Egyptian antigovernment protesters celebrate at Cairo's Tahrir Square after President Hosni Mubarak stepped down on February 11, 2011. (Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images).
When a Tunisian fruit vendor who had been harassed by police set himself on fire in December 2010, he could scarcely have imagined that he would spark protest movements across the Arab world. Calls for reform came up against resistance, though, and five years on, most countries that had been in revolt have so far seen tumult or entrenched authoritarianism rather than democratic transitions.
The uprisings that swept across the Middle East in 2010 and 2011 held out the hope this “Arab Spring” would produce democracies.
Some observers believed that the protests were the Arab world’s version of 1989 and the end of communist dictatorship in Eastern and Central Europe
Yet transitions to democracy are difficult and more often than not, they fail.
Five years after the world watched the fall of dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya violence, instability, and uncertainty mark the politics of the Middle East.
Tunisia: Elite Bargains Restore a Softer Version of the Authoritarian Order
Tunisia, where the uprisings began in December 2010, is widely regarded as the Arab Spring’s success story.
After difficult moments in the wake of the assassinations of two prominent politicians in 2012, Tunisians did not allow extremism and polarization to undermine their goals. For these efforts a coalition of civil society groups won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015.
By the end of 2014, Tunisia adopted a new constitution and elected a new parliament and a new president
Still, the country’s transition remains shaky: The new president’s party represent the interests of the old regime and terrorist attacks have prompted concern about a crackdown on extremists and peaceful critics of the government.
Egypt: Without Institutional Checks, the Old Regime Never Really Left
In the five chaotic years since Hosni Mubarak’s almost three decades in power came to an ignominious end, Egyptians have participated in six rounds of parliamentary elections, two presidential elections, three constitutional referendums, and a coup d’état.
Egypt’s leader, President Abdel Fatah el Sisi, who came to power in July 2013 after the military under his command ended the brief presidency of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, insists that Egypt is on a path to democracy.
In reality, Egypt is a repressive place, where the security services routinely arrest journalists and critics of the government.
Violence is also a problem as the Egyptian military battles an insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula, the existence of which provides justification for the crackdowns and targeting of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which authorities consider a terrorist organization.
Hosni Mubarak may have been pushed from office in February 2011, but the political order over which he presided has remained intact.
Yemen: Factions Seeking to Maximize Negotiating Positions by Force Provoke Civil War
In early 2012, after a year of protest and violence, Ali Abdallah Saleh stepped down ending his 22-year rule.
Despite efforts to build a new political system, political infighting, demonstrations, and periodic violence characterized Yemeni politics over the following two years.
In 2014, the Houthis—a tribe from the Zaydi-Shia community of northern Yemen—who had been battling the central government for years, seized the capital of Sana'a and then the port city of Aden, forcing President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi to flee and in 2015, to resign.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and a smattering of allies subsequently intervened in Yemen to forestall what they perceived to be an Iranian advance into the Arabian Peninsula through their Houthi allies.
The conflict has proven to be a humanitarian disaster and instead of a transition to democracy, Yemen is in danger of becoming a failed state.
Bahrain: A Monarchy Backed by Regional Powers Puts Down a Protest Movement With Overwhelming Force
In February 2011, demonstrations began in Manama, Bahrain’s capital. These demonstrations, unlike the others in the region, had a sectarian dimension, with Shia protesters demanding change from a Sunni majority that holds all of the political and economic power.
Bahrain’s security forces responded to the demonstrations with a heavy hand, prompting an international outcry.
Bahraini, Saudi, and Emirati leaders saw Iran’s hand in the demonstrations and—at the invitation of the Bahraini monarch—Saudi and Emirati troops entered the country to bolster Bahrain’s police.
The United States, which maintains its 5th Fleet in Bahrain, has little influence on the Bahraini King, who has defined the ruling family’s confrontation with demonstrators as an existential struggle. This dynamic is common throughout the region where the advice of outsiders has had no impact on leaders seeking to preserve their rule.
Libya: One-Man Rule and Western Intervention Leave Behind Anarchy
Six days after Hosni Mubarak fell, Libyans rallied against more than four decades of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s rule;
After an 8-month civil war that included the establishment of a NATO “no fly zone” for Libya’s air force, Qaddafi was captured and killed.
Qaddafi, who ruled through an informal coalition and network of supporters under the guise of “direct democracy,” left few viable political or social institutions in his wake.
Although there were elections in the summer of 2012, Libya has fractured with two different factions claiming to be the legitimate government. The result has been civil war and chaos.
Syria: A Zero-Sum Battle for Survival Leaves the Country Fragmented
When youth in the southern Syrian town of Dara'a, spray painted "It's your turn, Doctor"—referencing President Bashar al-Assad—they were arrested and tortured.
The security forces fired on demonstrators who rallied to support these youth, setting off a nationwide protest movement.
The uprising evolved into a civil war and then a proxy war. The resulting violence and chaos fueled the rise of the so-called Islamic State, attracting disaffected youth from around the world to engage in its political and religious project.
By 2015, the Assad regime remained in control of just a fraction of Syrian territory and dependent on Iranian assistance, Hezbollah's manpower, and Russian airpower to defend against rebel and extremist groups.
Syrian Kurdish forces backed by U.S. airpower have rolled back Islamic State militants in the north. Meanwhile, they are consolidating autonomous cantons collectively known as Rojava or Western Kurdistan, which has provoked Turkish anxiety about Kurdish nationalism as well as Arab claims of ethnic cleansing.
The conflict has left a quarter million Syrians dead, 7.6 million Syrians are internally displaced, and more than four million more are refugees in neighboring countries.
There is a diplomatic process underway in Vienna to search for a political solution to the conflict, but prospects seem bleak. Iran and Russia remain committed to the Assad regime while the Gulf States and American diplomats insist Bashar al Assad must not have a future in Syria. There is also the daunting fact that most civil wars last between 7 and 15 years and most refugees never return home.