The Arab Spring: A Literary and Artistic Awakening

Literary/ Cultural Context Essay

Serap Gur (Northern Illinois University)
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The world was shocked to witness the rapid genesis and spread of the mass protests around the Arab world between December 2010 and April 2011. The protests began in December 2010 in Tunisia, spread to Egypt and other countries across the Arab world, and resulted in the overthrow of four governments by August 2012. The main factors behind this string of “people’s revolutions” was the perpetuation of corrupt, repressive governments, and, with them, of economic and political inequalities. The young, educated, yet mostly jobless people sought to get the attention of their governments and make their voices heard. By the end of 2011, the governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen had been dissolved by the popular revolts.

On January 14, 2011, Tunisia’s president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was forced to flee the country, and Tunisia entered a period of political transition. Mass protests started on January 25, 2011 in Egypt, and Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign on February 11. The protests against Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime in Libya started on February 15, 2011, escalating into the first civil war caused by the Arab Spring. In March 2011, NATO forces intervened against Qaddafi’s army, helping the opposition rebel movement to capture most of the country by August 2011. Qaddafi was killed on October 20. Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh was the fourth victim of the Arab Spring. Protests started in mid-January 2011. President Saleh signed the transition deal on 23 November 2011, agreeing to step aside for a transitional government led by Vice-President Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi (Darwisheh, 2014).

However, the situation was different in Syria. Drawing inspiration from the general uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, Syrians took to the streets and began to protest against President Bashar Al-Assad on March 15, 2011. After August 2011 these peaceful protests gradually turned into a civil war between the government forces and rebel groups. Five years later, more than 220,000 Syrians have died. The death toll is still increasing, and more than half of the country’s population has been displaced (UNHCR, 2015).

Social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube were used to organize protests, communicate with other people, and raise awareness. As a response, governments went to great lengths to stifle social media. For instance, in Tunisia specific routes were blocked, in Egypt the internet was cut off for five days, and in Syria electricity and phone services were shut off (Barrie, 2011).

Since the beginning of the so-called Arab Spring, on account of the ongoing political unrests, historical artifacts, artwork, and various architectural treasures have been under threat (Almutawa, 2014). As the protests and fighting continue in a number of countries, protestors, terrorists, terrorist groups, and even governments are involved in destroying the history and cultural heritage in these countries. For instance, on January 24, 2014, a car bomb targeted the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo. Egyptian volunteers with the Heritage Rescue Team and museum staff worked to move the artwork to another building. Similarly, in Syria, in 2013, the minaret at Aleppo’s Umayyad Mosque was destroyed, and people risked their lives to try to save the stones. The Syrian army was attacking these volunteers from the outside while they were working to salvage the artwork. This has amounted, in many places, to a concerted effort to undermine the history and cultural identities of the people inhabiting the cities which suffered most of the destruction.

However, the Arab Spring has not been entirely detrimental to art and culture. The revolutions created an environment where different voices, opinions, and viewpoints could be heard. Because of the long-term authoritarian regimes and their oppressive policies, a significant number of intellectual and cultural works were subject to censorship – as is always the case when dictators feel threatened by words, books, poems, or songs, and use their power to silence writers, singers, and thinkers. After the fall of political walls, people gradually lost their fear of retaliation. Thus, the flipside of cultural destruction has been a significant intellectual and cultural renaissance (Al-Mousawi, 2016).

Effects of the Arab Spring on Literature, Art and Culture

The Arab Spring was not only a political but also a cultural revolution, giving a new energy and vitality to music, graffiti, posters, humor, song, photography, and poetry. Poets, photographers, artists, writers, and musicians played an important role in the uprisings. There was a change in the form and context of the art during the uprisings that has persisted after the protests. This ‘new wave’ has taken different forms in different locations, such as the rise of rap in Tunisia, literature in Libya, popular music in Yemen, and graffiti in Egypt (LeVine, 2015).

Tahrir Square in Cairo became perhaps the most prominent showcase for the new creative spirit. From 25 January 2011 through late 2012, Tahrir Square became a species of open-air gallery and music venue. Surrounded by graffiti-covered walls and displayed photos of martyrs, the crowds listened to musicians, rappers, and poets (LeVine, 2015).

Music was also used as a strategy to bring Tunisians into the streets in late 2010. Musicians playing guitars, drums, or trumpets as an accompaniment to the revolutionary songs became an inspiration, and pap music became a central form of expression for protestors. The Brothers in Freedom hip-hop band, consisting of MC Jdoub from Tripoli and Imed Abbar from Benghazi, became particularly popular (Tanzarella, 2012). Such songs were a motivational strategy to bring people together on the streets for the same goal (LeVine, 2015). For instance, Tunisian El Général (born 1989) became a famous revolutionary singer with his Internet rap song “Rais Lebled” (Milich, 2012):

“Mister President!
I’m talking to you today
In my name and in the name of the entire enslaved nation!
In 2011 there are still people dying of starvation
People who want to work for a living
But their demands still go unheard.”

After the protests, various initiatives grew out of the revolution in different parts of the Arab world. For instance, a music organization called the Mini-Mobile Concert organizes music shows and tries to bring underground art and music to the streets of Egypt. The only condition for participation is to play music that focuses on change. Similarly, the Nile Project provides cross-cultural musical dialogues by bringing together musicians from the Nile region. The main goal is to focus on environmental challenges affecting the Nile (Zakzouk, 2016).

In addition to music, poetry written in response to the uprisings started to get attention, and has been at the center of the revolutions since the beginning of 2011. Political poetry has always been a feature of Arab societies, but the meanings were often veiled under metaphor. However, poetry written during the Arab Spring was direct, precise, and more revolutionary in character. People in the streets in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, and Syria used a poem by Tunisian poet Abou el-Kasem Chebbi (1909–1934), “Izza ash-sha’b yowman arada al-haya” (“If the People One Day Will to Live”), as a potent slogan for the revolutions:

If one day, a people desire to live
Then fate will answer their call
And their night will then begin to fade
And their chains break and fall.

The protestors added a new line to the poem: “The people want to bring down the regime.” These words spread from one country to another (LeVine, 2015).

Similarly, the master of Arabic poetry Saadi Yousef wrote a short revolutionary poem on 13 March, 2011 called “Song from Tahrir Square” (Milich, 2012):

“On Tahrir Square we stand
Day in, day out […]
Here we shall stay until we have made a home again out of your name.
You are protected by the workers,
By the people,
And by students.
You are even protected by soldiers, even though they were trained by the Americans, never mind.

You will make a home again out of the name ‘Iraq,’
A homeland happy
And free.”

Another poem used as a slogan in Tunisia and then in Egypt was written by Abu al-Qasim al-Shabbi (Chamber, 2013):

“Hey you, the unfair tyrants …
You, the lovers of the darkness …
You, the enemies of life …
You’ve made fun of innocent people’s wounds, and your palms are covered with their blood.
You kept walking while you were deforming the charm of existence and growing seeds of sadness in their land.
Wait, don’t let the spring, the clearness of the sky and the shine of the morning light fool you …
Because the darkness, the rumbling thunder, and the blowing of the wind are coming toward you from the horizon.
Beware, because there is a fire underneath the ash.”

The effect was also felt in other literary outlets,  particularly in terms of new publications appearing (Gheblawi, 2012), with a clear focus on the transition to democracy, freedom, human rights, and the rule of law. These revolutions created new opportunities for writers and journalists. Newspapers and magazines began to publish in different forms in different languages such as Arabic, French, and English (Howard et al, 2011). Literary works that focused on the oppressive dictatorial regimes in their countries but which had not been published due to censorship and the repressive environments slowly began to see the light of print. For instance, one year after the beginning of the protests, more than 120 anti-regime publications had emerged in Libya (Gheblawi, 2012). Online writing became popular, and people began to express their feelings in different blogging formats. Most of these works focused on the idea of change, and how the revolutions can bring this change about. Some focused on the authoritarian period, and political oppression under the dictatorial regimes. Others captured the stories of people who had sacrificed their lives for the revolution (Howard et al, 2011; Gheblawi, 2012).

Picture 1

The Arab Spring also had a dramatic impact on the visual arts. Painting was used as a weapon by cartoonists, caricaturists, graffiti artists, and even ordinary people. For instance, Tunisia, the birthplace of the uprising, created a new type of freedom of expression—graffiti in public spaces, in streets, and on city walls—thanks mainly to the two famous artists Hafedh Khediri and Mouin Gharbi. Graffiti found its voice on the Tunisian cultural and urban scene when it was used by young caricaturist bloggers. This highly visible street-level art called people to take change into their own hands (Tanzarella, 2012).

All protest centers were painted with slogans against the regime or government, and with pictures that emphasized the change as seen in Picture 1. During the protests, graffiti artists also used various verbal messages as seen in Picture 2. Some of them were single words; others were slogans against the government, such as “Dégage! Yasqut hukma-l ‘askar!”— (“Game over! It’s your turn”) (LeVine, 2015).

Picture 2


This is but a brief account of the changes in the liberary and artistic sensibilities of the region after the Arab Spring, at the forefront of which were numerous artists, writers, poets, and musicians. Many of them were subsequently tortured or detained: for instance, a cartoonist who criticized the government and advocated for a new free regime was beaten until his hands were broken. Similarly, Syrian poet Ibrahim Qashoush, who wrote the song “Bashar Get Out”, was murdered in July 2011 and found with his vocal cords cut out (Milich, 2012; LeVine, 2015).

Six years after the beginning of the uprisings, censorship and oppressive politics have sadly not been eliminated. In most places the new governments are still in a transitional period, and in some places the uprisings continue or have turned to civil war. Fledgling renaissance is nonetheless visible everywhere, as artists have gained the courage to create without or against censorship. During the last six years, as a result of the uprisings, the Arab world has seen some of the most politically and aesthetically powerful and innovative artworks in its history.  


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Almutawa, Shatha. “Creating and Preserving Cultural Heritage in the Arab World”, Perspectives on History (2014).
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Citation: Gur, Serap. "The Arab Spring: A Literary and Artistic Awakening". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 22 February 2017 [, accessed 30 September 2023.]

19496 The Arab Spring: A Literary and Artistic Awakening 2 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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