Calling it the Arab Spring or something else

From two very different perspectives in two very different pieces. 

Rami Khouri dislikes the term “Arab Spring”:

I find this totally inappropriate, and have banished it from my own writing and speaking. I urge my fellow journalists to consider doing the same.

The most important reason for this is that this term is not used at all by those brave men and women who have been on the streets demonstrating and dying for seven months now. Every time I run into a Tunisian, Egyptian, Libyan, Syrian, Bahraini or Yemeni, I ask them how they refer to their own political actions. Their answer is an almost universal, “Revolution” (or thawra, in Arabic). And when they refer to the collective activities of Arabs across the region, they often use the plural “revolutions” (or thawrat).

They also use descriptor collective-nouns such as the Arab “uprising” (intifada), the Arab “awakening” (sahwa), or the Arab renaissance (nahda), the latter mirroring the initial Arab Awakening against Ottoman and European domination in the early years of the 20th century. I personally like the term “Arab citizen revolt,” which captures the common demand among all Arab demonstrators to enjoy full citizenship rights with appropriate constitutional guarantees.

The terms Arabs use to describe themselves are far stronger and more substantive than “Arab Spring.” Inherent in the term “spring,” for sure, is the idea of an awakening after the winter slumber. However, it also denotes a brief or limited transitional moment that soon gives way to the next season of summer. It mirrors Czechoslovakia’s brief “Prague Spring” liberalism of 1968, which the Russians quickly halted, and also the European revolutions of 1848 a century earlier.

Tellingly, the “spring” metaphor was not applied to the revolutions that swept the Soviet Empire in the 1980s and early 1990s. When real change happens, the world tends to describe this as a revolution, not a spring – except, it seems, in the Arab world.

[. . .]

I suspect that the popularity of the “Arab Spring” term across the Western world quietly mirrors some subtle Orientalism at work, lumping all Arabs as a single mass of people who all think and behave the same way. It might also hide another troubling factor: Many quarters of many Western lands remain hesitant in fully acknowledging – let alone embracing or supporting – the implications of free Arabs pursuing self-determination who have the power to define their countries and shape their national policies.

[. . .]

Perhaps some in the West also do not want to acknowledge the full reality of Arabs reconfiguring their power structures, because Western powers (including Russia) supported those old, failed authoritarian systems that are now being challenged and changed. An “Arab Spring” conveniently removes the element of culpability and foreign complicity in the dark, bitter and endless “winter” that we endured for three generations of incompetent Arab police and family-mafia states.

Revolutionary, self-assertive Arabs frighten many people abroad. Softer Arabs who sway with the seasons and the winds may be more comforting. However, if in their greatest moment of modern historical self-assertion and nationalist struggle Arab citizenries find that major politicians and media in the West refer to them in the vocabulary of the wind and tides, we are certain to continue feeling the century-long impact of the great battle of colonialism versus nationalist resistance that seems still to define the Arab region’s relations with many Western powers.

David Ignatius suggests something else, too. His suggestion is an alternative that offers an interesting contrast to some of the assumptions underlying Khouri’s position:

American intelligence analysts, like most U.S. observers, have often referred to the process unfolding in the Middle East as the “Arab spring,” with its implicit message of democratic birth and freedom. But some senior analysts are said to have argued for a more neutral term, such as “Arab transition” — which conveys the essential truth that nobody can predict just where this upheaval is heading.

This blog does not use the term “revolution,” to the displeasure of some. There are processes under way in Tunisia and Egypt; their outcomes might be revolutionary or they might not. The different ways writers refer to what has happened in the Arab world this year usually lets on to their ideological and political disposition. This blogger generally agrees with Khouri’s way of looking at the terms westerners use for the “Arab Spring” (although one might put “Orientalism” aside for this specific gripe). “Spring” has something cuter, fuzzier and more familiar about it than “uprising” or “revolution” do; it helps contextualize Arab liberation movements into a universal trend, the expansion of democracy and market liberalism, the end of history and all that. This is not something this blog is particularly concerned with, though. The substantive merit of the term “revolution” or “transition” or “uprising” or whatever is of greater interest and has been discussed previously. In general in observing events one should be cautious not simply for egoist reasons; but also because enthusiasm can be blinding (and it works both ways). Whether something ought to be a called a revolution or not should come later than a few months time. The cliche what Zhao Enlai is alleged to have said about the “influence of the French Revolution” (or, the 1968 Paris students’ riots according to recent clarification) — it is too soon to tell — seems especially fitting less than six months out from the first rumblings in Tunisia. As of now it is important to be clear as to what Arabs themselves call their political activity; this is gives a stronger understanding of the situation than something like “the Arab spring”.

Time for cynicism. Be warned: this paragraph will ramble.

Many Americans writing about the “Arab Spring” were generally comfortable with men like Mubarak and reassured by the likes of Ben Ali. There was not much outrage in the American mainstream over the abuses of Arab dictatorships unless they lashed out at, well, Americans like Qadhafi did in the 1980s. Recall that in the last decade western magazines and newspapers have been more interested in Qadhafi’s wardrobe and how to transliterate his name than the human rights situation in his country. They have only recently discovered his disdain for human dignity. Besides Libya and Syria, the Arab uprisings have rocked and threatened pro-western and pro-American regimes the most; Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. There is a market for writing on the Arab uprisings in the mainstream American press because these uprisings relate to (and threaten) American power in the region. The inherent value of Arab liberation is the sideshow to what the fall of Mubarak means for Israel (the US relationship with Egypt is fundamentally linked to its relationship with Israel before all other considerations) or what Ali Abdullah Saleh’s fall means in terms of al-Qaeda by the Gulf of Aden. (This is, by the way, the only reason anyone in North America cares about Lebanon as well.) Syria’s uprising is seen as an opportunity to weaken a foe of Israel or something that might destabilize the general vicinity of Israel.¹ The painful process by which American policy makers and many journalists came round to accepting Mubarak’s removal cannot be forgotten easily. This is what really happend with Egypt; the Obama administration was forced to accept the fact that Ben Ali and Mubarak could not longer stand. (The negative play President Obama got on Tunisia is in some ways fair and not in others; the United States has little to do with Tunisia except for very specific issues. Egypt is another story. He could have ditched Ben Ali sooner, yes. But did Tunisia then look so important regionally as it does now? To most Americans it did not. This is not, after all, a foreign policy president.) The same is true of much of the chattering class. And notice that op-eds and books on the “Arab Spring” pay scanty attention to American support and complicity in the worst crimes and abuses of the Moroccan (the Moroccan regime usually gets a pass in American coverage and the reasons for this are the subject a whole other conversation), Egyptian, Jordanian and Yemeni regimes; these are usually treated with generalities and local agency is stressed. Remember how little outrage there was when Vice President Joe Biden said that Husni Mubarak was not a “dictator”. And Secretary Clinton caught little flak in her own country for putting out friendly words to Mr. Mubarak around the same time. American leaders were remarkably open about their motivations in January and February.

On openness. Some reporters’ shock over the thuggery and violence used by the Mubarak regime was almost absurd: had they missed the last thirty years? Many seemed busy interviewing Mubarak himself and praising the late Sadat as a “peacemaker,” despite his campaign of violence against leftists, Nasserists, Islamists and others, even after 9/11. The Mubarak regime was not just about keeping the markets open, tourism and supporting Israel; it also relied on systematic and selective violence employed against nearly any internal opponent and toleration for this on the part of its greatest supporters. This was not an isolated regime. Perhaps this is understandable since so few writers read Arabic, and thus lack access to a lot of information and discourses that go on among Arabs, even if some of them can speak it a bit (this is changing, though and there are a number of excellent people who know the joy of Arabic). But even that does explain how outsiders missed these abuses, since they were in State Department and NGO reports on a regular basis (in English and in French). The best reporting is from the journalists, Arab and non-Arab, who are not shocked or surprised by the brutality of regimes. There really is no reason for surprise in any of the brutality seen during the Arab uprisings; like Mahmoud Darwish wrote, all that has been done to the Arab people is written down in notebooks. The Egyptians who stormed the state security headquarters found this out in all its sorrow. One hopes that what happened to the thousands of disappeared Algerians and Syrians, for example, is also archived with such attentiveness, not for the sake of brutality but for the sake of knowing. Then families and western reporters alike will know what happened to bring about such anger and rebellion, what made Tunisians and Egyptians say “enough is enough” — beyond anecdotes. One could only hope.

One suspects that whatever people end up calling all of this it will remain contested. We are simply too close to the events themselves to really come out with a clear understanding of the regional picture. Many things are still in motion. The situation in North Africa, for example, would shift dramatically if Algeria were to see a serious protest movement or renewed internal conflict; or if its leaders came into conflict any of their neighbors as a result of stupidity or some misunderstanding or cynicism. This is but one example. As a non-participant one can observe, take notes and try to contextualize and understand the situation. One can also contribute to many problems if he is careless, as well.

1.  This is somewhat unrelated but came to mind in typing about Syria, watching videos and reading many articles on it: Recall that Nir Rosen wrote in his last book that Salafi-jihadis in the Levant look at Syria as the place where the greatest sectarian struggle between Sunni and Shi’is with take place; he describes these men in Lebanon and Jordan as if they are practically salivating to kill Shi’is and ‘Alawis there. Then note the way many in the pro-Saudi/Gulf press write about the Syrian regime, in awful sectarian terms, and how many, not all, western writers carelessly and uncritically throw in lines about the “minority” regime, helping to validate popular bigotries. The Saudis have approached Syria from the standpoint of their competition with Iran, and also some tribalism (with respect to tribes in eastern Syria). The Saudis have no trouble finding clients anywhere in the Levant. The wrong handling of that process from the regional perspective (especially vis-as-vis the United States and Turkey; then add the Israeli, Iranian and Lebanese and even Iraqi elements) could contribute to something horrible, even worse than what is happening to Syrians today. This for consideration elsewhere, though.

3 thoughts on “Calling it the Arab Spring or something else

  1. Sure it’s Orientalisme … THe arab world is a occidental artefact … created by French & English aginst Ottoman Empire … It’s nation buildng, arabe nationalisme for people majoritly were not arab : Iraq, Syria, Egypt Nord Africa ara not arab country at the beginning og previous century ….

    For the orientalisme it’s a culture stream born in England. “Aranian night” for describing Persian Lengend’s …. And french after …

    In tunisia french journalist, found the very orientalist name of “jasmin revolution” …

    If it’s not orientalisme what is it ????

    For the thesis of David Ignatius, it’s jsute ridiculous. FOr the great plan of the previous US admnistration they called this region “Great Middle east” and they don’t use the word “arab” … Why now the use this word ?

  2. The term “spring” I think should be used only for revolutions that failed! Prague, China..Algeria.. As long as regimes do not disappear and stay in power after a dictator ouster, we cannot speak about a revolution!
    Look at Egypt, Mubarak is gone, the regime is still there, same for Tunisia.. and those same regimes, are a major decision maker in the transition process.
    In my opinion this “Arab uprising” term should be banished and replaced by “Tunisian uprising”, “Egyptian uprising” and so forth as the only thing these countries have in common is the arabic language ( not at 100% because of dialects) and the religion ( not 100% because some are shiite and other sunnit…) , which is the same between switzerland, france, Belgium speaking french ( not 100% because of different meaning of the same words) and been Christians ( catholics and protestans..). Why nobody look at this previous three as the same RACE. Why the Arabs are that much stereotyped, so in whatever situation, they are seen as one country?
    When I read something about the “Arab uprising” I hear loudly “the others” means that the race is pointed up! Isn’t that Racism?

  3. I get a lot of my news on the “Arab” Spring from Kurds. Attaching an ethnicity to the event seems odd, especially when people in the middle east toppling old Arab Nationalists (Baathists)

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