The Arab Spring:
Where Did That Come From?

Published June 18, 2011
By Nate Haken
Failed States Index 2011
On December 17th, 2010, a fruit vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi started a fire in Tunisia which quickly spread with riots and revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa. The “contagion” began in late 2010 with the fall of the Tunisian leader, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. So far, the turbulence has led to the ousting of two long-standing dictators, a war in one country and serious violence in at least three others. The Failed States Index did not predict this and nor does it try. The Failed States Index measures social, economic, and political and military pressures on states. Its data collection period extends from January to December of the previous year, especially notable in this instance since much of the tumult in the region did not manifest itself in violence and severe instability until after the sample period for the 2011 Index had closed.

Clearly the overall rankings (which in the case of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Libya range from 13th most at risk of failure to 111th most at risk) have little to say about the probability of protest or regime change at any particular point in time. But setting aside the issue of timing, the definition of state failure (as distinct from, though not unrelated to, mass protest), and the technicalities of forecasting research, the Index does put the events of these five countries into context.

Prior to the outbreak of political instability, out of those five countries, Demographic Pressures were very severe in Yemen with a score of 8.7 out of 10. Refugees and IDPs were a serious concern in Yemen (8.4) and Syria (8.5), but not so much in the other three (below 7.0). Group Grievance was a major concern in Syria (8.7), Egypt (8.3), and Yemen (8.6), but not in Tunisia or Libya (below 7.0). Libya had severe Human Rights (8.3), State Legitimacy (7.3), and Factionalized Elites (7.0) issues, but the other 9 indicators were comparatively low in terms of the pressure they were putting on the Libyan state.

Analysis of this kind will go a long way in unpacking the context in which these upheavals took place. Certainly, deeper quantitative analysis of the indicators or sub-indicators could potentially generate models to predict various forms of instability. Indeed the FfP is in the early stages of that research. But in the meantime, this Index should serve as a reminder that every state has areas of relative weakness that need to be addressed for the sake of sustainable security.