Photograph by Tara Todras-Whitehill, AP
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Egyptians celebrate the news of the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, who handed control of the country to the military. In Tahrir Square, downtown Cairo, Egypt, on Feb. 11, 2011.

Photograph by Tara Todras-Whitehill, AP

What was the Arab Spring and how did it spread?

The wave of protests and civil unrest that swept the Arab world ushered in some changes, showing that peaceful demonstrations have power.

Beginning in December 2010, anti-government protests rocked Tunisia. By early 2011 they had spread into what became known as the Arab Spring—a wave of protests, uprisings, and unrest that spread across Arabic-speaking countries in North Africa and the Middle East. Pro-democratic protests, which spread rapidly due to social media, ended up toppling the governments of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen.

But though they seemed poised to install democratic leadership and quell government repression, the uprisings also led to armed conflict in some countries, including civil war in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen.

It started in Tunisa

After Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, killed himself in January 2011, Tunisians took to the streets. Bouazizi had been harassed by police officers who attempted to shut down his business with no recourse, and his suicide by self-immolation galvanized Tunisian protesters. They demonstrated against government corruption and Tunisia’s autocratic president, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. A month later, after 23 years in power, he fled to Saudi Arabia.

The protests in Tunisia—documented and shared by mobile devices—spread to neighboring countries. Soon anti-government demonstrations had erupted in Bahrain, where protesters demanded the release of political prisoners and human rights reforms; Jordan; Kuwait, whose parliament was dissolved in response to public pressure; Libya, where a government crackdown on protesters sparked a civil war; and Yemen, where massive protests sparked a political crisis and forced its president to step down.

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It spread to Egypt and Syria

In Egypt, Cairo’s Tahrir Square was the site of 18 days of huge protests that brought together tens of thousands of Egyptians demanding that their president, Hosni Mubarak, step down. The dramatic protests eventually forced Mubarak, who had ruled for 30 years, out of office. The revolution ushered in an era of political chaos and instability in Egypt, which has continued to repress its citizens.

The dream of democracy also proved fleeting in Syria, where the peaceful pro-democracy protesters were met with government opposition. After the Syrian government killed and imprisoned Arab Spring protesters, the country split into factions and sectarian violence broke out. Civil war soon followed. Foreign intervention has failed to stop the war, which has displaced more than half of all Syrians and killed up to half a million people.

What did the Arab Spring accomplish?

“Arab Spring” was first used by American conservative commentators, but has since been challenged as an inadequate misnomer. Since 2011, the goals of many Arab Spring protesters have been denied as autocratic governments regain power and crack down on civil liberties.

Nonetheless, the uprisings have shown the power of mass demonstrations and peaceful protest, as well as the ability of social media to both fuel protest and communicate its goals to the outside world. The tumult of the Arab Spring also showed autocratic governments—and the rest of the world—that millions of people living in Islamic nations believe in free expression and democratic governance.

“The debate about the relationship between Islam and democracy conclusively ended with the coming of the Arab Spring,” said Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in a 2018 speech.

Khashoggi, who was also a dissident, author, and columnist for The Washington Post, was murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.