The Arab world: history of revolts and global nexus

In fractious, rife-with-conflicts Arab World, described for long time as immune towards democratic transformations, revolts sneaked in, toppling some regimes and shaking the thrones of others. Almost three years have passed since the advent of the Arab Spring and statesmen and decision-makers have been trying to analyze such historic transformation in order find a foothold in a region that has been looking different, with new dynamics, elites and political landscape.

In our attempt to read the portents, uncover the wellsprings of the Arab Spring and link it to other incidentsand circumstances, I contend, this pursuit is often a vain one especially given that the available literature is not yet adequate to explain the various aspects of what has gone before. Fully aware of this gap, I aim to reveal first of all a number of the missing contours and dynamics in order to further articulate the term “Arab Spring”. In the same vein, I will also try to analyze the current political and geopolitical conditions in the Middle East in an effort to draw some relevant conclusions and provide a working prognosis of the future course of events in the region.

It can be said that the events of the current Arab Spring are molded within two composite layers, each with its own features, characteristics and hypotheses. The first layer operates within a regional setting. Within this framework, the current “Arab Spring” has proved to have its own characteristics and features which require further analysis.

Arabs have never had one state that congregates all Arab peoples. However, as they had common history, language, religion and traditions, they have always felt closer to other Arabs rather than any other nation. Tribal links remain evident and one family can exist in two or three or more Arab states. The identity of Arab states (as of today) had never emerged before the Sykes–Picot of 1916, which divided the Arab World into separate states, regimes and nationals.

In fact, the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire (30 October 1918 – 1 November 1922) was a political event that carried the strategic vision of neutralizing any future threat from the Ottoman Empire and aborting any potential rerise through partitioning and dividing the huge conglomeration of territories and peoples that formerly comprised the Ottoman Empire into several new nations[1].

In this context, Raymond Hinnebusch points out that imperialism fragmented the region into a multitude of relatively weak and, to an extent, artificial states, at odds with each other[2]. The weakening of the state effectiveness and unpopular ruling elites amongst Arab general public was referred to by Toby Dodge who terms Arab regimes as ‘externally imposed, weak and illegitimate post-colonial states’[3]. Similarly, Bernard Lewis criticizes ‘faked’ democracy in Arab political discourse pointing out the ‘sham parliamentary regimes that were installed and bequeathed by British and French empires’[4]. For that, many see in the elimination of some Arab leaders, like Yasser ArafatSaddam Hussein or Gamal Abdel Nassir, part of a conspiracy aimed to get rid of any regional power (leader) who can be serious caveat trying to re-organize the system for more independent policies[5].

Hinnebusch says that such relatively weak states, emerged as Western protectorates against opposition, seeking external patrons and resources for the regional power struggle and survival, have remained dependent for their security on the Western global powers long after formal independence[6]. Dreading the prospect of coups or revolutions, the preeminence of security issues over social issues in the Arab area is evidenced by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) 2010 figures, which shows that Arab states have spent a total of $117.6 billion in military expenditures, while about 34.6 million Arabs were living under the two-dollars-a-day international poverty line in 2005, and double-digit unemployment rates[7].

It can be argued that the current round of revolts, now termed “the Arab Spring” or “Arab Awakening”, does not constitute the first manifestation of Arab mass protests that have led to a change in the social and political structure of Arab societies. In fact it comes as the third wave of Arab mass revolts each possessing its own grounds, circumstances, ideologies, slogans and outcomes.

The first wave of Arab revolts took place in 1914, and was called, “the Great Arab Revolution”. What characterizes this wave is that it had a leader, Sharif Hussein, who led the revolution and the main target was ending Ottoman rule in Arabia. This wave coincided with two major events, one global and another regional. World War I was the major global event, while the waning and finally the collapse of the Ottoman Empire (Pax-Ottoman) was the major regional event.

This wave was externally driven, as the revolutions were supported by the British, who were aiming to end and replace the Ottomans presence in the region. For all that, the effect of the revolts was ephemeral as they were bereft of their main goal of independence when colonial powers charted their way in that region. During this period, a number of slogans and ideologies were endorsed through this wave and the main slogan was nationalism. This slogan was deemed important in order to encourage Arabs to get rid of any other subordination, mainly Islamism, which inevitably meant yanking out any connection to the Ottoman Sultan and the warding off of any yearnings for the Ottoman heritage[8].

The second wave of Arab revolts took place in the 50′s and 60′s, and the term “the Arab Spring” was used for the first time by a French writer. In his book “Un printemps arabe” published in 1959, Jacques Benoist-Méchin describes the Arab revolts that took place in the “Arab” Middle East, and tries to link them to the European Revolutions of 1848, known as the ‘Spring of Nations’ or ‘Springtime of the Peoples’[9]. Similar to the first wave, the second wave of Arab revolts came after two major events, one regional and another global. The latter was World War II, which had a great impact on the revolts and caused them to be driven by external factors. In other words, foreign powers and forces encouraged and even stimulated these revolts as Communist powers wanted to fight the Western presence and colonization in the Middle East. For that reason, ‘Fighting Imperialism’ and ‘Progressivism’ were among other key slogans and themes of this period.

Yet, the major regional event that occurred during that period was the establishment of the State of Israel in the center of the Arab World. This led to the endorsement of “Arabism” slogan to counter “Zionism”, which attended the establishment of the State of Israel. Arabism was adeptly promoted by late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, as his name was largely aligned with the second wave of Arab revolts. In their analyses of this state of affairs, some scholars see that when the great powers were divided (as in the Cold War) and hegemonic intervention was thus deterred, the conditions for regional autonomy could have been better and the region was more likely get united against the outside[10].

Arabism (Pan-Arabism or Arab Nationalism) widespread struck a chord with and inspired other leaders who steered revolts in other countries in the Middle East. In effect, Arabism gained popularity in Arab streets, termed at times as “Nassersim”, and had an evident influence on many Arab parties like Ba’ath parties in Syria and Iraq, Gadhafi in Libya and others. This wave of revolts did not targeted Israel, but ‘other colonial’ presence in the Middle East- deemed to be the real instigator and creator of Zionism and hence the State of Israel. In this regard, a number of crowns, condemned by their alliance or reliance on Western “imperialistic” powers, paid the price and were toppled in Libya, Iraq, and primarily in Egypt[11].

Arab Nationalism, which mainly meant adhering to Arab interests and unity, declined gradually over the course of the past 40 years. For instance, the position of Arab states was united and remarkably solid facing the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and opposing UN partition plan. Similar position was upheld in 1973 or of what known as the ‘oil crisis’. However, the signed peace agreement between Israel and Egypt (during the reign of late President Sadat) solemnly announced the decline of Arab Nationalism. A number of Arab states boycotted Egypt and the Arab League headquarter was removed from Cairo, Egypt’s capital. A number of incidents followed and bolstered this fragmentation, including Arabs restrained reaction on Israeli invasion to an Arab capital, Beirut, the Iraqi- Iranian war which put Syria in the opposite camp with Iraq and US strike on another Arab capital, Tripoli in 1986, with a moderate reaction of Arab regimes, were just a case in point[12].

Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 had serious repercussions and a direct role in the waning of Arab Nationalism, especially that it (Iraqi invasion) divided Arabs into two camps, one of which was willing to invite non-Arab armies to attack their Arab brothers in Iraq[13]. Perhaps US occupation of Iraq in 2003 and the death of Saddam Hussein, the staunch advocate of Arab Nationalism, declared the moribund of Arabism.

The second layer comes within a global nexus. Arguably, the current spate of revolts in the Middle East might be considered as the fourth wave of democratization, with reference to the concept developed by Samuel M. Huntington in his book The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century published in 1991. According to Huntington, each wave was followed by a reverse one. Huntington argues that the first wave occurred between 1828-1926, with its roots in the recent French and American revolutions. This wave swept Europe and Latin America, and was marked by military coups. It lost momentum in the interwar period between World War I and World War II when a number of dictators rose to power, which led to a shift away from democracy toward traditional authoritarian or new ideologically-driven, mass-based totalitarian regimes[14].

The second wave took place from 1943-1962, and featured coups and the establishment of authoritarianism across Latin America, South and East Asia and allied occupation post- World War II. Huntington proposes that the beginning of the end of Western colonial rule produced a number of new states with democratic tendencies. Yet, he argues that political development, especially in Latin America, took on an authoritarian cast, and the decolonization of Africa led to the largest multiplication of authoritarian governments in history. Accordingly, one third of the working democracies in 1958 had become authoritarian by the 1970s.

The third wave between 1970s and 1980s manifested in the collapse of the former Soviet Union and swept Southern Europe, South America and Africa. In effect, a number of scholars (among them Dr. Ali Sarihan of Qatar’s Georgetown University) have opted to insert the current Arab revolts within this framework. They opine that with the onset of the current Arab Spring, the fourth wave of transformation or “Democratization of Communist and Islamic Regimes” began as per the fact that it has an impact on other regions and inspired revolts and demonstrations in Europe, Asia, Latin and North America, it gained its global contours.

Scholars, like Ali Sarihan and Klaus von Beyme opted to include the events after the collapse of the Soviet Union leading to democratic transitions of varying success in Eastern Europe in the fourth wave of democracy. However, Sarihan inserts the current Arab revolts within this framework. He opines that with the onset of the current Arab Spring, the fourth wave of transformation or “Democratization of Communist and Islamic Regimes” began[15]. As per the fact that it has an impact on other regions and inspired revolts and demonstrations in Europe, Asia, Latin and North America, it gained its global contours. On the other hand, Kenan Engin calls the Arab Spring the fifth wave of democracy, begun in 2011 and still ongoing[16].

Inter alia, the collapse of the former Soviet Union, the fading of Arabism, toppling a number of Arab regimes and the waning of historical Arab leader states led to a power vacuum in the region and the intervention of foreign powers (either regional or global) became inevitable. Traditional super and global powers are still seeking a bigger, newer, role in the Arab World, in response to the changes. The US, Russia, China and Europe compete among each other in order to guarantee the larger scale of leverage and wider foothold in the region, at times using their soft power instruments, at others their historical cooperation, not forgetting economic incentives. In his article in the Russian Odanko magazine entitled ‘Obama et Poutine vont-ils se partager le Proche-Orient?’, the French writer Thierry Meyssan underscores this hypothesis and suggests a new scenario for the division of the Middle East between the U.S. and Russia[17].

Turkey, Iran and Israel, on the other hand, are the most favored regional powers with this end in view. However, Israel’s chances hinge greatly on a peace agreement with the Palestinians, not to mention the obvious fact that Israel is culturally different from the rest of the countries in the region. History, culture and religion outweigh Iran’s odds over Israel, as it has also succeeded in building a network of allies within the region. However, Iran does not seem to be an appealing model for many Arabs, especially when it comes to freedom, human rights, economy and relations with the rest of the world, especially the West. Turkey, who is part of the culture, history and religion of the region, appears to have the best odds in her favor. It presents an appealing model for its democracy, freedom and modernity, human rights, booming economy and relations with the West, along with the presence of Islamic elites in power. Yet, the term “the Turkish Model” has been overplayed and has put Turkey’s popularity on the line. In other words, and among other challenges, Turkey’s potential in the Middle East is marred by its explicit zeal and overt use of its soft power, which may lead to untoward effects.

Yet, treading the path into the Middle East should be charted carefully. It is well known for being one of the most volatile regions, and for its complexity is often described as “a Quick Sand”. At this juncture, it isn’t be difficult to fathom the feeling of frustration that permeates nearly every Arab, who believes that their destiny should not hinge on others, but remain in their own hands. Lamentably, this desired outcome will not materialize until historical Arab leader states rise and shake the dust of weakness and reluctance from their shoulders.



Associate research fellow at the Institute for Middle East Studies Canada (IEMSC) and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Sunderland (United Kingdom)


[1] Helmreich P.C., “From Paris to Sèvres: The Partition of the Ottoman Empire at the Peace Conference of 1919-1920”, United States of America: Ohio State University Press, 1974, p. 339.

[2] Hinnebusch R. and Ehteshami A. (eds.), “The Foreign Policies of Middle East States”, USA: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2002, p. 3.

[3] Dodge T., “From the Arab Awakening to the Arab Spring; the Post-colonial State in the Middle East”, Ideas, May 2012, London School of Economics, p. 5.

[4] Lewis, “Rethinking the Middle , op. cit., p. 25.

[5] Dodge, “From the Arab Awakening”…, op. cit., p. 4.

[6] Hinnebusch & Ehteshami, The Foreign Policies …, op. cit., p. 3.

[7] Aissa E., “The Arab Spring: Causes, Consequences, and Implications”, USAWC Strategy Research Project, March 2012, pp. 5-6.

[8] Sahin M., “1950-1960 Arab Revolutions and 2011 Arab Spring: Similarities and Differences”, in New World Order, Arab Spring and Turkey, Senem Cevik-Ersaydi B. and Baskak B. (eds.), Ankara University: Center for the Study and Research for Political Psychology, 2012, pp. 3-5.

[9] Benoist-Méchin J., “Un printemps Arabe (An Arab Spring)”, Paris, Albin Michel, 1959.

[10] Hinnebusch and Ehteshami (eds.), “The Foreign Policies …”, op. cit., p. 6.

[11] Elhusseini F., “Another Spring: The Middle East between History of Revolts and Future Geopolitics”, Foundation for European Progressive Studies: (accessed 20.10.2013).

[12] Lewis, “Rethinking the Middle…”, op. cit., p. 9.

[13] Ibid., p. 10.

[14] Huntington S., “The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century”, United States, University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.

[15] Sarihan A., “Fourth Wave Democratization: Democratization of Communist and Islamic Regimes”, Turkish Weekly: (accessed 12.05 2013).

[16] Engin K., “The Arab Spring: The 5.0 Democracy Wave”, Hurriyet Daily News: (accessed 22.06. 2013).

[17] Meyssan T., “Obama et Poutine vont-ils se partager le Proche-Orient?”, Odanko magazine: (accessed 28.03.2013). 

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