In the winter of 2010, street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire in protest of Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s authoritarian regime. While it would take decades of corruption, abuses of power and uneven economic growth in MENA (Middle East and North Africa) countries before a series of civil uprisings known as the Arab Spring would proliferate within the region, Bouazizi’s self-immolation, and the subsequent Tunisian responses, are often considered the multi-country movement’s official beginning.
Half a decade later, and it remains unclear where the supposed blossoms of the Arab Spring actually are, and for that matter, what–beyond social media–made the revolutions so revolutionary. While it is true that the 23-year reign of President Ben Ali ended a mere 28 days after one man expressed his disillusionment by self-immolation and that the country has held successful elections post-revolution, Tunisia remains more of an exception to the fate of the so-called Arab Spring than the rule.
Syrian civil war death tolls range anywhere from 130,000 to 306,000 with no signs of abating; a post-Gaddafi Libya has given way to even more violence; and Yemen has collapsed into violent sectarian conflicts made all the more complex with the emergence of an Islamic State affiliate vying to eclipse Al-Qaeda’s influence within the region. In other words, revolt alone does not ensure systemic change or progress; rather, it is what follows the physical revolution that makes an event revolutionary.