Skip to main content

Andrew Hammond is an associate at the Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy at the London School of Economics, and a former special adviser to the British government.

This week is widely agreed to mark the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the so-called Arab Spring. Beginning in Tunisia, where Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in a small town, a wave of political activity spread out across the Arab world. This included revolutionary changes of power in Egypt and Libya; a transfer of power in Yemen; and demonstrations and uprisings in countries as disparate as Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco and Oman.

The use of the word "Spring," with the allusions to the European revolutions of 1848 and the so-called Prague Spring of 1968, was widely used initially as a positive reference indicating potentially major movement toward self-determination and opportunity in the Arab world. However, that hope has since been dashed in state after state.

Indeed, some now use the term Arab Winter instead, referring to the instability and violence that has consumed much of the region. This includes the rise of the so-called Islamic State terrorist group and the ongoing civil war in Syria. Even Tunisia, which has twice held parliamentary elections since the overthrow of long-time president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and remains a relative success story, is facing serious security and economic challenges.

Remarkable as the scale of the upheaval has been in North Africa and the Middle East, it has been just one part of a broader range of exceptional economic and political fragility and uncertainty across the world. This has been driven, in part, by the impact of the post-2008 international financial crisis.

Most eye-catching have been the political revolutions, popular uprisings and protests in emerging markets. Outside the Arab world, these developments range from the Ukrainian revolution of 2014 to the Brazilian demonstrations of 2013 and the protests against the government of Azerbaijan in 2011.

However, political and economic instability has not been restricted to emerging markets. Many governments in the developed world have been voted out of office partly because of economic downturn and/or austerity measures.

In Europe alone, millions have taken to the streets and administrations in more than half of the then-27 European Union states fell or were voted out of office from 2010 to 2012 alone. Within the core euro zone, 11 of 14 governments collapsed or lost elections during that period.

Another notable feature of protest in the developed world has been the so-called Occupy movement, which came to international prominence in 2011 campaigning against social and economic inequality. Occupy demonstrations spread to about 1,000 cities in more than 80 countries around the world.

This disparate range of political disruption across the industrialized and developing world has been described as "a revolutionary wave, like 1848" by Sir Nigel Inkster, former director of operations for Britain's Secret Intelligence Service. Others have compared the situation to 1914, 1968 and 1989.

Whatever the validity of these analogies, it is clear that there are some genuinely new factors to the post-2008 period, including the role of social media and other technologies. Moreover, this wave of political instability has diverse origins, with economic issues not the only driver.

Thus, unrest in the Arab world has often stemmed from deep-seated political and socioeconomic discontent that predates the financial crisis. Post-2008, however, factors including liquidity crunches, increased food prices and unemployment spikes have exacerbated these longer-standing grievances.

In the EU, the role of economic downturn and austerity has been central to unrest in numerous countries, especially those most affected by the euro-zone crisis, such as Greece and Spain. Even here, though, unrest has tapped into pre-existing disquiet with established political parties and systems – hence the meteoric rise of parties such as Greece's Syriza.

Going forward, a key question is whether political instability will now tail off, especially if widespread economic growth sustains itself in coming years. While this is possible, there are at least two sets of factors that will continue to fuel protest and uprising in some countries.

First, there are enduring drivers unrelated to the financial crisis, but common to much of the political unrest. These include the disruptive role of social media.

There remains debate about how instrumental social media has been in fomenting political instability. However, whether one sees it as an essential component that translated discontent into concrete action, or accentuated what was already inevitable, it has indisputably played an enabling, mobilizing role that may only grow as technology advances and proliferates.

Second, even if the worst of the financial crisis has now passed, its consequences carry on, especially for the young. People between 15 and 24 constitute less than 20 per cent of the global population, but approximately double that percentage of the unemployed. This puts many at risk of future damage to their earnings potential and job prospects, fuelling discontent.

Youth unemployment in numerous countries in the Arab world is above 50 per cent. In the Middle East, the problem is acute.

Moreover, about 5.5-million people in the EU in that same age bracket – more than 20 per cent of them – are unable to find work; many traditional career-opportunity structures have simply been swept away. This has given rise to concern, including from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, about a "lost generation," especially in Greece and Spain, where youth unemployment has been over 50 per cent.

Five years after the Arab Spring, there is still significant prospect of political unrest across the world. While circumstances will vary country to country, instability may be fuelled by both the financial crisis's legacy and also by longer-standing political and socioeconomic discontent, given fresh impetus by social media.