Download this paper (PDF)


Even the most thorough writings on the “Arab Spring” have paid little attention to the genuine forces behind this phenomenon and their real purposes. Meanwhile, we strongly believe that the revelation of these purposes, which undoubtedly exist but are unknown to the wider public, is necessary for answering perhaps the most significant question of today’s politics: What consequences may sociopolitical explosions in North Africa and the Middle East have in regional and global terms?

To answer the question adequately, we need to start by examining the true causes of the uprisings in a set of Arab countries. First, the basic cause, as pointed out in many analyses, is the extremely imperfect political systems in the Arab states that have been formed in the postcolonial period. These imperfect systems are characterized by growing social problems generated by demographic situations (namely rapid population growth during the last three decades), clan-type economies, pervasive corruption, high rates of unemployment, patronage and nepotism, flagrant social polarization, weak and corrupt judicial systems and rule of law in general, frequent violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms, reluctance and inability of ruling elites to carry out necessary reforms aimed at democratization, and so forth.

Let us suppose that the abovementioned factors stimulated social tensions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria, which finally brought about the sociopolitical revolutions in these countries. The question then arises, why did the most conservative (if not reactionary) regimes in Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Bahrain avoid the same destiny? Arguably, the most popular explanation is that the “exceptionally large and unconstrained” budgets of these oil-rich monarchies allowed them to carry out relatively more effective social policy or, as Michael Ross put it, “fiscal pacification.”[1] However, this explanation is far from exhaustive and does not withstand any constructive critique. Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was known as one who had the most consistent policy in this sense. Under his reign, the standard of living of the average Libyan citizen was among the highest in the region, let alone the widespread access to education, medical services, and even considerable financial assistance to young families.[2] Ironically, Colonel Gaddafi was precisely the one who was savagely assassinated.

Almost everyone knows that spontaneous revolution is possible only in Italian writer Gianni Rodari’s children’s tale Il romanzo di Cipollino (“Tale of Cipollino”), but the notion that the imperfect governance, social inequality, and above all social networks played a critical role in some of these Arab revolutions continues to dominate intellectual discourse on the Arab Spring.

We shall argue that this is certainly not the case. Although these factors played their part in mobilizing people in relatively short periods of time, they were by no means critical to transforming popular grievances into open and organized insurgencies. Dissatisfied politicians and militaries—unhappy with their rulers, authorities, country’s political course, or their own position—as well as simply marginalized individuals are present in every society, and especially in those without older traditions of political culture. However, to succeed in toppling the ruling regime, these groups and individuals need either to constitute the majority of the population (which is impossible) or turn into an underground group, organize a conspiracy, and remove the regime through a coup. Neither of these situations was observable in these Arab countries either before or after the uprisings. Quite understandable and explainable civil disturbances briefly escalated into armed revolts and swept out ruling regimes with considerable political and financial help from the outside. Indeed, every such revolution needs tremendous financial resources. One would hardly disagree that organizing and arming an insurgency with appropriate propaganda support in a relatively short period of time costs big money.

According to one of the most popular interpretations, the United States and leading European powers (increasingly the West) were the financiers and organizers of the Arab revolts. According to this line of thought, by using its whole arsenal of political and information technologies, the West has changed regimes in a set of Arab countries in order to strengthen its influence in the Middle East and take regional energy resources and transportation routes under its direct control.[3] Proponents of this version of events provide both direct and indirect evidence in support of their viewpoint. For example, the training of professional Internet bloggers to mobilize the capabilities of virtual space for organizing mass protests is indirect evidence, whereas NATO’s military strike on Gaddafi’s army is direct evidence. However, what proponents of this interpretation most frequently cite as underpinning their arguments is an initiative by then-U.S. President George W. Bush known as the Greater Middle East. (We will talk about this initiative a bit later.) It is worth noting in the meantime that the legitimacy of this interpretation that insists on the West’s hand behind the Arab revolts is highly questionable. First of all, because it oversimplifies the situation in the Middle East and ignores numerous controversial facts related to the formation of new geopolitical configurations in the region. However, before examining this line of thought thoroughly we need to address the aforementioned American strategic initiative, the Greater Middle East.

The Greater Middle East initiative (or project) was primarily related to the oldest and highly problematic political issue of the contemporary world—the Arab-Israeli conflict—and was aimed at finding solutions to this problem acceptable to both parties. Secondly, although the initiative is very recent, it belongs to an epoch of the United States’ absolute domination in the world economy and finances, as well as in ideological, military, and other spheres, which is nearly over. In other words, the initiative was suggested in the times of the “unipolar world,” which gave rise to the phenomenon of “American messianism.” In contrast to previous messianic (and in effect imperial) theories, it was confined to the “advancement of democracy.” Thus, the Greater Middle East initiative was also aimed at modernization and democratization of the Arab world by involving political, economic, financial, scientific, military, and other elites of some Arab countries in world processes. It was speculated that such involvement would perhaps stimulate radical sociopolitical reforms, desperately needed for resolving growing internal tensions and for creating appropriate conditions for development in these societies.

Indeed, discounting several palace coups that did not really change anything, Arab societies have been full of increasing contradictions since the early 1950s. They constituted (and continue to constitute) in effect a strange mosaic, where medieval thinking is combined with an overall desire to exploit the achievements of contemporary civilization. All this has been based on the strong belief in the infallibility and rightness of Islamic dogma. Apparently, this has prompted Americans and others to conclude that the sophisticated mosaic will inevitably crumble. Moreover, such collapse will cause serious and at times bloody shocks, especially in those parts of the Arab world where ruling elites will try to resist the process. Hence, the West reportedly decided to organize inevitable sociopolitical explosions in the Arab world in order to guide the revolutionary energy toward modernization and democratization.

Thus, the interpretation insisting on the West’s critical role in organizing revolutions in Arab countries stretching from Libya to Syria may be divided into two lines of arguments. The first line puts the West’s geopolitical and geoeconomic interests at the center of explanation, while the second line attributes the organization of uprisings to the West’s desire to modernize and democratize the regional states. Both lines of arguments are highly questionable.

As we mentioned earlier, proponents of the first line of argument suggest that the Arab Spring was basically aimed at:

  • Changing regimes disloyal to the United States and leading European powers in order to strengthen the West’s influence in this strategically important region, and
  • Putting energy production and its transit in the North Africa and the Middle East regions under the West’s control by creating loyal and, in fact, puppet regimes.

This interpretation sounds plausible from a geopolitical point of view. However, the implementation of the suggested plan leaves many points unclear. Indeed, regime change in Libya and Syria might well be considered desirable in Washington and some European capitals. Tripoli and Damascus were trying to play independent roles in the region and were therefore consistently resisting all Western initiatives. In the case of Libya, the situation was even worse. Colonel Gaddafi often carried out openly confrontational policies regarding his Western “friends.” However, under this scenario, it is even harder to explain, and even more so to justify, the regime changes in Tunisia and Egypt, which were extremely loyal to the West. In the case of Egypt, things appear yet more unclear. From the 1970s on, Cairo was obviously playing a stabilizing role in the Middle East. Further, it consistently stood as a guarantor of all-Arabian nonalignment against Israel. On the other hand, attempts to explain the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions as struggles for energy resources led to a dead end. Egypt’s energy resources are very limited, while Tunisian oil and gas scarcely cover that country’s own domestic needs. In contrast, there is plenty of crude and natural gas in Algeria, where roughly ten years ago we were witnessing a genuine civil war. And it is worth remembering that the methods the Algerian government used against armed but civil rebels and in suppressing popular protests were much bloodier and ruthless than those we have seen in Syria and even Libya. However, the West then did not even think about interfering in Algerian domestic issues, let alone consider military intervention. At the same time, Western policymakers enthusiastically agreed with the claim of Algerian authorities that they were fighting Islamic extremism. Although today’s Syrian government is making the same claim, the West’s reaction is diametrically the opposite. However, it is worth mentioning that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently acknowledged that if the West finance and arm Syrian opposition forces, it will most possibly strengthen Al-Qaeda, which is behind this opposition.[4]