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The Political Transformation of the Middle East and North Africa

By Kristian Coates Ulrichsen

The size and contagious overspill of the Arab Spring has distinguished the civil uprisings from other expressions of discontent, and demonstrated the magnitude of the socio-economic and political challenges facing the region.

Beginning in January 2011, a wave of popular protest has swept through the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). What developed into the ‘Arab Spring’ led to the rapid demise of the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and intensifying mass opposition to the regimes in Libya, Bahrain, Syria and Yemen. Its size and contagious overspill has distinguished the civil uprisings from other expressions of discontent, and demonstrated the magnitude of the socio-economic and political challenges facing the region. They also revealed the narrow social base of support underpinning longstanding authoritarian rulers, and their reliance on the use of coercion or the threat of force.

The protests that sparked the 2011 civil uprisings originated in North Africa following the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia in December 2010. His plight resonated heavily among people across the Arab world. It tapped into powerful feelings of helplessness and a perceived lack of prospects for a better future among youthful populations lacking sufficient opportunities for employment or advancement. Moreover, it exposed the elderly, authoritarian regimes’ manifest failure to manage or meet the demands of this younger generation in a rapidly changing global economy. These foster the perception among young people that no meaningful change, or even hope, is possible within existing political systems. It is this intergenerational clash that has caught regional leaders in the crosshairs of global processes and pressures.

This article analyses the roots and trajectory of the recent unrest in the context of the global transformations that have redefined the politics of protest in the region.”

This article analyses the roots and trajectory of the recent unrest in the context of the global transformations that have redefined the politics of protest in the region. It argues that accelerating forces of global change played a significant role in intensifying and channelling the underlying drivers of discontent. An opening section analyses how advances in information exchange and communication facilitated the spread of ideas across national boundaries. These largely bypassed state controls and made possible new forms of coordination, discussion and mobilisation, and a second section demonstrates how these played out in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Bahrain. A final section focuses on the impact of globalising processes on the future of political, economic and social structures in the region.

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