The Arab Spring's impact on the Middle East has been profound, even if in many places its final outcome might not become clear for at least a generation. Protests that spread across the region in early 2011 started a long-term process of political and social transformation, marked in the initial stages primarily by political turbulence, economic difficulties, and even conflict.01of 06
End of Unaccountable Governments
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The biggest single achievement of the Arab Spring was in demonstrating that Arab dictators can be removed through a grassroots popular revolt, rather than a military coup or foreign intervention as was the norm in the past (remember Iraq?). By the end of 2011, the governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen were swept away by popular revolts, in an unprecedented show of people power.
Even if many other authoritarian rulers managed to cling on, they can no longer take the acquiescence of the masses for granted. The governments across the region have been forced into reform, aware that corruption, incompetence and police brutality will no longer be unchallenged.02of 06
Explosion of Political Activity
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The Middle East has witnessed an explosion of political activity, particularly in the countries where the revolts successfully removed the long-serving leaders. Hundreds of political parties, civil society groups, newspapers, TV stations, and online media have been launched, as Arabs scramble to reclaim their country from ossified ruling elites. In Libya, where all political parties were banned for decades under Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi's regime, no less than 374 party lists contested the 2012 parliamentary elections.
The result is a very colorful but also fragmented and fluid political landscape, ranging from far-left organizations to liberals and hardline Islamists (Salafis). The voters in emerging democracies, such as Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, are often confused when faced with a plethora of choices. The Arab Spring's “children” are still developing firm political allegiances, and it will take time before mature political parties take root.03of 06
Instability: Islamist-Secular Divide
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Hopes for a smooth transition to stable democratic systems were quickly dashed, however, as deep divisions emerged over new constitutions and the speed of reform. In Egypt and Tunisia in particular, the society divided into Islamist and secular camps that fought bitterly over the role of Islam in politics and society.
As a result of deep mistrust, a winner-take-all mentality prevailed among the winners of first free elections, and the room for compromise began to narrow. It became clear that the Arab Spring ushered in a prolonged period of political instability, unleashing all the political, social and religious divisions that had been swept under the carpet by the former regimes.04of 06
Conflict and Civil War
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In some countries, the breakdown of the old order led to armed conflict. Unlike in most of Communist Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s, the Arab regimes didn't give up easily, while the opposition failed to forge a common front.
The conflict in Libya ended with the victory of anti-government rebels relatively swiftly only due to the intervention of the NATO alliance and Gulf Arab states. The uprising in Syria, a multi-religious society ruled by one of the most repressive Arab regimes, descended into a brutal civil war prolonged by outside interference.05of 06
The tension between the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam in the Middle East had been on the rise since around 2005 when large parts of Iraq exploded in violence between Shiites and Sunnis. Sadly, the Arab Spring reinforced this trend in several countries. Faced with the uncertainty of seismic political changes, many people sought refuge in their religious community.
The protests in the Sunni-ruled Bahrain were largely the work of the Shiite majority which demanded greater political and social justice. Most Sunnis, even those critical of the regime, were scared into siding with the government. In Syria, most members of the Alawite religious minority sided with the regime (President Bashar al-Assad is Alawite), drawing deep resentment from the majority Sunnis.06of 06
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Anger over youth unemployment and poor living conditions was one of the key factors that led to the Arab Spring. The national debate on economic policy has taken the back seat in most countries, as rival political groups squabble over the division of power. Meanwhile, ongoing unrest deters investors and scares off foreign tourists.
Removing corrupt dictators was a positive step for the future, but ordinary people remain a long time away from seeing tangible improvements to their economic opportunities.