Ten Years of Protests in the Middle East and North Africa

Dynamics of Mobilisation in a Complex (Geo)Political Environment

by Silvia Colombo (Volume editor) Daniela Huber (Volume editor)
©2022 Edited Collection 216 Pages
Series: Global Politics and Security, Volume 8


Despite being challenged by authoritarian counter-revolutionary responses, the Coronavirus
pandemic, and a complex (geo)political context, the uprisings that started ten
years ago in many countries of the Middle East and North Africa are still very much
alive. By adopting a comparative approach, this comprehensive volume investigates
the ongoing protests on three levels of analysis (local, national, regional) and through
seven case studies (Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco, Sudan, and Tunisia). Particular
attention is also placed on the role of the European Union and its member
states in this historical transformation.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Foreword – Preserving Tyrannies (Lorenzo Kamel)
  • Chapter 1: Ten Years of Arab Uprisings: A Conceptual Appraisal (Daniela Huber)
  • Chapter 2: Iraq’s Tishreen Movement: A Decade of Protests and Mobilisation (Hafsa Halawa)
  • Chapter 3: The Two Souls of the Egyptian Revolution and Its Decline. A Socio-Political Perspective (Mattia Giampaolo)
  • Chapter 4: From Revolt to Community-Driven Resistance: Beirut’s Year of Hell (Carmen Geha)
  • Chapter 5: Hirak’s Trajectory and the ‘New Algeria’ (Aurora Ianni)
  • Chapter 6: Sudan’s Transition in the Balance (Theodore Murphy)
  • Chapter 7: Morocco: A Decade of Popular Struggles and Monarchy Resistance (Francesca Caruso)
  • Chapter 8: Tunisia’s Quest for Democracy: Unfinished Domestic Revolution and Regional Geopolitical Entanglements (Silvia Colombo)
  • Chapter 9: A Decade Later: Revising European Approaches towards the MENA Region (Arturo Varvelli, Mattia Giampaolo and Lorena Stella Martini)
  • Chapter 10: Popular Mobilisation and Authoritarian Reconstitution in the Middle East and North Africa: Ten Years of Arab Uprisings (Andrea Dessì)
  • Contributors
  • Abbreviations
  • Series Index

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Lorenzo Kamel

Foreword – Preserving Tyrannies

‘The Arab uprisings failed’. This claim, repeated as a mantra by countless analysts and observers (mainly non ‘Middle Easterners’), is both largely misleading and arrogant. It is misleading because it tends to cherry-pick the parameters through which it is allegedly possible to assess the failures and successes of movements and efforts that have involved millions of human beings. It is arrogant inasmuch as it implicitly fosters the idea that ‘we [Westerners] are better than them’ (or, quoting Steven A. Cook on Foreign Policy,1 ‘Maybe Tunisians never wanted democracy’) and denies or downplays the role played by external actors in the alleged failure of those very same movements and trajectories.

From Tul’it rihetkun – the ‘You Stink!’ movement born out of spontaneous protests that took place in Lebanon in 2015 and 2016 – to the Hirak protests in Algeria in 2019, and to dozens of other recent movements mentioned in this volume, the spirit of the revolts is indeed far from extinguished. More than focusing on a simplistic dichotomy (failure/success), Ten Years of Protests in the Middle East and North Africa sheds light on a number of little known bottom-up dynamics and perspectives. These appear even more meaningful and ‘revolutionary’ in light of the two main competing regional and international agendas for the region in the last decade, both of them underpinned by uncompromising and autocratic ideologies, and by an interest in fostering proxy wars.

The first of these agendas aims at maintaining and strengthening an intra-regional geopolitical line across Tehran, Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut: while searching for a less externally-dependent order, the regimes and most of the leaders in power in these cities/countries perceive their citizens as passive ‘subjects’ in need of guidance. The second aims at imposing a new, largely Western-led order in the region. At the moment, this second agenda – which also involves Israel and three local ‘tyrannies’ considered useful by many Western countries (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt) – would seem to have higher chances of success. This was also confirmed by the 2018 US sanctions on Iran (despite the appearances, a despotic and uncompromising Iran appears far more useful to Washington and its allies), which followed the ←7 | 8→unilateral breach of the Iran nuclear deal by the Trump administration, as well as by numerous other strategic dynamics. The latter include, for instance, the decision whereby Mohammed Bin Salman (2017) was made first in line to the throne at the expense of his cousin Mohammed Bin Nayef: a strategy that was first accepted and then employed by Washington on the condition of compliance with US and Israeli goals in the region.

A hundred years ago the Sykes-Picot mentality (the Sykes-Picot Agreement, on the other hand, was never implemented) hindered or postponed the rise of a new order shaped from within the region. In some respects, what many areas in the Middle East have witnessed in recent years is the final point of an historical impasse that lasted for a century. The final result, however, will most likely be not the one hoped for by most of the region’s inhabitants. Particularly under the Trump administration (and with no change in sight under the current US President Joe Biden), oppressive regimes are once again considered part of the solution, rather than the problem. As one Israeli ex-general said in 2015 to Michael Oren, his country’s former ambassador to Washington: ‘Why won’t Americans face the truth? To defend Western freedom, they must preserve Middle Eastern tyranny’.2

Local ‘tyrannies’, for their part, are ready to pay a high price to guarantee their survival. This explains, for instance, the reason why over the last decade Riyadh has invested an enormous amount of resources in opposing the rise of any government or party that, in the Arab world, could have represented a credible alternative to the ‘Saudi model’. It also sheds light on the deeper reasons connected to Riyadh's decision to support the Egyptian army in its coup against former Islamist president Mohamed Morsi (1951–2019), as well as the attempt made by the UAE leadership to interfere in the internal affairs of a number of countries, including Tunisia, where the Ennahda party was (and is still) seen by many as an example of how Islamists can participate in democratic transitions to power (winning the elections in 2011 and stepping down in 2013).

In the short term, ruling families and regimes will gain much from these strategies and the new order in the making. The long-term scenario, however, is far less promising for them. The region has changed substantially from the previous decades and particularly since 2011: grab-and-go ‘solutions’ and ideologies used in the past to divert the attention of the region’s people (including sectarian strategies conceived by autocratic and cleptocratic elites) will have much less appeal ←8 | 9→in the near future. This further confirms that the new Western-supported order fostered by Riyadh and its allies has high chances of backfiring. It will in fact lead to an even more externally dependent Middle East, but also to the further weakening of the Saudi Kingdom itself and, more in general, of a large part of the region.

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1 Steven A. Cook, ‘How the West Misunderstood Tunisia’, in Foreign Policy, 27 July 2021, https://bit.ly/3l11M50.

2 Michael B. Oren, Ally. My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide, New York, Random House, 2015, p. 302.

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Daniela Huber

Chapter 1: Ten Years of Arab Uprisings: A Conceptual Appraisal

Almost ten years since the onset of the Arab uprisings, protest, mobilisation, and contestation in the Middle East and North Africa are continuing. While research has grown substantially,1 it has typically focused either on internal factors (comparative politics)2 or the regional dimension (international relations),3 while neglecting dynamics between these levels. Therefore, a more comparative and comprehensive approach is crucial, particularly also from a policy perspective which necessarily needs to take all factors into account.4 On top of this, covid-19 has also substantially impacted the uprisings and the EU’s response.

In light of these observations, three research institutions based in Italy – the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI), the European Council of Foreign Relations (ECFR) Rome office and the Centro Studi di Politica Internazionale (CeSPI) – have joined forces in this research project which has been financially supported by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, as well as the Fondazione Compagnia di San Paolo. It has been guided by two research questions:

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1.How has contestation evolved over time regarding the protest movements themselves and the (geo)political context in which they occurred? How has the covid-19 crisis impacted the trajectory of the protests?

2.How has the EU reacted to the uprisings over time and what feasible paths for EU engagement exist, particularly in light of the covid-19 crisis?

Observing these questions for seven cases – Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco, Sudan and Tunisia – the project has aimed to foster a better understanding of both local agency (the protest movements), as well as the dynamics at the national level (authoritarian resilience / relation to organised opposition) and the regional level (involvement of regional powers). This allowed us to assess how the political space has evolved over time, and what major political fault lines this may imply for the near and medium futures, whilst also taking account of the impact of covid-19.

In addition to this, observing the EU response in terms of rhetoric (perceptions of uprisings and stated goals) and practice (towards the movements, as well as the government/opposition, and regional powers) over time served to assess how the EU has imagined its own place in the region over time, also in light of the covid-19 crisis, and how (dis)connected this is from the regional political space assessed in the seven case studies. Indeed, one of the core objectives of this research project has been to identify paths towards a more attune EU engagement on the local, national and regional levels.

1. Rationale and analytical framework for the seven country case studies

The chapters of this book cover seven case studies, a comparative analysis, as well as a study of EU policies. The in-depth case studies include countries where protests have been substantially proliferating since 2005 (Lebanon), since 2010/11 (Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia), since 2015 (Iraq) and since 2019 (Algeria, Sudan). This wide range of case studies ensures variance over diverse histories of protests, political systems and their reactions/changes, and different geopolitical configurations. Such a cross-temporal comparative analysis helped us not only to identify continuity, change and processes of sequencing across time, but also to inductively reveal potential categories by which these protests can be compared.

The evolution of contestation over time in each case study is analysed across three levels of analysis, which are: 1) the local level (the protest movements); 2) the national level (government response and relationship to major political forces); and 3) the regional level (support for or opposition to protests by regional/global ←12 | 13→powers). Whilst these levels of analysis are useful for the comparative purpose of this project, as well as for devising comprehensive policy recommendations, the authors of each case study have addressed the interlinkage and interaction between these levels differently, while also keeping in mind a gender perspective.

2. First level of analysis: The protest movements

Regarding the protest movements themselves, their composition, strategies and demands of mobilisation converge rather than differ across the cases, but there are processes of learning from each other over time, as well as particularities in light of different histories of each country.

The composition of the mobilisation has typically been broad, cross-sectarian and diverse, spanning all classes, sectors, ethnicities, gender and age groups of societies with whole families participating, including the youngest and the oldest. As Asef Bayat has framed it, this has in many respects been a revolution without revolutionaries.5 They have mobilised not only in the centres and capitals, but across the countries, including in ‘peripheries’.6 Women have played a prominent role in political resistance since the uprisings began.7 Whilst research in the past ten years has put much focus on the interclass, age-group and male/female participation features of the protests, a lacuna exists in shedding more light on the ideational side of the movements. This is, however, necessary to explain why demands from the ‘square’ and policies of governments have never met, not even in Tunisia. This point directly links to the dimension of strategy, as the (lack of) political organisation within the ‘squares’ shaped the ‘revolution without revolutionaries’ or ‘mobilisation without change’.

The rather loose strategy of mobilisation of the protest movements8 has meant that they have been difficult to control; at the same time such loose strategies lead to difficulties in representing coherent alternatives to existing policies and ←13 | 14→political systems. Whilst this is a similarity across countries, protest movements have learnt from each other over time. Firstly, in light of the experiences of Egyptian counterparts, protesters in both Sudan and Algeria have, for example, been very wary of deals with the respective armies. At the same time, they continue – for now – to mobilise the square as ‘guardians of the transitions’ to promote an alternative in terms of political organisation as protagonists. Secondly, the strategies have been influenced by the memory of protests in the past which is particularly important for countries such as Lebanon, Iraq or Algeria which have been shaken by civil wars. How are protesters dealing with this memory? In both Iraq and Lebanon, for example, protesters argued for cross-sectarian solidarity and against any form of foreign intervention. Thirdly, more recently protesters have needed to deal with the covid-19 crisis. As the latter evolved many of the protest movements also needed to decide how to deal with lockdowns as governments imposing the standard global containment measures. How have activists dealt with this crisis in terms of strategy?

Like all uprisings, the Arab uprisings have developed their own ‘language’. What are the demands and dreams of these uprisings? As Sune Haugbolle and Andreas Bandak have pointed out, ‘[t]‌aking the practice of politics seriously means that we pay attention to what revolutionaries do – their repertoires of contention – as much as we pay attention to what they say and write as they seek to create a new political world’.9 Protestors have asked for social and ecological justice, and for provision of education and health services. In many of the protest countries, #metoo movements have also been growing.10 The movements have also criticised austerity measures which have been imposed by international financial institutions but also by the EU, as for example in Lebanon or Tunisia. This critique has intensified with the covid-19 crisis particularly, because basic health services are generally underfunded and ill-prepared for a pandemic. Sudan, for example, has practically no intensive care units for a population of almost 42 million people. In Lebanon, health services are often private, which reduces access to healthcare or makes it conditional on identity criteria. Leeway for expanding access to healthcare is limited, as the country is undergoing an existential economic crisis. After the blast in Beirut’s harbour, it has been the ←14 | 15→Lebanese Red Cross/Red Crescent and local groups and volunteers that have provided the services the government has failed to deliver.

Thus, at a first level of analysis, all chapters investigate the composition, strategies and demands of the protest movements, including from a gender perspective and also in light of the covid-19 crisis, vis-à-vis their respective governments, but also regional powers and international actors such as the European Union. This sets the stage to explain why these movements have experienced a rather huge mobilisation, but have had relatively little impact on alternative policies and change (like similar movements in other world regions such as the Occupy movements, the Indignados in Spain or Orange Revolutions in Ukraine). It exposes potential weaknesses inherent in these movements which make it difficult for them to create a new political community, particularly when they interact with power structures, as addressed next at the second level of analysis.

3. Second level of analysis: National political dynamics

At a second level, the dynamics between these movements and the respective governments and major political forces in each country are investigated. Governments have reacted with diverse strategies to the protest movements. The first strategy has been violence, including particularly gendered violence,11 and it is indeed important to also observe the role of the military and the security apparatus here, as evident in the case of Egypt.12 Such responses are typically justified with the claim of preventing the emergence of a ‘Syria situation’ (in denial of the fact that violence in Syria also escalated due to the violent response of the regime to the protests). In Iraq which has more hybrid governance structures than Egypt, also non-state actors have exercised violence against protestors. Furthermore, authoritarian regimes have learnt from each other how to respond to protests.13 As Steven Heydemann has pointed out, the reassertion of authoritarianism in Arab states after 2011 does not ‘represent a ‘back-to-the-future’ ←15 | 16→process’. Rather, Arab regimes have responded to the uprisings ‘through the imposition of repressive-exclusionary social pacts in which previously universal economic and social rights of citizens are being redefined as selective benefits’.14 A second strategy has been some minor reforms, reshuffling of government or the co-optation of protest movements, as happened in different forms in Morocco, Algeria, Iraq or Lebanon. A third path has been a genuine change of the political system as in Tunisia.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (December)
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2022. 216 pp.

Biographical notes

Silvia Colombo (Volume editor) Daniela Huber (Volume editor)

Silvia Colombo is Senior Fellow in the Mediterranean, Middle East and Africa Programme at the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI). Daniela Huber is Head of the Mediterranean, Middle East and Africa Programme at the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) and Editor of The International Spectator.


Title: Ten Years of Protests in the Middle East and North Africa
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