Causes of Unrest in Middle East and North Africa

Historians and philosophers, political scientists, economists, and sociologists are trying to identify the root causes of social unrest and their implications in the Arab countries of the Middle East and North Africa in the end of the first and the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century. There are quite a lot of factors serving as the foundation for social unrest in the ME and NA. They are both objective and subjective. The bases of social revolutions are mainly domestic factors, though not without external assumptions. The root causes of the revolutionary upheavals in the Arab world and the Middle East and North African crisis lie in the limited model of modernization, which has led to a disproportionate, extensive and slow development of the region. [1]

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In January 2014, the Arab world has noted the fourth anniversary of the event, which journalists dubbed as the “Arab Spring “. Indeed, at first, the world started to witness “iconic” events occurring in the region, where the resignation of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled the country since 1987, on January 14 2011, launched the cascade known as the domino effect. Later, on the 11th of February 2011 the fall of Tunisian president was followed by the most sensational resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who ruled the country since 1981. In combination with the removal of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi (who ruled from 1969) on the 20th of October 2011, events of the “Arab Spring” began to be perceived and interpreted as signs of radical changes in the entire Arab region, and more broadly within the whole Islamic World[1].

The nomination of main slogans demanding the democratisation of public institutions of government had a dual effect on the countries of the region. Firstly, the “spring tide” having swept away a number of Middle Eastern regimes, still failed to overthrow the most powerful outposts of authoritarianism within the region[2]. These authoritarian outposts are personified by Arab Monarchies of the Persian Gulf[3], who happen to be traditional allies of the USA. Reluctance to initiate the reforms for the liberalisation of the regime led to them being discredited in the eyes of the global community as well as the indigenous peoples of the region. And secondly, the events of the last decade, beginning with the US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq[4] have led, in combination with crisis of power in Egypt and Syria, to the elimination of the political culture and institutions of the Middle East, by knocking out the traditional “heavyweights” of the Middle East: Iraq, Egypt and Syria. All of these events together resulted in the emergence of activity of those labelled as “outsiders” by the Arab world. These non-Arab “outsiders” are primarily Iran and Turkey. The failure of the revolutions to lay foundation for new Political, Economic and Social institutions has been replaced by simple “reshuffling of spheres of power and influence. And in Iran, a “green movement” has been chosen as an alternative path[5].

Throughout the course of the revolution, there were strong expectations that the Middle East was entering a period of democratic development[6], which was said to achieve all of the attributes of a free civil society, which had for so many years existed in Western countries. However, further advancement of the situation in the region has led to an increase in the influence of supporters of critical perception of the nature and probable consequences of this rebellious movement not only for countries of that region, but also for the whole system of modern international relations. Western experts have increasingly highlighted the ambiguity of this phenomenon for the fate of the entire region, by agreeing on the fundamental reshaping of the entire system of “balance of forces”. This choir is particularly dominated by the notable work of Efraim Inbar, an Israeli expert and his work “The Arab uprisings and national safety of Israel.”According to Inbar, all what is happening in the region, will not deliver any positive outcomes in terms of stability and regional security”[7]. Despite the secular influence of Western culture, none of the Arab States managed to build a stable, democratic society, based on the ideas of civil liberties, political rights, a system of universal education, gender equality and economic development. The “democratic” elections in Lebanon in 2005 and Palestine in 2009 brought to power of the Islamists, indicating that the imperfection of the civil society in the Arab world. The most dangerous version of the situation under the influence of the “Arab Spring” and according to Inbar, there will be an emergence of nuclear Iran, who may ultimately win some time to complete work on its nuclear program and put the global community fait accompli. This may result in a “chain reaction” when other countries region will aim to commence the development of their own nuclear programs, seriously complicating the national security of Israel, which as of now is the only nuclear Power in the conflict-laden region. Activation of Iran on the foreign policy arena after the uprisings is not accidental. Behind its activation lies the influx of huge amounts of Petrodollars, rising anti-American sentiment in the region caused by frankly failed policies of the United States, the rise to power of an ambitious and eccentric leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s implementation of its own “nuclear program”, which turned into a personification of Iran’s power revival[8]. Hence the interest of specialists and politicians on foreign policy doctrine of modern Iran, where it states that it is based not on the principles of national interest but rather the principle of Islamic solidarity, rooted in the teachings of Imam Khomeini, in relation to the Islamic revolution. Thus, consideration of ideological concepts of Imam Khomeini in interpreting the current leader of the Islamic Revolution (Rahbar) Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, should help understanding and explaining the steps taken by Iran during the reign of the current President of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad[9]. The analysis of these concepts will help to forecast future foreign policy initiatives of Iran with its aim to resolve the intra-regional problems.

Analysing the statements of Khamenei on reasons which caused the revolutionary events in the Arab world, it is crucial to highlight the fact that such uprising were labelled in Iran as “Islamic awakening”, emphasizing the specificity of a theoretical framework, where Islam is seen as the foundation. Whereas the term “Arab spring” has not found support among the Iranian ruling elite, as it was associated with a distinct national colour and the secular character of the movement. Thus, Khamenei, addressing a speech to the delegates of the 1st International Conference of Islamic awakening on the 17th of September 2011, said: “This awakening has led to more movement among the peoples of our region and caused several uprisings and revolutions which could not be foreseen by the dominating regional and international satanic powers. It overthrew authoritarian and imperialist tyrannical regimes”[10] and under such he meant the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt[11], Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. Analysing the reasons for their failure, he thus highlights the background of the beginning of the “Islamic awakening”. Khamenei calls the fallen aforementioned regimes as “American puppets”, and this, in his opinion, is one of the main reasons for the anti-government protests in these countries[12].

The Social explosion occurred precisely in those Arab countries where government accountability measure and respect for human rights was below average in the Arab world. In Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Libya. And in Libya, this ratio was almost zero.[13]

However the “Political Arab spring”, to which so many hopes were pinned in the beginning of 2011, resulted in a bloody drama, destroying many of revolutionary conquests of Arabs in the 20th century. Libya became crushed and practically ceased to exist as an independent state. Islamists seized power and are now trying to impose their rule and solve all of the problems in Egypt, Yemen and Tunisia. They threw an open challenge to the Government of Syria, unleashing in the country a bloody and destructive civil war in order to transform this ancient Arab state in something they have already transformed Libya to. In Syria, there are as of now about 200 thousand militants fighting[14]. There are more than 8 thousand men leaving the country monthly, and their total number, according to According to the UN reached 1 million. Events in Syria, no doubt, influenced what is happening in neighbouring countries – Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan. And it is not surprising that from these countries there has been an influx of Islamic militants to Syria. Syrian issue becomes equally important part of the Middle East crisis, on par with the Palestinian problem.

Since the end of social upheaval in the Arab countries of North Africa, there have been some major changes. The time limit for deep historical and philosophical generalizations about events in these countries is yet insufficient. However, economists, political scientists and politicians who are guided by intelligence and analytics for the time period of 3-4 years believe it is more than enough to draw some conclusions on the effects of social unrest in the North African region. It is safe to say that the social unrest in countries North Africa had a dramatically negative impact on the development of their economies, although not equally. So, if in a more modernized Tunisia GDP growth in 2011 in comparison with 2010 decreased by 4%, from + 3 to 1, then in Egypt fall in GDP in the same period was more pronounced – from +5 to -3%. GDP of Libyan economy, as of February 2012, decreased by more than twice. Adverse economic consequences of social upheaval in the three North African countries has witnessed rising inflation. According to the IMF in Libya, it reached 40% in Egypt, 12 and in Tunisia, 6% per year. Depreciation of money, in turn, has led to the fact that, for example, Egyptians began to put less money on deposits. Banks are also deprived of the flow of money and fearing the increased risk, they began to give loans at higher interest rates. As a result – high interest rates on loans have become unaffordable for the majority of Egyptian businessmen. Social instability in North African countries significantly reduced foreign direct investment. For example, in Tunisia, they decreased by 25%. In 2011, Tunisia had gone 120 foreign companies, and this has led to the disappearance of 40 thousand. Jobs. The sharpest drop recorded in Egypt from 2010 to 2011 .: with 6.4 billion. Dollars. 0.5 billion. Dollars. In Libya, the results even more impressive – with 3.8 billion. Dollars. to almost zero [10]. Social upheavals in North Africa led to a significant reduction in their foreign exchange reserves. For example, Egypt’s foreign exchange reserves at the beginning of 2011. accounted for 36 bln. dollars. However, after the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, they began to decline at an increasing rate – in the first half of $ 1 billion dollars per month, and by the end of 2011. Monthly expenses of foreign currency reserves have doubled. By January 2012. Egypt’s foreign exchange reserves fell to $ 15 billion dollars. Social unrest in the North African countries and had a negative impact on the stock markets. Thus, the index of the Egyptian stock market since the beginning of 2011. fell nearly 48%, losing 32 billion. dollars. The Egyptian stock market was the most impaired in the world after Greece. It grows in North Africa and the budget deficit. In the same Egypt in fiscal year 2012 it was 9% against 8.1% a year earlier. According to the Tunisian and Egyptian entrepreneurs business climate has worsened in all three North African countries after the social upheaval in them. Recurrent strikes in Tunisia and especially in Egypt, paralyzed the normal course of production activities. Workers everywhere are demanding higher wages. The result of social unrest in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya became an active redistribution of property, which was previously in the hands of clans. Tunisia sees intensive redistribution of retail chains. In Libya, exists a struggle between the companies and mobile operators in Egypt are divided into trade and transport companies, and service enterprises. In all three countries there is a process of redistribution of real estate. Social upheavals in the states of North Africa had a very negative impact on the development of tourism industry. Indeed, in Egypt overthrowing Mubarak’s regime affected the share of tourism whichrevenues accounted for 12% of GDP. Already in 2011. Egypt’s tourism sector has missed 3 billion. US., and in fact it involved about 10% of the 85 million inhabitants of the country. Social unrest in Egypt in early 2011. and the removal of Mubarak from power in general weakened the rule of law in the country. This is particularly evident in the unprecedented growth in Egypt of crimes and violence against foreign tourists. This kind of excesses led to a sharp reduction in the influx of tourists to Egypt from Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries. Social upheavals in Tunisia and Libya of 2010-2011violated the close and mutually beneficial economic and social contacts between the two countries. Like This, trade between Tunisia and Libya was until 2011. 2 billion. USD. Per year. About 800 thousand. Libyans were treated annually in Tunisia, in turn, about 200 thousand. Tunisians working in Libya. Arab revolutions in North Africa largely paralyzed the state apparatus. For example, civil servants need not only higher wages, but also the dismissal appointed under previous regimes managers whose place they do not take themselves off. Same old heads in fear of the possibility of dismissal try not to take responsible decisions, in order to avoid accusations of fraud and corruption.

One of the important political consequences of social unrest in countries of North Africa is coming to power, particularly in Egypt and Tunisia, of Islamist forces. After the victory in the parliamentary elections Tunisian and Egyptian Islamists have committed to domestic policy principles of democracy. However, the alarming fact that in addition to the moderate Islamists in Tunisia in the face of the party “Ennahda”[15], and in Egypt – MB[16], seats in parliament were also obtained by pretty active Salafis. United States of America and Israel are concerned especially with the statements of some representatives of the Egyptian “Muslim Brotherhood” calling for the need to review some articles Camp David agreements concluded in 1979 between Egypt and the Jewish state. However, in an official statement of the organization of “Muslim Brotherhood” emphasized that Egypt still “respects the signed treaties and agreements.”

Thus, the causes of social unrest in the Arab countries of North Africa and the Middle East at the beginning of the twenty-first century are rooted in many factors, both internal and external order. On top of acute internal socio-economic and political problems that could not be solved in the post-colonial period, further externalities were imposed in the form of the global economic crisis of 2008- 2013 and contradictory processes of globalization. In my view, the role of external factors in the formation of the objective prerequisites of social upheaval in the Arab States was minimal, but subjective – quite significant. The consequences of the Arab revolutions now appear to be more as a negative, not only in economic, but also political and social spheres. As the events of July 2013 in Egypt show[17], the post-revolutionary consensus among the main political forces in this country did not come to a consensus. There are, however, hopes that authoritarian leaders who remained in power for long and not only in Middle East, but also in other countries of the third world, will learn from the Arab revolutions and will conduct periodic rotation of political elites “from above”, without waiting for the process to be executed by its citizens “from below”.


[1] Anderson, Lisa. “Demystifying the Arab Spring: parsing the differences between Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.”Foreign Aff.90 (2011): 2.

[2] Stepan, Alfred, and Juan J. Linz. “Democratization Theory and the” Arab Spring”.”Journal of Democracy24.2 (2013): 15-30.

[3] Gause III, F. Gregory. “Why Middle East Studies missed the Arab spring: The myth of authoritarian stability.”Foreign Aff.90 (2011): 81.

[4] Dodge, Toby. “The causes of US failure in Iraq.”Survival49, no. 1 (2007): 85-106.

[5] Khosrokhavar, Farhad.The new Arab revolutions that shook the world. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2012.

[6] Sakbani, Michael. “The revolutions of the Arab Spring: are democracy, development and modernity at the gates?.”Contemporary Arab Affairs4, no. 2 (2011): 127-147.

[7] The 2011Arab uprisings and Israel’s national security // Mideast Security and Policy Studies. 2012. a„- 95. February


[9] Morady Farhang (2011), Who rules Iran? ‘The June 2009 election and Political turmoil’ in Capital and Class, Vol. 35. No 1, pp39


[11] Tadros, Mariz. 2012.Backstage Governance.IDS Bulletin43(1):62–70