University of Pittsburgh
November 30, 2016

Arab Spring Spurred Libyans and Syrians Abroad to Act


Katie Fike


PITTSBURGH—Libyan and Syrian immigrants in the United States and Great Britain did not feel free to openly oppose the authoritarian governments in their countries of origin until the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011, says Dana Moss, an assistant professor in the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Sociology. The department is within the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences.Dana Moss

She says that this finding also applies to emigrants from other authoritarian countries who retain family and community ties to their home country.

“The study demonstrates that just because emigrants escape from an authoritarian country and settle in a democratic one does not mean that they become automatically empowered to protest openly against the abuses they left behind,” said Moss.

Moss interviewed 64 Libyan immigrants and 76 Syrian immigrants who lived in the United States and/or Great Britain. First-generation immigrants composed 71.9 and 76.3 percent of Libyan and Syrian immigrants, respectively.

She found that Libya and Syria’s surveillance efforts in the United States and Britain deterred immigrants from speaking out against the authoritarian governments. Respondents feared retribution to their family members in the countries of origin and were concerned about being permanently exiled from their home countries.

Three factors motivated immigrants to act during the Arab Spring, during which citizens began to revolt against Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad:

  • When family members began to participate in the uprisings or were harmed by regime violence, the immigrants did not feel that they would cause more harm by protesting.
  • Libyans and Syrians at home were risking their lives, so many Libyans and Syrians living abroad felt morally obligated to support them, despite the risks.
  • Once the wars sparked by the Arab Spring escalated, the regimes in Libya and Syria could not maintain their surveillance efforts abroad as they had done so before.

“These findings indicate that significant disruptions in authoritarian regime control in immigrants’ countries of origin release them from the obligation to hide their anti-regime feelings,” said Moss. “In this way, the Arab Spring uprisings not only achieved the unthinkable by destabilizing regimes in the Middle East—they also liberated the Libyan and Syrian diasporas to mobilize, protest, and publicly support change at home for the first time.”

Moss’ paper, “Transnational Repression, Diaspora Mobilization, and the Case of The Arab Spring,” was published in the latest issue of the journal Social Problems. The paper resulted from her PhD dissertation at the University of California, Irvine, where she graduated from in 2016.