10 Years After the Arab Spring, Uncertainty Dominates the Region

The Arab Spring protest movement took the Middle East and North Africa by storm 10 years ago, sparked in part by the Jan. 4, 2011 death of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, who had set himself on fire two weeks earlier in a suicidal act of anti-establishment defiance that fanned the flames of revolutionary fervor across the region.

But while the early days of the Arab Spring were defined by hope, excitement and indignation, many countries where mass demonstrations occurred would see brutal crackdowns, an influx of foreign interests and fighters as well as civil war, muddling the legacy of the pan-Arab revolt for democracy.

A decade after Bouazizi's iconic self-immolation, Newsweek looks back at some of the countries most affected countries by the Arab Spring and examines where they are today.


Then-Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was forced to resign and flee to Saudi Arabia just 10 days after Bouazizi's death, which marked a turning point in a roughly month-long series of protests against government policies and corruption blamed for high unemployment, poor quality of living and a scarcity of political freedoms.

Ben Ali initially utilized security forces to stamp out the popular uprising that killed an estimated 300 people. Despite the show of force, he was unable to reign in the growing nationwide dissent. His ouster marked an early victory for fed-up citizens who toppled a longtime leader, one who had come to power by sidelining the ailing President Habib Bourguiba in 1987.

Ben Ali, who would die in exile in September 2019, was succeeded at first by legislative speaker Fouad Mebazaa, as per protocol. Moncef Marzouki was later elected by an interim body tasked with revising Tunisia's constitution. He led until 2014, when he lost an election to Beji Caid Essebsi, who had served as prime minister after Ben Ali's downfall. Essebsi died in office in July 2019, and Kais Saied currently leads the country after winning the national vote later that year.

While many see Tunisia as a relatively successful model of the Arab Spring, the country still faces economic challenges exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, as well as security issues including an Islamic State militant group (ISIS) presence that has led to a five-year state of emergency.

tunisia, protests, arab, spring, anniversary
Unemployed Tunisians ask to be recruited as they gather at Mohamed Bouazizi Square in the central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid on December 17, during commemorations of the 10th anniversary of Bouazizi's self-immolation which triggered a wave of protests across the North African country culminating in the president's departure almost a month later. FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images


Two weeks after Ben Ali was run out of Tunisia, Egypt was rocked by widespread demonstrations, marches and occupations led largely by the country's youth, who demanded the resignation of longtime leader President Hosni Mubarak. The unrest was inspired by similar accusations of state injustice and neglect of the people. After weeks of violent clashes and more than 800 believed killed, Mubarak was forced to resign in February.

He had assumed power in Egypt after then-President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in a bold 1981 Islamist attack by soldiers who broke ranks in a military parade and attacked the reviewing stand where he sat. Mubarak was injured in the attack. He stayed in power for 30 years, but was arrested soon after his departure in 2011, and was eventually acquitted in 2017. Mubarak was succeeded by Mohammed Morsi, a member of the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood who won the 2012 election, widely seen as the first truly contested race in the country's history.

Morsi's attempts to consolidate presidential power and shift Egypt's secular system of governance toward Islamist law quickly led him afoul of large sections of society, including the powerful military. On the one-year anniversary of his election, he faced mass protest gatherings that likely matched or even exceeded those that toppled his predecessor, eventually leading the military to stage a coup against him in July 2013.

A year later, another national vote was held that brought former Defense Minister Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to power, who leads to this day in what many see as a return to military rule.

The Sissi administration has struggled to reshape the country's battered economy, while many grievances regarding civil liberties remain unaddressed. The country also faced deadly attacks at the height of the regional rise of ISIS, and still faces an ongoing presence from the group in the Sinai Peninsula, though its insecurities do not compare to other conflict-ridden nations such as neighboring Libya.


As Mubarak was poised to step down in Egypt, rare anti-government protests began to erupt in Libya's second city of Benghazi. Muammar el-Qaddafi, who had led the country in various positions since 1969, ordered his security forces to suppress the now-armed rebellion, which spread as Western powers encouraged efforts to remove him, citing human rights abuses.

With Libya descending into all-out civil war, the United Nations Security Council voted in March to impose sanctions on Qaddafi and his inner circle and impose a no-fly zone over the country. The United States, Canada, France, the United Kingdom and several other NATO member states launched a bombing campaign that crippled Libyan government forces and provided the opposition an advantage. The aerial attacks eventually targeted Qaddafi's own convoy, leading to his capture and his execution on-the-spot at the hands of rebels.

Many Libyans celebrated Qaddafi's demise, but friction between factions of the insurrection quickly developed, creating deep divides that led to a civil war in 2014, which continues to this day. The conflict is primarily fought by the U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord in Tripoli and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives, militarily led by Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar, who took control of territory along his warpath against Islamist forces that were also vying for power.

The conflict has become increasingly internationalized, with Turkey and Qatar backing the Government of National Accord on one side and the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, France and Russia-backed private military companies supporting the House of Representatives on the other.

Libya remains divided, with Haftar still in control of much of the country, despite recent setbacks in his campaign to take the capital and a lower standard of living than when the war began. The NATO-led campaign against Qaddafi has had lasting effects. Russia expressed outrage toward U.S. foreign policy in the region, as it had sought assurances that the U.N. Security Council resolutions would not be precursors for intervention.

libya, commander, war, funeral
An anti-aircraft gun fires rounds in tribute during the funeral of General Wanis Bukhamada, commander of the "Saiqa" (Special Forces) of the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA) loyal to strongman Khalifa Haftar, in the eastern city of Benghazi on November 1. The country remains divided among rebel factions that overthrew longtime leader Muammar el-Qaddafi with the support of the NATO Western military alliance. ABDULLAH DOMA/AFP/Getty Images


Russian anger toward how the U.S. and its Western allies handled Libya shaped Moscow's strategy in Syria, where large protests against authoritarianism also devolved into armed conflict and civil war in 2011. When Western powers turned to the U.N. Security Council to greenlight intervention, this time Russia and China exercised their veto power rather than abstaining, thereby offering a lifeline to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

In 2000, Assad succeeded his father, Hafez al-Assad, who had ruled for 30 years. With direct support from Iran and Russia, he has cemented nearly a half-century of his family's rule in Syria. Assad has withstood a war that has killed an estimated half million people and displaced millions more, fighting against an insurgency including elements backed by the United States and its regional allies, as well as the Islamic State militant group (ISIS).

The government has regained control of most of the country, with around a third in the hands of an autonomous U.S.-backed, mostly Kurdish militia known as the Syria Democratic Forces. The two sides have struggled to reconcile, while both oppose a Turkey-backed array of Syrian opposition forces and ISIS.

Calls for reforms against police brutality and in favor of greater political freedoms in Syria have been largely drowned out by the sounds of mortars and airstrikes. Even with the bulk of the conflict isolated in the northwestern jihadi-dominated province of Idlib, financial crisis and international sanctions have ravaged an economy now pushed to the brink of total collapse by COVID-19.


Syria's ongoing humanitarian crisis is rivaled only by that of Yemen, where what appeared to be an early win for democracy devolved into a disaster in every sense of the word.

In early 2011, protests swelled across the southwestern Arabian Peninsula state, taking inspiration from events in Tunisia and Egypt. Soldiers were sent to break up rallies under orders from President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had led North Yemen since 1978 and later ruled the unified country after its consolidation in 1990.

The six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council attempted to mediate a solution amid the bloodshed, eventually settling on overseeing Saleh's departure and exile to Saudi Arabia in 2012. Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi took over following elections that year, but Yemen's troubles would only multiply. The Zaidi Shiite Muslim Ansar Allah, or Houthi, movement continued to advance toward the capital, while Sunni Islamist militant groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS stepped up attacks and anti-government protests persisted.

Ansar Allah took full control of the capital in early 2015, forcing Hadi to relocate to the southern city of Aden. A Saudi-led coalition intervened militarily, accusing the rebels of being a front for Iran. The U.S., which has accused Ansar Allah of receiving missile technology from Tehran, continues to provide support to the Saudi-led coalition, ignoring human rights concerns among lawmakers in Washington.

As Yemen's warring factions continue to battle, sometimes shifting alliances and splintering, a relative stalemate has ensued, leaving Ansar Allah still in control of Sanaa. Meanwhile, disease and malnutrition continues to kill scores of citizens on a daily basis, bringing the total toll of Yemen's war near 250,000.

yemen, war, children, malnutrition, famine
A malnourished Yemeni child receives care in the malnutrition treatment department at Al-Sabeen hospital on December 29 in Sanaa, Yemen. Nearly 100,000 children under the age of five are at high risk of dying without urgent treatment in Yemen, according to the United Nations Children's Fund. Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images


Almost all of the 22 Arab League nations saw demonstrations of varying degrees of intensity in the early 2010s.

Bahrain, a majority-Shiite Muslim island nation ruled by a Sunni Muslim monarchy, was largely successful in violently stamping out an uprising there with support from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Algeria, Jordan and Oman conducted some reforms in response to protester demands, while other nations, including Lebanon, Iraq and Sudan, saw some street demonstrations but did not experience major unrest until the end of the decade.

With plenty of anger, uncertainty and frustration left unaddressed across the region, the phrase popularized by the Arab Spring movement, "the people want the fall of the regime," can still be heard at rallies as citizens risk life and limb to challenge authority—now fully aware of the price paid by those plunged into turmoil in their attempt to fight for a more fair and free society.