Econostrum | Economic News in the Mediterranean

10 years after the Arab democratic movement, what are the results?

Henry Marty-Gauquié, member of JFC Conseil, member of the FEMISE Steering Committee, Honorary Director of the EIB

Written by Henry Marty-Gauquié, member of JFC Conseil on Tuesday, November 17th 2020 à 16:24 | Read 615 times

10 years after the Arab democratic movement, what are the results?
Already 10 years ago, on 17 December 2010, the street vendor Mohamed Bouazzizi set himself on fire, triggering the intifada of Sidi Bouzid, a movement of popular revolt against an unjust, captive and corrupt regime, incapable of serving the vital needs of the people. This movement not only led to the flight of President Ben Ali, but was to spread throughout the entire Arab Mediterranean world: from January 2011 in Jordan, Egypt and Yemen, then in February in Libya, Bahrain, Morocco and Syria.

Let's try a simplified balance sheet: four regime overthrows, four civil wars, six countries shaken by large protest movements and some reforms. But above all, the heterogeneity of the Arab regimes is highlighted: those which have resisted best are the monarchies enjoying historical legitimacy (Morocco, Jordan) and the regimes which, without being legitimate, had managed to organise the distribution of the rent (such as Lebanon, Arabia and certain monarchies in the Gulf). The others have had to adapt, most often by returning to a logic of order (Egypt, Bahrain, Algeria) or sinking into civil war (Syria, Libya, Iraq, Yemen). The case of Algeria remains particular: the fight against Islamist terrorism in the 1990s had already opened a valve for revolt against autocracy; the hirak revolt was therefore later and better targeted; however, after some tangible results, it was stifled by the authorities under the pretext of the health crisis...

This Arab democratic uprising should be remembered as the first geopolitical moment of the 21st century; yet ten years later it has gone virtually unnoticed, so much so that the global pandemic, the disorganisation of international relations by Donald Trump, the European Union's apprehensions about its cohesion and the general fear of insecurity have turned opinions back on short-term concerns. Yet this major political event deserves our attention, as the lessons to be learned and the ways out are of direct concern to us, in Europe first and foremost.

A movement with multiple teachings

First of all, it is worth noting what this movement has highlighted with regard to the Arab world, which, it should be remembered, only represents about one third of the Muslim world.

The Arab democratic movement first revealed the importance of civil societies and the use of social networks. Often hidden and self-censored, Arab civil societies (especially those carrying women's aspirations) played a major role in launching the protest dynamic; but they were soon overtaken by the influence of social networks. Whether they were manipulated by the powers that be, or hijacked by religious or identity-based counter-powers, or diverted by all sorts of obediences, these networks served as a catalyst for the uprising without clarifying the debates and aspirations. This disorganised efflorescence was all the more important because, as it involved a public long subjected to dictatorships and without a deep democratic culture, social networks enjoyed exaggerated credibility because they were perceived as the only free media in the countries concerned.

The second lesson is that the movement illustrated the capacity of Arab populations to rise up massively against their dictatorial regimes; the movement thus expressed the people's aspiration for dignity and not for a liberal and secularising Western-style revolution, as European diplomats and opinions may have believed in 2011. This uprising logically revitalised the reference to Islam and the Arab public's awareness of religious identification: in some cases, this reference took a governmental form (Tunisia, Egypt); in other cases, such as Turkey, Qatar and Arabia, the religious reference served as a lever for conquering religious communities abroad in order to influence the host countries.

But more often than not, this religious awareness has simply permeated political and social life, making it more conservative, in contradiction with the aspirations of the youth for more economic and social freedom. This contradiction has opened an unexpected field for the terrorism of radical Islamism: while being the first victims of this scourge, Arab opinions have nonetheless expressed their religious attachment and their rejection of anti-Muslim behaviour, developed in the Western world in reaction to the intensification of Islamic terrorism.

This is because, despite the aspirations of the youth and the important part played by women in the democratic uprising, Arab societies remain deeply attached to a certain societal conservatism linked to religious preponderance: thus, in all the countries concerned, societal reforms (family, inheritance, morals) remain limited, while the independence of the judiciary and political openness remain theoretical issues. Beyond certain reforms that have been hijacked (e.g. Saudi Arabia), the political model remains that of the "strong man" (Egypt, Arabia, Emirates), social control is still very patriarchal and justice on questions of morals or inheritance is still unfavourable to women and sexual minorities.

The Arab democratic movement has decentralised the conflict to the Eastern Mediterranean

The movement launched in 2011 and its repressions have facilitated the expansionism of regional forces such as the Shiite archipelago led by Iran (itself cornered by the sanctions of the Trump administration), the spread of the after-effects of Sunni Islamist terrorism (a consequence of the end of the second Iraq war), Kurdish independence and, above all, Turkish regional imperialism. To these activisms specific to the region were added the intervention of external powers such as Russia and Iran and, to a lesser extent, France, among others, in an attempt to contain the strongman of Ankara and to compensate for the American withdrawal. This imbroglio has succeeded in shifting the region's conflict to the eastern Mediterranean, beyond the old points of tension that are the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iranian question.

Then there is the migration issue which stems both from the effects of the economic crises of 2008 and Covid 19, and from the political instability of Arab governance. This issue has become so important in Western public opinion that it has changed the image of the Mediterranean. The Region is now perceived in Western countries as the source of a security and human risk, which conditions all action towards it.

On this subject, the absence of Europe's self-centred focus on its problems of political and health cohesion is glaring: its inability to collectively manage a subject that concerns it first and foremost is one of the causes of the permanence of the problem; this calls for the establishment of an effective and shared European migration policy, as well as the definition of a genuine European external policy; all the more so as the EU's diplomatic absence plays into the hands of the powers acting in its neighbourhood, such as Turkey or Russia.

A return to a more realistic and active diplomacy would obviously be an important factor in détente. The one initiated by President Macron (but which could become European) consists first of all in recalling the legitimacy of our values and our way of thinking, without considering them as universal; its objectives are to weigh on the expansionism of regional powers (notably Turkey), to support Israeli-Palestinian rebalancing and to support Iran's return to the world diplomatic concert. It remains, of course, to define a relationship between the EU and Russia covering the three levels: neighbourhood, trade and strategic presence. This chapter is not yet written...

However, the essential lever remains that of the economy and, therefore, of mobility management: giving permanent jobs and social dignity to young people who are still massively affected by unemployment is the only useful contribution to the sustainable stabilisation of the southern and eastern Mediterranean arc. Paradoxically, the difficult period we have been living through for the past year gives us the opportunity to do so: at a time when the developed countries must both rethink the organisation of their value chains and invest in a more sustainable and fairer world, the Mediterranean simply seems obvious. At the same time the place of all fragilities and many opportunities, the region can serve as a laboratory for a shared assessment of priorities, more active economic cooperation and, ultimately, better understanding and respect for others.


About is an independent media that deals with the daily economic news of the countries bordering the Mediterranean. Economic cooperation, business news by sector (Industry, Services, Transport, Environment, Society/Institutions), thematic files, airport news, airlines and shipping companies (new destinations)... are treated and analysed by a team of journalists present in the Mediterranean basin. Subscribe to To be the first to know, with unlimited access to all articles. To receive the weekly newsletters and special newsletters sent as soon as our files are published. Automatically renewable subscription, but the reader keeps control of it or yearly subscription. For individuals or professionals...