How the Arab spring engulfed the Middle East – and changed the world

By Michael Safi

A decade ago this month, protests forced Tunisia’s authoritarian president, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, to flee his country. It was a quick and relatively peaceful revolution, coming after decades of stagnant but entrenched regimes across the Arab world.

Few at the time understood the power of the images of unrest being broadcast online and into homes across the Middle East. Within weeks, other significant protest movements would emerge, and by the middle of 2011, leaders in Cairo, Tripoli, Sana’a, Damascus and elsewhere were under serious pressure or had been swept away by a tidal wave of peaceful demonstrations and armed resistance.

Our interactive timeline captures the way the Arab spring emerged and then spread with remarkable speed and force across the Middle East. The information has been compiled by the Guardian based on news coverage and reports from human rights organisations, and is therefore not an exhaustive record. It is a visual retelling of key protests, moments of regime change and outbreaks of civil war that transformed the Middle East and wider world.

A decade on from the first protests

Ten years since the Arab spring protests commenced, the Middle East is sheltering from a resurgent Covid pandemic. This threat has quelled protests in many countries, along with most other activity. But the underlying conditions that gave rise to the Arab spring – disenfranchisement, broken social contracts and corruption – have only grown worse in the decade since, and will be deepened by the economic consequences of coronavirus.

The street movements that reshaped the Middle East in early 2011 may have been a phenomenon that has since exhausted itself. More likely, they were the beginning of a new era for the Arab world that is still playing out.

Methodology
The list of events mapped in this interactive was compiled by the Guardian, based on news stories and human rights organisations’ reports. The activities covered include key protests in 2011 relating to movements for government reform, regime change and other major events including the outbreak of civil wars. It is not intended as an exhaustive record of every protest.

Events categorised as “protests” include demonstrations, suicide protests and riots.

Pro-government rallies have not been included as the piece seeks to cover the Arab spring anti-government or pro-reformist protest movements, rather than activity in favour of preserving the status quo.

Photo credits
Header composite: Phil Weymouth, AFP/Getty Images; Mohamed Abd El Ghany, Reuters; Mohammed Al-Shaikh, AFP/Getty Images; Muhammed Muheisen, AP; Ozan Köse, AFP/Getty Images; Anwar Amro, AFP/Getty Images; AFP/Getty Images; Mohammed Abed, AFP/Getty Images


Photo cards: Ons Abid, The Guardian (Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia); Lucas Dolega, EPA (Tunis, Tunisia); Felipe Trueba, EPA (Cairo, Egypt); Hasan Jamali, AP (Duraz, Bahrain); Sean Smith, The Guardian (Bregga, Libya); Yahya Arhab, EPA (Sana’a, Yemen); Muhammed Muheisen, Credit AP, (Sanaa, Yemen); Mohamed Omar, EPA (Cairo, Egypt); Bassem Tellawi, AP (Damascus, Syria); Anadolu Agency, Getty Images (Cairo, Egypt); Ashraf Shazly, AFP/Getty Images (Khartoum, Sudan)