Arab Spring failed to deliver on hopes, Baker Institute survey finds

David Ruth

Jeff Falk

Arab Spring failed to deliver on hopes, Baker Institute survey finds

HOUSTON – (April 11, 2019) – The Arab Spring protests of 2010-12 failed to deliver what many in the Middle East and North Africa region hoped they would, according to a new survey and paper from Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. However, the study’s authors found marked variation across the region’s nations in how respondents view the protests and uprisings.

Arab Spring

Anti-military demonstrators in Alexandria, Egypt, Dec. 23, 2011. Credit: University

“The Aftermath of the Arab Spring Protests: What a Public Opinion Survey Tells Us” was co-authored by A.Kadir Yildirim, fellow for the Middle East at the Baker Institute, and Meredith McCain, a Rice undergraduate student and intern at the institute. Their 2018 survey of 10 Arab nations — Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories — measured public attitudes toward the Arab Spring protests, its goals and its beneficiaries.

“While the protests did bring about more political freedoms in a few nations, respondents in most countries did not think that the protests led to significant levels of improvement in economic or political conditions,” the authors wrote. “The overwhelming majority of respondents in each country think that the elite disproportionately benefited from the Arab Spring at the expense of the middle and lower classes. Likewise, perceptions of which ethno-religious groups benefited from the Arab Spring reinforce prevailing social prejudices against certain religious groups, particularly Shiites and Jews. These views were supported by an emerging consensus that ethno-religious tensions worsened across the region.”

Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Sidi Bouzid in December 2010 triggered events that significantly altered politics in the Middle East and North Africa. In some countries, widespread protests led to the ousting of longtime dictators such as Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, whereas in others, such as Syria, Yemen and Libya, protests escalated into widespread violence between opposition groups and governments, and devastating conflicts persist, according to the paper’s authors.

Fewer than half of those surveyed agreed that their country is better off after the Arab Spring protests, and an even smaller proportion believe the protests were successful, the authors found.

Syrians and Libyans expressed the fewest positive sentiments about the protests’ impact and success. The majority of survey respondents in all nations found that the primary economic and political goals of the protests were not attained. However, in Tunisia, Libya, Lebanon and Iraq, the attainment of political freedoms stands out as a lone bright spot among economic and political disappointments, the authors said. The share of respondents agreeing that political freedoms were achieved exceeds 80 percent in Tunisia, 65 percent in Libya and 45 percent in Lebanon and Iraq.

On average, fewer than 20 percent of those surveyed agreed that the goals of economic improvement and social justice were reached, despite ranking these as the top two goals of the Arab Spring protests. Reducing corruption was another important goal of the protests, yet overwhelming majorities of the respondents thought that this goal was not achieved (less than 25 percent on average), with Libyans having the lowest rate agreeing, at less than 10 percent. Notably, 43 percent of Palestinians surveyed thought the protests brought dignity, whereas respondents in the rest of the survey did not think so.

“Overall, respondents in most countries in our survey thought that the Arab Spring protests fell far short of fulfilling their intended goals,” the authors wrote. “Increased political freedoms were acknowledged as the most widely achieved objective, but they were not the primary goal in many countries.”

The Arab Spring process began eroding the unitary nation-state paradigm developed in the post-independence period that had largely ignored ethnic or religious identities, the authors said.

“Ethno-religious minorities, however, have increasingly been marginalized over time, and the aftermath of the Arab Spring protests only reinforced the prejudices these minority groups face,” they wrote.

“Governments in the region should proactively work toward eliminating bias encountered by minority groups to both protect them and decrease ethnic and religious tensions,” the authors wrote. “If no initiative is taken by these nations, the deteriorating state of ethno-religious relations promises to introduce a more trenchant sectarian element to the next wave of instability in the region.”

The authors’ survey was conducted in May-June 2018 and is part of a broader project on pluralism in the Arab World supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The survey was conducted online by YouGov, and 8,501 people responded.

Yildirim’s main research interests include politics and religion, political Islam, the politics of the Middle East and Turkish politics.


Related materials:

Policy brief:

Yildirim biography:

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Founded in 1993, Rice University’s Baker Institute ranks among the top three university-affiliated think tanks in the world. As a premier nonpartisan think tank, the institute conducts research on domestic and foreign policy issues with the goal of bridging the gap between the theory and practice of public policy. The institute’s strong track record of achievement reflects the work of its endowed fellows, Rice University faculty scholars and staff, coupled with its outreach to the Rice student body through fellow-taught classes — including a public policy course — and student leadership and internship programs. Learn more about the institute at or on the institute’s blog,

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.