The Social Movement Theories and Concepts and the Arab Spring

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The objective of this essay will be to investigate the relevance and application of the social movement theories and concepts in analysing the developments in the middle east Arab countries since the beginning of what has come to be known as the Arab Spring. A social movement is a network of informal interactions between a plurality of individuals, groups and/or organizations, engaged in a political or cultural conflict, on the basis of a shared collective identity’ (Diani, 1992). The definition of a social movement that this essay will adopt will relate to Lafi (2017), who defines social movements as the existence and action of a network of individuals and groups that share a certain sense of collective destiny and collectively ask for social and political change though various forms of protest.

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Social movements are instrumental in changing the path of the society and have caused profound consequences in the recent decades. They arise when a group of people come together with a shared idea and create lasting effects by encouraging change in the society as they shape the future of the society. However not every group of people with a shared idea end up forming a social movement. Social movements need organisation, leadership and resources to gain momentum and make an impact. There are different types of social movements depending on their goals which include activist movements which are focused in changing some aspects of the society.

Wilkinson explains that for a social movement to exist, it must satisfy a number of characteristics; It must be a deliberate and collective endeavour with an agenda to effect change though any means necessary either illegal, violent, revolution or withdrawal to any utopian community. It must also show evidence of a certain degree of organisation however minimal or informal (Wilkinson, 1971). This argument is shared by Tilly (2004) who believes that for social movements to emerge, there needs to be creation of special purposes associations and coalitions. He also defends sustained and organized public efforts by activists (Tilly, 2004).

This essay will argue that social movement theories and concepts can to a large extent be successfully applied to the analysis of events related to the Arab spring. It will discuss the social movement theories and concepts as they are applied in the Arab spring while taking into account two case studies namely Tunisia and Egypt.

The Arab Spring

The Arab Spring was a series of anti-government protests, uprisings, and armed rebellions that spread across the Middle East in early 2011. These protests ultimately resulted in regime changes in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. However not all of the movements, resulted to positive change and some of the outcome have remained hotly disputed in the middle east Arab world (editors, 2018).

In December 2010, a fruit vendor by the name Mohamed Bouzizi stood in front of a government office and set himself on fire in Tunisia. His desperate actions spark a revolutionary uprising famously known as the Arab spring. By then the country of Tunisia was under the corrupt and authoritarian rule of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The actions of this desperate fruit vendor spread very fast both in Tunisia and across the Arab world causing protests by people who were struggling to make ends meet and felt like the government was not listening to their grievances. This sparked the what is now known as the Tunisian revolution. Protestors armed themselves with signs and cell phones causing the protests to spread all over the social media. This Tunisian revolt inspired others across the region including, Egypt, Syria, Libya Algeria and other countries in the Arab world resulting in major regime changes.

The revolution in Egypt started on 25th January 2011. It was driven by young people who wanted change. The protests were organized by the coalition of youth revolution. They were rebelling against dictatorship and wanted an end to the emergency laws, military courts and the torture that was taking place in Egypt.

Social Movement Theories and Concepts

Relative Deprivation Theory

This theory focuses on the action of groups who are oppressed or deprived of rights that other people in the society enjoy. It argues that movements emerge when participants perceive a sense of relative deprivation in their living standards and life opportunities. However, it’s not always the people who are worse off that join and its therefore more important how the people perceive their situation. In this case what this theory look for is the relative deprivation or the feeling of discrepancy between legitimate expectations and the reality of the present. For this theory to apply, the people must feel like they deserve better and they must think they cannot be helped by conventional means.

The theory also assumes that individuals are rational actors, and join a movement because the benefits of participation outweigh the costs. The major reason behind emergence of social movements is therefore pegged on the dissatisfaction or frustrations of a certain class or classes of people. This is very clear in the Arab Spring where true social movements emerged due to the frustrations especially among the youth. According to Aberle (1991), relative deprivation theory provides four criteria used to measure the sources of discontent which include possessions, status, behaviour and worth. The denial of these four factors creates dissatisfaction among the subjects who tend to focus towards the people in authority (Aberle, 1991)

In relation to the Arab spring, there were major deprivation of basic rights to the people by the government. Bouazizi was frustrated when the local officials refused to hear his complaints of harassment by the city officials. His desperate call for attention inspired other protestors who were suffering from unemployment in the hands of a corrupt government and peaceful demonstrations turned into a street battles as the police tried to violently prevent the protestors from making their grievances heard. This clearly supports the relative deprivation theory as the people of Tunisia felt oppressed and deprived of rights otherwise enjoyed by other people in the society and they believed that the government would not help them through any other conventional means other than the violent protests. The street wars as seen in Tunisia are evidence of this feeling that the people deserved better and diplomatic means to get these rights were not feasible. The government was very corrupt in the hands of one of the dictators controlling the Arab world and the government officials enriched themselves at the expense of the public, rigged elections and tortured people who went against the it.

Resource Mobilization Theory

This theory focuses on factors that help or hinder social movements. It examines how the members of a movement acquire resources, and mobilise support. These are practical constraints or resources like access to money, material, political influence, access to media, organisational structure, and links with the political elite. Mobilisation is organised by a core group of actors inside the movement. The theory also assumes that participants are rational actors. It’s of paramount importance for the movement to have a strong organisational base to recruit members and unite them on a single idea.

During the Tunisian revolution, protestors needed media attention to be able to show the world the brutality that was happening in Tunisia. However, the challenge was that Tunisia was a police state and the press was censored. The state Television did not even once report on the protests or the story of the fruit vendor. The protestors used their mobile phones to capture the events as they planned to use the social media’s face book platform to show the images to the people across Tunisia. This was a way to try and mobilise more support from all over the country. The government had blocked all political sites therefore limiting their freedom of speech. The activists posted a video of the protests from Sidi Bouzid which was accessed by a student computer programmer in the capital Tunis. On viewing the video, slim Amamou and his friend who were bloggers decided to join the movement. They ensured the footage was broadcasted in the social media till it was picked up by giant media company Aljazeera who broadcasted it all over Tunisia.

In Egypt mobilisation of supporters had begun earlier before the protest on January 25th. The mobilisation began in form of conversations over social media in the streets, cafes and places where active groups of people would meet. The activists also needed media coverage to broadcast to the world what was happening in Egypt. However, the state controlled television network did not air these events and instead the government shut all communication in Egypt.

New Social Movements (NSM) is a term that is used to describe the rise of movements connected to ‘post-material’ politics. NSMs are based on loose networks, and link middle-class groups with marginalised groups. The two student bloggers who viewed and joined the movement show evidence of new social movements. These two students had nothing in common with the poor fruit vendors in Sidi Bouzid. They were well educated and came from well to do families. However, they were frustrated with the fact that they could not speak freely in their own country. They hated the dictatorship regime as it interfered with their freedom of speech.

In Egypt, uploading pictures on social media encouraged more people to join the protest. The activists also used taxi operators to spread word on their intentions. The taxi operators were likely to reach more people on the planed protest on the 25th January. When the government shut all communication, the demonstrators felt violated and even ordinary people who were not demonstrating were now ready to join the movement and became openly hostile to Mubarak’s regime. The middle class now realised there was a movement and felt that something positive could happen.

Political opportunities as a social movement concept examines the elements that make social movements successful. They are consistent but not necessarily formal or permanent dimensions of the political struggle that encourage people to engage in contentious politics (Tarrow, 1998). In the case of the Arab spring, the revolt originated from a single act of a fruit vendor which the activists took advantage of to bring down the corrupt regimes. This served as an opportunity where the social movements could build their campaign on and bring more people on board.

The concept of political opportunity emphasizes on the importance of the opportunities for social mobilisation and the role of factions and alignment among elite groups. The major power of movements is exerted when opportunities are widening, elites are divided and realignments are occurring (Tarrow, 1998).

Mobilising structures refer to organisations that can mobilise the movement by providing members, leaders, and communication and social networks. The activists behind the Arab spring devised various ways in which the acquired support and got their message across to their supporters despite the government trying to derail their efforts. The social media was very key and creating a network of supporters and getting the information out for the world to see what was happening in these countries.

The concept of Framing is defined as conscious strategic efforts by groups of people to fashion shared understandings of the world and of themselves that legitimate and motivate collective action (McAdam, McCarthy, & Zald, 1996). Framing is a powerful device that social movements use to focus people’s attention to certain things. They serve as discursive weapons for social movements and activists who frame or assign meaning to relevant events and conditions in ways that are intended to mobilize potential adherents, attract support and demobilize opponents (Durac, 2015). It can involve coming up with taglines that capture people’s attention and compel them into supporting the social movement’s cause.

The activists used the incident of the fruit vendor who torched himself to make people join them and share in their idea of liberation. During the demonstrations, the protestors used slogans like “Ben Ali get out” to get more publicity.

Frame alignment refers to the linkages of individual and social movement organisations interpretive orientations (Snow, Rochford, Benford, & Worden, 1986). In reference to the Arab spring, frame alignment was achieved through collective consciousness. Collective consciousness emerged through the internet because it was immediate. When the activists in Tunisia posted the video footage on their social media profiles, they went viral and were viewed by thousands of people who shared their agenda.

Frame resonance: a frame will be successful if it resonates with the ‘life-world’ of the participants (Snow and Benford 1988). In Egypt, the activist’s strategy of frame resonance was pegged on the collective identity of the poor people in the slums and majorly their collective feeling of social and economic marginalization. They tapped into the rage of the Cairo’s poor who were the most affected by the corrupt regime living in the poor neighbourhood of imbaba. In Tunisia, activist organizers used motivational campaign aimed at converting the feelings of injustice held by those in the interior regions into anger against the regime and the innovative tactics of the activists included locating protests inside poor people’s neighbourhoods and especially in coastal regions. The engagement of poor people in the protests sustained them in two ways: by spreading and intensifying protests through individual initiatives, and by weakening the Tunisian police in sustained disruptive actions and spontaneous riots (Yaghi, 2018).

Protest cycles are periods of sustained protest, characterised by rapid expansion over geographical distance, social groups, and use of disruptive tactics. After the footage of the sidi Bouzid protests was broadcasted by Aljazeera, protests were seen in other towns in Tunisia including the capital Tunis sending the country into open revolt.

Contentious repertoires refer to the means by which the movement makes its claims heard like strikes and demonstrations. The internet activists employed some of contentious repertoires like cyber hacking and demonstrations to ensure their cause was heard. they hacked into the National Trade Union’s main website and sent messages to their members asking them to join them in their protests. It was no secret that the union was the government’s puppet and that forced them to result to these extreme measures to get support. During the demonstrations, the protestors set fire to police vehicles which shows evidence of contentious repertoires.

Norm entrepreneurs refer to people interested in changing social norms (Sunstein, 1996). In reference to the Arab spring, the student internet activists can be described as norm entrepreneurs who were interested in ending the reign of dictatorship in Tunisia. They decided the be the voice of the protestors who were being ignored in Sidi Bouzid and broadcasted the video footage of the riots all over social media. This exposed the brutal killings of innocent civilians who were only exercising their right to protest.

In Egypt, after the planned protests went viral, activists like Asmaa Mhfouz who had always criticized the government in secret came out in public to encourage more people to join the movement.


A fruit seller set fire to himself in Tunisia in 2011 in protest and frustration at being denied a sales permit by an official in a disrespectful manner. His response tapped into decades of popular anger at political corruption and incompetence which resulted in protests first in Tunisia, then Egypt and then other Arab states where people demanded that the old elites leave power and new leaders emerge who would be more responsive to the needs of the people. Social movements have shaped and are shaping modern societies around the world and this is evident when we look at examples such as the Arab Spring. In the events related to the Arab spring, collective action resulted in social movements because the uprisings developed into more than a simple protest or the massing of angry violent crowds (Sarihan, 2014).

This essay has demonstrated sufficient evidence to show that the Arab uprisings were a social movement since the protests incorporated some major social movement theories and concepts and they involved deliberate action towards common and specific goals. The principal of a dissatisfied and frustrated group in the Arab world is clearly evidenced in the Arab revolt and uprisings as the protestors shared common frustrations under the repressive regimes through communication and organization for a collective purpose. The essay has also demonstrated the presence of other social movement concepts like political opportunity, framing, protest cycles, norm entrepreneurs and Contentious repertoires that the activists employed to ensure their grievances were heard. Activists used social media for a number of purposes to plan mobilization, create frames, and share tips about protests, among other things (Said, 2017). Both Wilkinson (1971) and Tilly’s (2004) view on social movement theories support the relationship between social movements and the Arab spring. They established common goals to bring down repressive regimes, a certain degree of organisation among the activists, and active participation and mobilisation of protestors and demonstrators which were all present in our Arab spring case studies Tunisia and Egypt.

However, I also acknowledge that while this essay may not be exhaustive, further research on the extent to which social movement theories and concepts can be applied to the events related to the Arab spring should investigate the opinions of the activists, insurgent groups and official state documents. Primary source of information would be an important addition to better put this research into perspective. More research should also be done to critically analyse the events to re-frame the role of such movements in comparison with other determinants.

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