The fifth anniversary of the start of the Arab Spring that swept across the Middle East and North Africa was Dec. 17, the day five years ago that Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest government harassment. Over the past four years, we have seen analyses of the uprisings that led to regime changes in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen. But those analyses have focused mostly on ideology and politics, or the Arab revolts’ failure to usher in change.
To fully understand what happened since 2011 and why the story is far from over, we must look at some of the demographic shifts that took place in the region over the past few decades. The Arab Spring expressed a demand for political change that was driven by a deeper social transformation.
The Arab ancien régime, of which the Arab Spring signaled a rejection, took shape in the 1970s and early ’80s. Most Arab regimes looked stable in part thanks to the oil boom, the stagnation of revolutionary Arab nationalism and a shift in the dynamics of the Cold War. And they ruled virtually unopposed for the next four decades, fostering the myth that tyrants bring stability.
However, even as the regimes entrenched themselves, Arab societies were experiencing disruptive generational shifts in family structure, literacy and access to information. It became increasingly clear that 20th century military dictatorships could no longer ensure stability or lord it over a far better educated and connected generation.
In other words, the Arab Spring was a case of societies running faster than their governments. The stability-through-dictatorship model worked for a while, but the presence of large number of educated and Internet-savvy Arabs meant regimes modeled after postwar tyranny or medieval theocracy could not keep up with an evolving Arab psyche.
The first factor to consider is the dramatic shift in the Arab family structure. Following the baby boom of the 1970s, the average family size in the Middle East and Northern Africa (MENA) dropped sharply, from an average of 6.8 children per family in 1970 to 3 in 2014. Today, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Lebanon and Bahrain have birthrates below the 2.1 required for replacement. The rapid shift in family size had significant effects on family structures, triggering a transformation from the extended families that our grandparents grew up in to the nuclear families most Arabs know today. This comes with an opportunity for greater autonomy, as new and younger families move away from the traditional values of their forbears.
But perhaps the deepest effect has been on the status of women. Arab women today are far more likely to get an education, delay marriage, have a career and bear fewer children. Teen marriage among women dropped across the Arab world. The drops were particularly noteworthy in UAE (from 57 percent to 8 percent), Kuwait (38 percent to 5 percent) and Libya (40 percent to 1 percent).
The story of the Arab Spring is still being written. In the context of a deep historical transformation, five years is a short time. We’re still at the beginning.
This is why the Arab Spring was a generation gap writ large, an intergenerational chasm in political values and aspirations. Most of the protesters were young people in their 20s and 30s. They opposed regimes built before they were even born, acquiesced to by parents whose experiences they don’t share.
Literacy and connectivity
A second factor is literacy and communications. The literacy rate among youth 24 years and below is above 90 percent in most Arab countries, and virtually 100 percent in Saudi Arabia, Libya and Kuwait. This is striking when compared with the low literacy rate of Arab seniors (65 years and above), which averages around 30 percent.
But literacy alone doesn’t tell the whole story. What is most significant isn’t that Arab youth are mostly literate, but that they’re also highly connected. More than a quarter of all Arabs had access to the Internet when the Arab Spring revolts kicked off. This gave the youth access to different points of view within their own societies and in the outside world.
Higher autonomy, literacy and connectivity means that young Arabs have a wider “menu of ideas” to choose from. They aspired for a different kind of world and wanted more liberty, rights and representation. Given this awareness, they were far less likely to accept the status quo.
Is the story over?
The Arab Spring is more than a wave of political uprisings launched in 2011. It’s an intergenerational shift whereby a new generation of youth rejected regimes built by tyrants from a previous era. These demographic and technological trends have actually accelerated since 2011. For example, surpassed the global connectivity average in 2014, with 41 percent of all residents online.
Arab regimes remained stubbornly opposed to political change or evolution, but they have no solution for the deeper societal changes at work. The essential clash between an evolving society and static political system still continues, and in some cases has intensified.
The failures, frustrations and chaos that ensued were caused mostly by regional powers attempting to force a return to the status quo ante, ostensibly to bring back pre-2011 stability. But the setbacks of the Arab Spring cannot be blamed on the counterrevolutionary forces alone — the youth-led movement itself lacked a clear and specific vision for the future.
The Arab youth must now build this vision and present an ideological alternative to the prevailing order. Until this happens, the MENA region will remain volatile, allowing opportunistic actors such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and its other branches to thrive on the chaos.
Those who wish an end to the region’s perennial instability should facilitate the transition from dictatorship to democracy, rather than stand in its way. Ultimately, the story of the Arab Spring is still being written. In the context of a deep historical transformation, five years is a short time. We’re still at the beginning, and the wind in our sails is history itself.