The emergence and proliferation of the Arab Springs in 2010 left many political scientists puzzled. Scholars associate the Arab Spring with people’s desire to dismantle authoritarianism in favor of democratic values. The events following the uprisings in the world made scholars such as Bischof (15) observed a convergence of a confluence of factors making Arab Spring unavoidable. According to these authors, shifting democratic patterns, mass unemployment, cronyism and elitism, and limited social mobility were central in mobilizing people to oppose the authoritarian rule for a more favorable system of governance. Although the interplay between many factors make it difficult to determine factors that fueled the uprising, a broader insight into the Arab Spring points to the relative deprivation theory as the major cause of the revolution that swept across the Middle East and North Africa.
In unraveling the motivations for uprisings, Chris Wegner illustrates numerous theoretical approaches that show the emergence, growth, and implications of social movements. In the text, Wegner posits that social movements when groups considered to have minimal influence within society utilize alternative strategies to stage a protest in demand for social change. The description, therefore, aligns within the notion that social movements are a result of collective action. Empirical researchers observe the existence of a cyclical pattern of social movements within societies with some periods experiencing waves of protest while others experience less of these activities. The waves, according to Wegner (18) are as a result of numerous external factors like economic depression, conflicts, social crises, and other patterns that disenfranchise the socioeconomic capability of the people.
Naturally, it is not possible to understand the thoughts and perceptions of other people. This makes it impossible to tell with absolute certainty the reasons that make individuals participate in social movements because it requires a clear conceptualization of the minds of each protester. However, evaluating the mind of protesters is both morally and ethically infeasible. Nevertheless, social psychologists present different ways that enable an understanding of individuals’ thought processes. Social theory is one such tool that has been used by psychologists to understand the factors that motivate individuals to participate in costly mass movement affairs. Dalacoura (64) posited that Arab Spring arose as a result of the innumerable frustrations and grievances that revolved around inhabitable living standards and undignified life. The implication of the role of grievance as causal determinant shown in this argument is particularly relevant since the essential mechanisms for sustaining uprisings such as a robust political environment and organizational capabilities are not present in the Middle East and North Africa.
Besides, creating structures for participation in political protests is also explainable using the resource mobilization theory. Scholars often associate motivation to participate in demonstrations with opportunistic desire to gain access to the available resources. For instance, empirical evidence suggests that the proliferation of social media provides the means to enhance the rapid flow of information besides political and religious organizations, which essentially help overcome barriers to collective actions. A hybrid model which brings together the two critical theoretical approaches points to the argument for grievances over opportunities and resources as the cause of the uprising. The relative deprivation theory consists of the elements of the complaints as well as the resource-based view to present a convincing understanding of the factors that mobilized individuals to participate in the Arab Spring.
Relative Deprivation Theory
This theory is part of the broader social movement theory. Bischof (21) posits that prior usage of the concepts of this model to measure inequality and social justice and carry out a survey on social hostility, grievance, and aggression began in the 1960s and `70s. The definition emanates from the name, which implies feelings of discontent concerning the desired reference points. The model is further divided into egoistic, which occurs at personal levels and fraternalistic; at a group level. Egoistic relative deprivation results from interpersonal and intrapersonal social comparisons while the latter form is a situation where a group of people feels being deprived, informing the creation of group identities and comparison with other groups. The distinction is quite critical because fraternalistic relative deprivation is the source of agitation to pursue structural changes since it entails normative characteristics relatable to each group and generates lateral solidarity among members of a particular group. The normative concept is responsible for perceived entitlement and eligibility that make persons find collective rather than personal solutions to overcome their sense of deprivation (Dalacoura 76). The fraternalistic relative deprivation, therefore, illuminates the Arab Spring because the protesters shared feelings of relative deprivation which provided the motivated for participation.
Scholars describe relative deprivation as a situation that arises when people have legitimate grievances, but the environment or society blocks them from expressing their issues. In this sense, pundits also add that such feelings emerge due to the assessment of a particular group and comparing with others to generate genuine concerns for discontentment. The arising dissatisfaction caused by relative deprivation has made proponents of the theory to state that such feelings are the primary cause of social movements as people feel marginalized and impoverished through a structural system that favors other groups against them.
Nevertheless, it is critical to recognize that it is not only inequalities and deprivations that cause social movements but also the moral beliefs and expectations about social justice and fairness. It implies that people are likely to start social movements when they feel that the current political limitations and dilapidated living conditions are unacceptable and falls below their set of expectations. Empirical evidence provides three distinct ways for the development of relative deprivation theory. Firstly, decremental deprivation, which entails rapidly worsening living conditions due to sudden economic misfortunes. Bischof (71) opines that economic crises often increase inflations and affect the living standards of the people; making them feel deprived in comparison to their previous situations. Secondly, progressive deprivation. This emerges when, after a country experiences a sharp decline in economic activities following a prolonged period of economic growth and development. In such cases, citizens expect to continue to experience positive economic activities, which leads to the development of a wide gap between the prevailing conditions and people’s expectations. Finally, the aspirational deprivation exists in a situation where citizens access convincing pieces of information persuading them that they are undergoing unacceptable circumstances, but this can change through their actions (Desai 3). This generates discontent, and people start to call for social unrest to achieve their desired aspirations increasingly.
The aspiration deprivation model suits the Arab Spring because citizens harnessed the power of social media to outlay the critical political and socioeconomic limitations meted on them by the oppressive, authoritarian regime. In social media communications, the people expressed their displeasure with the on-going police brutality, social injustices, high levels of inequality, and annoyance with greed and selfishness of the ruling class. As a result, social groupings emerged to correct the situations (Bischof 67). The social media provided an excellent platform for purposes of mobilization, which facilitated people to go to the streets to participate in the protests and mass actions.
Relative Deprivation Theory in the Arab World Context
The aspirational deprivation theory explains why the uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa saw an upsurge in people calling for social justice and democratic ideals to entrench equality and liberty. Despite the existence of other factors to facilitate the social movements, the region had suffered several decades of repression of perceived political dissents and aggressive economic liberalization which emerged as the primary motivations for the citizens to scuttle autocratic regimes. Numerous literature reviews observe that the uprisings that swept the Arab world mainly resulted from gross mismanagement of economic resources and political brutality characterized by a heavily policed populace. The vast population of the youthful Arab generations took to the streets to show their displeasure with inconsiderate regimes. Such factors as unreasonable inequality levels, massive unemployment and a significant young people across Arab countries galvanized the streets as the affected population sought to change the political landscape that not only recognizes but will address their problems.
Before the sweeping protests in Tunisia, Paul Rivlin wrote that his country was an emerging model that other Arab countries needed to emulate. In his book, Arab Economies in the Twenty-First Century, Rivlin recounted that Tunisia was a country experiencing economic stability with positive growth patterns and favorable human development indices. The book also illustrates that the country had a vibrant manufacturing sector bolstered by a robust export business that positively influenced the country’s balance of trade. However, he recognized that despite the favorable conditions, Tunisia was grappling with the problem of youth unemployment. In associating the landscape with the relative deprivation theory, it manifests that the high levels of educational attainment among the youths coupled with the unavailability of employment opportunities cultivated a potent ground for mass action. The ILO report post the Arab Spring, nearly 40% of high school leavers and college graduates under the age of twenty-five were unable to find jobs (Gordon). These figured exponentially increased the population of educated individuals without employment within the Tunisian job market.
Despite this being an indisputable phenomenon, the presence of a large percentage of unemployed youths is a common feature among Arab countries. Statistical information shows that unemployment figures had only had marginal improvement between 2000 and 2009. Therefore, a wholesome assessment of the entire economies of the Arab nations, Rivlin concluded that the political and social stability of the region was in limbo due to the surging rates of unemployment among the youths. Other empirical evidence also supports that the Arab world leads in youth unemployment with averages amounting to 23% within the Middle Eastern and North African region. The issue even becomes more complicated because nearly 60% of the population within the region comprises young people below thirty years of age (Heydarian). Therefore, despite the craftiness and strategies applied by the autocratic regimes to repress the people, these measures could only postpone but not deter political uprising.
Besides the critical unemployment among the youths, people began to feel that high levels of corruption and theft of public finances by the ruling class was a sign of impunity which caused inequality and thus needed an immediate address. The people accused government officials of swindling public coffers for personal benefit at a time when the majority of the population were experiencing severe wealth and income inequalities. Just like in the case of Tunisia, Egypt also exuded similar characteristics making mass action and revolution the only viable means at the disposal of the people to restore order within the respective countries (Heydarian). In the case of Egypt, corrupt public officials had ceased to behave and operate subtle ways. They used the proceeds of the illicit money to build gated communities and high-rise buildings while the majority of the population lived within informal settlements.
Besides, the authoritarian social construct that was a dominant philosophy in the Arab world saw governments providing subsidies, services, and employment opportunities, which resulted in a bloated middle-class population within the region. A United Nations report that recounts middle-class people in the North African and Middle Eastern region between 2000 and 2014 indicated concentration of the middle-income earners around 50% (Heydarian). However, the breakdown of the authoritarian bargain due to the adoption of economic liberalization policies deteriorated the living standards of the middle class. The state eliminated subsidies and healthcare and private education emerged as the key areas attracting huge expenditure from individuals. The new policies killed public sector jobs while there did not exist equivalent attractive employment opportunities within the private sector. The emerging situation created frustrations and dissatisfaction with the ruling regimes among the middle-income earners.
Similarly, Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) associates corruption and wanton theft of public resources by a few affluent and well-connected individuals with weaker socioeconomic conditions manifested in people’s living standards and poor service delivery within public institutions. Nevertheless, Tunisia ranked relatively better compared to other countries in the region in the 2008 CPI reports. In this issue, the state performed better than countries such as Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and Morocco (Heydarian). During the Tunisian uprisings, these countries also experienced large unrests, but the autocratic regimes managed to quell them before they reached critical limits. In 2010, Egypt had a Corruption Perception Index of 3.0. Although this was quite low by any standards, it had remained relatively the same since 2000 (Gordon). Like in the case of other indices, corruption of public resources is a determinant though inadequate to trigger an uprising without collation with other negative issues.
It emerges that three decades before the Arab Spring, Tunisian Ben Ali and Egyptian Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak abandoned welfare policies institutionalized by their predecessors. The IMF and World Bank lauded the two countries for undertaking the reforms, which resulted in increased scores of openness indices and critical economic liberalization. The economic competitiveness of both of the states improved considerably between 2009 and 2010, as reflected in the Economic Competitive Index (Dalacoura 69). The transformations and structural changes in Tunisia, for instance, made the country to become a significant player in the economic and trade liberalization across the Arab world.
However, the new policies of market liberalization facilitated the ability of the autocratic regimes in both countries to establish a mafia-like system which provided undue advantage to a few cliques of well-connected and affluent people to dominate key sectors such as real estate, tourism, and banking. The minimalist regulatory measure adopted in Egypt and Tunisia, for example, limited the role of government in playing vital responsibility to implement policies that encourage economic growth and industrialization (Heydarian 6).
Therefore, despite the fortunes the countries had accumulated over decades, both countries had significant levels of inequality with high levels of unemployment, which subjected a huge population to uncertainty. Since both Egypt and Tunisia do not have a vibrant manufacturing sector, they relied heavily on importation of goods from industrialized countries. The price volatility, fraud, and speculative nature of the international system beclouded the economic progress in both countries. Regulatory capture and market liberalization introduced a scenario where the industries control state apparatus meant to regulate them. Desai (9) observed that the emerging situation signified that governments of both countries lost fiscal and budgetary leverages in dealing with the unplanned increase in prices of essential commodities — the condition resulting from the economic reforms subjected price determination to factors beyond the control of the administration.
Further, the economic liberalization policies undertaken by the two countries failed to distribute national wealth adequately due to the global crises in the finance, energy, and food sectors. As a result, industries such as tourism, real estate, and finance started to experience critical declines. The limited power of governments and regulatory authorities in the region facilitated by the privatization of vital economic engines, regulatory capture, friendly tax-incentives from Foreign Direct Investors and bureaucratic streaming made it impossible for the regimes to provide subsidies to ease economic burden. Food crises that have been persistent for nearly a decade pushed a significant population within Arab countries which rely on importation to abject poverty (Gordon). Moreover, things started to assume unprecedented direction with the emergence of financial and economic crises, which limited the ability of the developed countries to provide foreign aid.
Besides, these socioeconomic issues, the Arab world also has a repressive, undemocratic political system that denies the people space to constructively air and discuss their challenges and grievances. The deepening economic insecurity coupled with state brutality motivated individuals to participate in anti-government mass movements leading to the toppling of the regime (Dalacoura 70). Labor unions played a crucial role in both countries by bringing together social media protesters which majorly comprised the middle class and the huge proportion of the disenfranchised populace. Entrenched economic desperation anchored the relative deprivation theory, thus coalescing people from different categories and sectors to participate in the protests.
Scholars of RD theory posit that the common conception of relative deprivation ultimately leads to social movements because of the resulting social dissatisfaction. The actions and policies implemented by the autocratic regimes made the people feel deprived of their legal status, wealth, and space to air their grievances. As a result, this motivated them to participate in protests to push for social change and justice. This view is deeply embedded in empirical research, which argues that inequality between different groups breeds discontent, which forms the foundation of social movements. While the government officials and elites within the Arab world engaged in high-level corruption, the majority of the people continued to experience structural marginalization with low incomes and huge wealth disparity. A significant percentage of the wealth in Arab countries concentrated within the ruling class while the mass lived in inhuman conditions and middle class started to experience the deteriorating lifestyle. The resulting dissatisfaction motivated citizens to take to the streets culminating into the Arab Spring.
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