of regime change — and certainly against claiming success or failure of democratization.
The fall of Ben Ali erased the widespread perception that political change was impossible, while the difficult transition and bloody conflict in Syria prompt some to question the wisdom of pushing for change. The experiences of neighboring countries, along with the many regional and international pressures, influence citizens on the sidelines and affect the possibilities of change. Lebanese and Jordanians, for instance, are divided in their views on conflict in neighboring Syria, and on the potential for change at home. Political rupture remains a possibility in these countries, and elsewhere.
The 2011 uprisings were of unprecedented size and impact, but the discontent was not entirely new nor solely the product of technologically savvy youth. Moreover, the uprisings were mobilized around governance failures that were felt far beyond economic conditions, including issues of national identity and dignity. These issues will play a critical role in the transitions ahead.
Finally, and most importantly, uprisings are far from over. Domestic, regional and international factors will continue shaping and reshaping contestation within Arab states.
It’s too early to tell exactly where such changes will lead, but not too soon to know they’ll continue.
Ellen Lust is an associate professor of political science at Yale University. Jakob Wichmann is founding partner of JMW Consulting, which focuses on countries in transition and social and political research.