Beginning in the spring of 2010 and ending approximately one year later, the Arab Spring was a series of political revolts clustered among the nations of the Middle East and North Africa. These revolts were organized and enacted by Arab citizens who were protesting against their corrupt governments and leaders of a multitude of countries throughout the region. Although these titular events officially began in Tunisia, North Africa, political unrest had already been present for many years prior. Governmental corruption, censorship of free speech, and suppression of human rights encouraged Middle Eastern citizens to rise up against their inhumane leaders, and music was the medium through which they were encouraged and emboldened to finally take action.
Tunisia specifically commenced the chain reaction of revolutions with one of its own: the Tunisian Revolution. Beginning on December 18, 2010, this series of events drew in a wide and appalled audience from around the world because of its first contender, Mohamed Bouazizi. A 26-year-old Tunisian street fruit vendor with a family of eight, Bouazizi was confronted by government officials who subsequently took away his unlicensed cart, fined him, and physically assaulted him. Wanting justice for the harassment and humiliation he had encountered at the hands of the government, he “complained to the local municipality officials, but his request was denied” (Karthikeyan). In order to get his message of utter frustration with the government across, his manifestation of protest consisted of self-immolation for all of the world to see (Skalli). His actions consequently sparked a nation-wide movement to overthrow the corrupt Tunisian leader at the time, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, in an action that was deemed the “Jasmine Revolution” by many local and international news organizations at the time. Months after his overthrow, Ali and his wife “were found guilty in absentia by a Tunisian court for embezzlement and misuse of public funds. They were then sentenced to 35 years in prison” (“Profile: Zine”). His dethroning as a result of citizen revolts and protests inspired successive dissent in other Middle Eastern countries, most notably in Egypt, Yemen, and Libya.
One of the leading contributors to the start of the Arab Spring throughout the region was Arabic political music. This style of song came in a variety of musical forms, such as hip hop, rap, and pop, and was centered on lyrics that called out the corrupt Middle Eastern leaders and dictators for their egregious actions. The widespread popularity of these songs became a significant medium through which the events of the Arab Spring were shared with the world. One of the most prominent figures of the Arab Spring was a Tunisian rapper named Hamada Ben Amor, a man better known as El General. His famed song “Rais Lebled (President of the Country)” quickly gained traction, as it desperately implored President Ali to focus his attention on the suffering youth in Tunisia (Salti). Although Tunisian rapper El General certainly did not begin the Tunisian Revolution, his music played a major role in inspiring the people of Tunisia to revolt. His choice to speak freely about the government in this song led to him being detained and questioned by Tunisian authorities for three full days (Hebblethwaite). He bravely and blatantly spoke of the corruption and poverty that was rampant in the nation. After only a few days after its release on YouTube along with a simple video, it had gone viral and was omnipresent on the lips of every Tunisian citizen for months. The popularity of politically-charged music in the Middle East during the time of the Arab Spring was able to bring to the attention of other nations just how dire the situations were in the MENA region. When the news was ignored, their voices were heard.
Music was similarly used as a way to mobilize and empower Arab citizens throughout the course of the Arab Spring. Tunisian singer Emel Mathlouthi wrote a wide array of political anthems for Tunisia during this period of time that gained traction beyond just the MENA world. She was invited to perform one of her most popular ones, “Kelmti Horra (My Word Is Free)” at the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize concert in Oslo, Norway (Curiel). Like the majority of her songs, this political anthem was sung in Arabic and accompanied with Middle Eastern instrumentals, celebrating her nation’s culture and history. In her performance, Mathlouthi chose not to put translations up for the audience; she just wanted them to listen. Although her music was barred from playing in her home country, Mathlouthi was still able to communicate with her people through her music via social media. Tunisia attempted to ban her music as a result of the lyrics in her songs, but she prevailed in spreading the word to her country’s people and inspiring them to protest against their unjust government.
Outside of Tunisia, political strife was likewise brewing. Egyptian singer Ramy Essam turned popular anti-government chants, yelled out by his fellow Egyptians during protests, into the form of song. One in particular was called “Irhal (Leave),” which was about the then-President Hosni Mubarak (Inskeep). Mubarak had succeeded the last Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, after his assassination by Islamic extremists. This had occurred directly after Sadat had signed a peace treaty with Israel, angering pro-Palestinians across the nation. Thus, Mubarak was elected in a time of chaos, and he felt pressured to legitimize his presidency in any way he could; often, this was via the Egyptian Army. He arrested Islamists unabashedly, but released secular prisoners that Sadat had previously jailed (Kenyon). As a result of his extreme, anti-Islamic actions and rhetoric, the vast majority of Egyptians wanted Mubarak gone.
Essam then performed “Irhal” in Tahrir Square, Cairo, and his voice was accompanied by thousands of other impassioned Egyptians. Many of them recorded his performance and posted it to YouTube, and the rest became history. Essam was, and often still is, considered to be the voice of the Egyptian Revolution. Because of the actions of Essam and other Egyptian citizens in the process of an eighteen-day revolt against the government, Mubarak, who had ruled since 1981 (during close to five, six-year terms in total), was forced out of his position of power (Knell). Just like the overthrow of Tunisian President Ali, there was not a single drop of blood shed; change was enacted just by the sheer will and determination of the Egyptian people.
As a result of all of the change that had been incited by political Arabic music throughout the Arab Spring, short-term change was finally enacted within many countries across the MENA region. For one, it was now apparent to Middle Eastern leaders and dictators alike that, like Tunisian President Ali and Egyptian President Mubarak, they could be overthrown by the unadulterated perseverance and anger of their people; no military coup was required. All across MENA, citizens were inspired to fight for their rights, and “by the end of 2011, the governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen were swept away by popular revolts in an unprecedented show of people power” (Manfreda). Tunisia arguably benefitted the most from the Arab Spring: “it adopted a new modernist constitution and held parliamentary elections in 2014. Thus, it’s no surprise that The Economist designated Tunisia as the 2014 Country of the Year” (Karthikeyan). However, in the long run, many consider Tunisia to be the only true success story of the Arab Spring.
Despite these short-lived apparent successes, failure still loomed on the horizon. In Egypt, even though ex-President Mubarak had been forcibly ousted from his position, the current President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is arguably much worse. Not only does the military have a tendency to play an over-inflated role in daily citizen life, but with his vehement “repression of students, journalists, activists, and foreigners, [...] Sisi’s Egypt is not that different from the Egypt of earlier eras,” inclining many to argue that the Arab Spring did little to change the lives of Egyptians, despite its best effort (Cook). Mubarak and his corruption may be gone, but Sisi has failed to continue the change that the platform of the Arab Spring had aimed to enact.
In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced out of his regime after having controlled the nation for over thirty years. Many Yemeni citizens had expected that following his departure, democracy would ensue; however, this was not the case. “Instead[,] an armed uprising and foreign military intervention began a spiral into a brutal, often forgotten, civil war” (Graham-Harrison). The country also endured the worst cholera outbreak in history, starting in 2016 and still continuing today, leading to numerous deaths and extreme famine. Thousands have also been slaughtered by bombs and mines, including a group of young students who were killed after being hit with a missile (Graham-Harrison). Democracy has yet to come to Yemen, and it seems it is still too ludicrous a dream.
In a similarly-dire situation resides Libya. Unlike the aforementioned peaceful and non-violent revolts, the Libyan ex-President Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown, ruthlessly murdered, and his body propped on display (Graham-Harrison). The dissident rebels who had so passionately attacked him then turned to attack one another, splitting up the country even further. Gangs in the nation still hold public slave auctions to this day, and the government makes no real attempt to reduce violent crime. The overthrow of Gaddafi served as a minor stepping stone to the path of freedom and democracy, but these goals became wholly unattainable once the now-President Khalifa Haftar came into power. The country is now still engaging in the Second Libyan Civil War as of 2014, and its military officer president possesses no plans to end it any time soon.
Overall, although these revolts failed to enact any long-standing changes in most of the countries within the MENA region, the way in which these countries were able to use their political music to encourage their citizens to fight for their rights and for what they believed in established the noteworthy position of the events of the Arab Spring in world history. It thoroughly served its purpose of challenging the previously-established ways of the past and helped to usher in new leaders, some of whom were more favorable and successful than others. Regardless of its impact, Arabic political music was the beacon for governmental and social change, encouraging Arab citizens to fight for what is right no matter who disagrees.
This essay was written by Kristina Abyad, a Junior at the Orange County School of the Arts, for her AP Language and Composition class in 2019. Published here with her permission.
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