The Arab Spring: Lasting Victories vs. Co-optation and Recuperation of the Movement

Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt on February 11, 2011
Tunisia Revolution


The Arab Spring that ended last December after two years of protests, state repression, and revolution was a time of such hope for so many during so much strife. It showed the immense power of assembly and collaboration among common people. Millions took to the streets in 2011, mostly in the Middle East and North Africa, and protests and direct actions about the same concerns are still ongoing. The violence that came with them was almost entirely instigated by the corrupt dictatorships and militaries the protesters are objecting to. The question is whether or not the changes brought will be lasting. Many leaders of states were replaced with similar despotic figures while very little systemic changes were made. However, many direct actions against states during the Arab Spring yielded more lasting gains. 

While there were many factors that fueled the Arab Spring, the primary catalyst was the self-immolation of one Tunisian man, Mohamed Bouazizi on December 17, 2010. Bouazizi was a street food vendor, who had been abused and robbed by Tunisian cops for years. Bouazizi was ignored when he visited the governor’s office to ask for his confiscated wares back and he threatened to burn himself to death if the governor wouldn’t see him, which he did just one hour later. Bouazizi was emblematic of the struggle and hardships faced by many Tunisians and people of the Mid-East and North Africa more broadly, and his self-immolation represented a breaking point. Tunisians flooded the streets to protest the police abuse of Bouazizi, food inflation, restrictions on freedom of speech, unemployment, and squalid living conditions, and they were met with riot police, police bullets, and tear gas canisters. Protesters burned tires and attacked the ruling party’s office in Thala on January 3 in response. Riots, strikes, and protests then spread across the country. 

95% of Tunisia’s 8,000 lawyers went on strike on January 6. Journalist Lucas Dolega was killed on January 14 after being shot in the head by police with a tear gas canister and funeral processions for those killed on January 9th by police were shot at by police. The next day the state announced the closure of all schools and universities in an attempt to stifle dissent. President of Tunisia, Ben Ali, was targeted by the rest of the ruling class in an attempt to contain the movement, blame one person, and shift blame away from the entire system. The Tunisian military then targeted Ali’s security forces who they chased off on January 14th. In response Ali made gatherings of more than three people an arrestable offense and ordered police to shoot violators of this new order if they flee.                                                                                                                                                                          

On January 26th President Ben Ali left the country, international warrants were issued for his arrest, and the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally party was dismantled by the new interior minister. Minister for Higher Education and Scientific Research, Ahmed Brahim, the Minister of Local Development, Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, and Minister of Economic Reform, Elyes Jouini all resigned as well. The secret police were also abolished. 338 demonstrators were killed primarily by police by the end of the demonstration. But protests, free expression, (especially on the internet) strikes, and general resistance are now far more common in Tunisia. Free, democratic elections were also held as result of the protests and various jail breaks and raids were carried out, including one in Mahdia that freed 1000 inmates. This was one example of a lasting victory brought about through direct action. The media attempted to portray the movement as nonviolent when it employed a diversity of tactics both combative and nonviolent, which is why it was able to gain ground. 

The Arab Spring has forced many rulers out of power aside from the Tunisian President and it has also resulted in some significant political reforms. But the violence, corruption, and inequity still continue at disturbing rates. Egypt changed their head of state twice from Mohammed Morsi to Hosni Mubarak and the country is now controlled by the Egyptian Army. The Egyptian Revolution also employed a diversity of tactics to achieve success. The revolution began on January 25, 2011 and continued after Mubarak was ousted. Peter Gelderloos described the uprising as “largely anticapitalist in nature,” (The Failure of Nonviolence, pg. 75.) This movement was again portrayed as ‘nonviolent’ by the Western media to discourage Egyptians and others from thinking that violence against the state works. The movement engaged in peaceful protests, riots, self-defense, attacks on police, and plaza occupations. Protesters burned down 90 police stations and even collectively raised funds in Tahir Square to buy gas for Molotov cocktails. President Hosni Mubarak dissolved his government and resigned as a result. In June 2012 Mubarak was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of protesters but the sentence was overturned. Mubarak was replaced by Mohamed Morsi who was deposed in a coup just one year later for the same autocracy Mubarak had implemented. These power changes were attempts at recuperation of the movement. But fortunately, the movement shifted the dialogue from elections to autonomy.

Mohamed Morsi, President of Egypt from June 30, 2012 to July 2013 was a member of the “Freedom and Justice Party”. He is very connected with the Muslim Brotherhood, which he tried to further radicalize and misdirect. Morsi used Egypt’s military to control dissenters and caused massacres in Rabea al-Adaweya, Nahda Squares and others. But it is hard to say what his removal from power will mean to the future of the country. Unfortunately, the huge protests there have been attacked again and again by the Egyptian Army. The fact that Morsi wasn’t extreme enough for the Egyptian Army is a testament to its character. The US government and other empires are ignoring the humanitarian crises here and instead pretending Syria is some kind of risk to the US. Syria is currently in the midst of brutal civil war and now as it faces threats of US bombing from the Obama administration, there is no telling how much danger the Syrian people may be in.

The Camp David agreement of 1979 made Egypt and Israel the largest receivers of US foreign aid. (Egypt is currently the fifth largest receiver of US aid while Israel is still first.) Much of the aid to Egypt goes to Israel so they will “play along.” [1] Israel received $3.2 billion in 2012 while Egypt received $1.5 billion. The Egyptian Armed Forces (EA) is the largest army in Africa, 11th largest in the world. It has nearly 600 combat aircrafts (F-4 Phantoms, Dassault, Mirage Vs, MiG-21s, F-7 Skybolts, C-130s mostly from China, France, and US weapons manufacturers like Lockheed Martin) and nearly 150 armed helicopters, including thirty-five Boeing Apache AH-64Ds. The US continually sends Boeing Apache’s and fighter jets to Israel as well, which they have used against innocent Palestinians and neighboring Peoples. The EA also manufactures weaponry like M1A2 Abrams tanks, first used in Vietnam. Egypt is also the only state in the region with a reconnaissance satellite.  The rulers of empires say they don’t want to become involved in the conflicts (up until recently with Obama’s threat), but they paid for most these war toys, and their funding ties them to these wars irrevocably.

The Thunderbolt Team in the Egyptian Army trains with American Delta forces, Russian Spetsnaz, (extremely well-trained Russian Special Forces) and the British SAS. According to journalist Joshua Hammer, “as much as 40% of the Egyptian economy” is under the control of the Egyptian military. The Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, the senior uniformed officer, is General Abdul Fatah al-Sisi and the Chief of Staff is Lieutenant General Sedki Sobhi.

The militaries of Egypt and Israel have both killed their own people and protesters indiscriminately, and they suppress popular movements. Most of the dictators of the Middle East and North Africa were brought to power by the US. (Hosni Mumbarak and Al-Bashar Assad were initially US allies, for example.)

Israel and Palestine are very connected to surrounding countries. Many countries have been at war supporting one side or the other. Chomsky has said “aid to Israel is essentially aid to Egypt” because of the close relationship between the two. The IDF has used air attacks on Syria several times and it gangs up on most of the Mid East.  

Meanwhile, the Libyan Uprising turned violent when its former ruler, Muammar Gaddafi, ordered the killings of many protesters. Libyan rebels were then armed by the US military, and along with direct assistance from Britain and France, Gadhafi’s army was destroyed and Gaddafi himself was killed.

In Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh was removed from power and a “national unity government” replaced his regime. Saleh was previously supported by the Obama administration, despite his human rights violations, which included ordering attacks on protesters in the 2011 Yemeni Revolution. On November 23, Saleh signed an agreement that would transfer his presidential powers to the VP, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, in 30 days in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Many protesters and Houthis rejected the deal. Hadi, a Sunni and former Major General and Minister of Defense during the South Yemeni Civil War of 1994 then “won” the Presidency in February 2012 with 99.80% of the votes in an egregiously rigged election.  Protests led by Houthis continued in September and October of 2012.

There have been enormous protests in Bahrain against the rule of Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.  Protesters have been indiscriminately fired on and killed here and in many other neighboring countries. Algeria, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Sudan, Morocco, Lebanon and Oman have also seen major protests and some government reforms in response to them. There have also been minor protests in Oman, Djibouti, Western Sahara, the Palestinian Authority, Kosovo, and Mauritania. About 125,000 have been killed by the police and military in response to the protests alone, although the actual figure may be even higher since not all deaths are counted.

Protest in Cyprus, Syria 2011
Protesters in Pearl Roundabout, Manama Bahrain

Syria is located just north of Israel and Jordan and to the South of Turkey. Iraq borders it from the West. Bashar al-Assad is the current President of Syria and Secretary of the “Arab Socialist Party.” He fought in the Syrian occupation of Lebanon in 1998. Opposition and protest to his rule was met with massive police and military resistance, resulting in the Syrian Uprising in 2011 and the Syrian Civil War. More than 100,000 have been killed in Syria because of Assad. His father killed his way into power and ruled for thirty years. Assad inherited his rule of Syria, and he owns 60-70% of the countries assets. He also has about $1.5 billion in personal wealth. [2] However, Syria’s deficit in 2012 was projected to be about $6.7 billion. Syria’s central bank (مصرف سورية المركزي‎) is also state owned, and it may be that US and other financial rulers are eyeing it, causing the Obama administration to push for war. Assad ordered massive crackdowns on protesters like Mubarak and Morsi during the Syrian Uprising of 2011.

 Assad and John Kerry

In the early weeks of the uprising, the U.S. chose not to respond to attacks on peaceful demonstrators by Syrian security forces. Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, referred to Assad as a “reformer” in late March 2011 and said the U.S. believed he would respond appropriately to the demands of his people. [3] Kerry met with him with similar optimism, saying in 2011 that “Syria could be, in fact, very helpful in helping to bring about a unity government.” Kerry has since changed his tune and is vying for war against Syria.Kerry repeated in his attempt to justify a new war on Syria that “We are not talking about ground troops,” as if all we care about is American lives.

In August 2011, President Obama stated that Assad should step down. This was followed by brutal economic sanctions on staples like bread and oil that hurt the very poor most of all. China and Russia both moved to block these sanctions. Withholding food from populations doesn’t reduce terrorism; it feeds it.

Syria is currently in the midst of brutal war between its people, its military, and ISIL, and US bombing is about worst action that could be taken. According to Oxfam America “In the more than two and a half years since the conflict in Syria began, more than 100,000 people have been killed. Nearly two million Syrians are now refugees and more than 6.8 million urgently need humanitarian aid.”

If the US bombs Syria, the civilian casualties will be massive because of this situation. The many young refugees, poor, and those who can’t fend for themselves will likely suffer the most. Other countries like Russia, Iran, and China could back Syria and it would get very ugly. Facebook is banned in Syria because the government realized how powerful a tool the internet can be to organize and amass people’s movements.

 Syrian children exposed to Sarin

The Syrian Army has a budget of $1.8 billion. [4] They have been involved in five coups since 1948. Enlistment can be mandatory and those enlisted must stay enlisted for 15 years or until soldiers reach the age of 40.  Around 10,000 soldiers have defected from the army. [5] About 178,000 remain. [6] This is not much in comparison to Egypt or Israel’s military. But what supposedly prompted the Obama administration to push for an attack is the apparent use of sarin gas by Assad’s regime. Assad’s military fired 330 mm rockets filled with Sarin into crowds of innocent Syrians, reportedly killing hundreds, including children.  It is certainly plausible that the chemical weapons used by Syrian forces came from the US, perhaps through nearby Saudi Arabia. Recent reports have suggested the UK provided the chemicals necessary for Sarin production for six years, which makes the state very much complicit. [7]

 Syrian Uprising in 2011

As mentioned the US did not intervene in the 2011 Syrian Uprising when protesters were being slaughtered. So why attack Syria now? The Obama administration has ignored many human rights violations and war crimes throughout the region and they have committed them as well, so the sudden “humanitarian concern” to justify intervention is dubious at best. The push for the attack may be motivated by a concern that Syrians have a real chance of sparking a revolution that will spread across the Middle East and North Africa. The Syrian army doesn’t have nearly the capabilities of the army of Egypt or Israel. The timing may also be an attempt to move attention away from the Israeli government’s oppression of Palestinians and others in the region. Assad’s money, the Syrian central bank, and the oil in Syria (which is the only significant source of oil in the Eastern Mediterranean) may be contributors as well. The Obama administration has citied that the Syrian government has supported Hezbollah (which literally means “party of Allah”) but this doesn’t making bombing any more rational.


US targets in Syria

Libya went through a similar situation that Syria is in now. In 2011 rebels took up arms in violation of the UNSCR of 1973, which had originally established a ceasefire in Libya and prohibited arms from being shipped to anyone in Libya. Hilary Clinton, however, argued it was legal to arm anti-Gaddafi force since it qualified as a measure to “protect the people.” However, the outcome was messy and many died.

It is no secret the Obama administration armed rebels in Libya to kill Gaddafi. France and Britain also played a role. The French Air Force destroyed multiple government vehicles heading to a rebel stronghold in Benghazi. U.S. and British submarines then fired over 110 Tomahawk missiles at targets throughout Libya. Gaddafi’s forces were not able to capture Benghazi as a result.

While Gaddafi was a vain and often misanthropic leader, taking him out changed little. The Obama Administration knew it would result in massive casualties, but they didn’t care, and by just arming the rebels, they were able to distance themselves from it and claim they did not directly intervene.


Libyan Uprising

Muammar Gaddafi came in to power in a coup in 1969. He was a supporter of Sharia law, a very extreme and oppressive set of laws that particularly undermines women. Gaddafi made some progress with the Great Man-Made River, which is a network of rivers that provide water for crops and drinking, and he was a self-described supporter of socialism, pan-Africanism and pan-Arabism and an enemy of foreign imperialism. However, he also executed and arrested many political dissidents. He became more megalomaniacal during his time in power, and he lobbied to have his image printed on postage stamps, satchels, watches, billboards, and more.

Reagan decided to bomb Libya in 1986 under Gaddafi in “Operation El Dorado Canyon” in retaliation to the 1986 Berlin discotheque bombing. The UN also initiated economic sanctions on Libya, which mainly had brutal effects on the poor. There were air-strikes on military installations, killing around 100 Libyans, including about 15 civilians. Gaddafi’s house was a target and his sons were injured in the attack and his daughter was killed.

Gaddafi once said that HIV was “a peaceful virus, not an aggressive virus” and he tried to convince attendees at the African Union that “if you are straight you have nothing to fear from AIDS.” He also ordered mass rapes and may been involved in them. [8] Gaddafi made mustard gas, other biological weapons, tried to make nuclear weapons and declared a jihad against Switzerland. However, by February 2011 cities like Misrata, Benghazi, al-Bayda, and Tobruk were under control by rebels and the National Transitional Council in Benghazi had been founded. In August, Zliten and Tripoli were captured by rebels, essentially ending Gaddafi’s regime. 

Understandably, very few are mourning the death of Gaddafi. But this isn’t about him. When residents of countries the USG doesn’t care about rise up, the USG demands the people use due process and legal channels to remove the country’s leadership. But when the USG wants a ruler gone and they don’t want to do it directly, then arming rebels is suddenly perfectly acceptable. It’s a complete double standard and it is demonstrative of the hypocrisy of the USG.

Protests in Yemen

Most of the uprisings and revolutions that have took place during the Arab Spring are ongoing People’s revolutions that are being suppressed by corrupt dictatorships, militaries, and police forces. The number one reason police and militaries so fervently break up public assemblies and protests in all places is that they can prevent people from going to work and conducting business. When people are not going about their business, corporations worry. Rich people start to lose money when their roads are blocked, their trucks stop, their employees leave, and instead of business as usual, the common people come together to stand for each other’s rights. Public assembly, organization, sabotage, direct action, civil disobedience, and protest without formal rulers are the biggest the enemies of the financial elite.

The problem, however, is that our rulers often use these tools against us. The vast majority of the protests are nonviolent. But when police and militaries intervene and attack innocent people, the next day’s headlines read “Violent Protests” and the details are spotty at best. Ironically, some protesters with peace signs get arrested for “disturbing the peace,” but our rulers and their armies and police forces are usually the only ones disturbing it.

A gathering of people is a vote for something. It means many people feel the same way, and when you’re holding the gun and a riot shield at the masses who are all in unity about something and you are only doing it because of orders from your “superiors” who received orders from people who have far more money and power than you, how can you feel like you are on the right side of history?

 Syrian Protest in 2013

This has been said many times before, but I believe it bears repeating. During protests in which there is expected to be a violent, police reaction, it makes sense to prepare: bring gas masks. Make them from activated carbon. Use good communication between entire groups. Make sure no one is isolated or left vulnerable. Don’t bring children. Crowds are always more able to defend themselves when they are organized and the larger, the better. They also have to be proficient with communicating with the other side and sticking to their principles. I believe recording protests and broadcasting them live (without showing people’s faces) is also extremely important. It gives the world the potential to tune in and witness first-hand what is going on. Police and militaries should know they are being recorded so that they refrain from instigating violence and mass media conglomerates cannot lie about what did happen. But protest shouldn’t just be theater. Some people will never change their minds. So we must always be prepared for the potential for unprovoked attacks from the police and military. Those resisting massive people’s movements are on the wrong side and we need to let them know, so they see better alternatives and they desert their corrupt battalions and death squads. The easiest way to end war is to have everyone agree we shouldn’t be fighting.

  Protest in Syria 2013

Our rulers shouldn’t be able to fool us any longer. The Arab Spring is an inspiring example of people power. It shows we can rise up against our own rulers and regain our autonomy. We just must be careful not be pacified by reforms or changes in heads of states. Only common people working together voluntarily and horizontally can establish equity and lasting global peace and justice.


[1] Chomsky, Noam: What We Say Goes, pg. 165. 2007. Print.



[4] CIA world fact book:





Photo credits:,,,,, ABC News, Reuters, AFP and AP

4 responses to “ The Arab Spring: Lasting Victories vs. Co-optation and Recuperation of the Movement

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