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Maytha Alhassen

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Please Reconsider the Term "Arab Spring"

Posted: 02/10/2012 5:07 pm

As we come upon more than a year of cascading revolutions and uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa/Maghreb (MENA), it is worth critically examining the way we in the West have come to describe these revolutions, resistance movements and uprisings in the region. Even esteemed MENA academics and some Arabic press (which has directly translated it from its English form 'al-rabi' al-'arabi'), have disappointingly re-appropriated the term. What many who fail to investigate the majority of Arab people's more popular nomenclature, as will be discussed, miss by using an empty phrase like "Arab Spring" is that these movements are more than just a "democratic blooming" -- they are what democracy is predicated on, a revolutionary demand for recognizing their right to human dignity.

Initially I myself was quick to use such a convenient catchphrase. But as my time in MENA this past summer, work co-editing a book on the revolutions, and data from a cultural analytics project has revealed to me, "Arab Spring" has its extreme limitations, ones bordering on being offensive. I have begun referring to these movements as the Dignity Revolutions. Although any kind of naming has its limitations, I have found a focus on "karama," dignity, as the most unifying demand present in these uprisings and resistance movements. What is truly remarkable and distinctly "revolutionary" about these movements is the almost consistent focus all the movements have on karama. Furthermore, let it not be forgotten or glazed over that non-Arab ethnic groups (like Kurds, Circassians, etc.) in these "Arab" countries are participating in and/or are significantly leading these revolutionary movements.

Where did this uncritically reproduced phrase that enjoys much Western popularity in the media, pop culture, academy and on social media come from? More bluntly stated, where did this notion of an "Arab Spring," one that was initially so foreign to the people and region that it is being used to describe, originate? Tunisian street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire on December 17 2010. Ben Ali fled Tunisia on the 14th of January. Egyptian cyber activists hashtagged their "day of rage" as #Jan25. Most major tipping points occurred during winter. Not only is the phrase "Arab Spring" seasonally inaccurate, but as a metaphor to denote a "time of renewal" it is a condescending insinuation that those who courageously labored to successfully oppose decades of entrenched dictatorships just stumbled upon a coming of seasonal change.

There are many reasons to object to the use of "Arab Spring," namely another, more powerful contention being that such a flippant term used to describe "blooming" from a "winter slumber" is not the one used by the people who are leading, organizing and participating in these revolutions. And as my experience co-editing a book on the revolutions has taught me, these movements have been years in the making. Where did this phrase that came to describe so much but represent such little substance originate?

As UCLA Middle East History Professor James Gelvin exposes in his recently released book Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know, the term "Arab Spring" is not a new one and was originally applied to describe a prescient "democratic domino effect" that was expected to spread its "seeds" across MENA after the elections in Iraq in 2005. "Arab Spring" and the metaphor of spring as a time of "renewal" also historically defined "liberal reform" movements that were either short-lived or quickly crushed (like the "Prague Spring" of 1968 that was put down by the USSR). The term was first popularly applied to the Arab world in March 2005 by numerous media commentators to suggest that a spin-off benefit that the invasion of Iraq would have on the flowering of Arab "democracies" opening to the West (a simple Google search of "'Arab Spring' and '2005'" will produce a plethora of results). It was also a time of electoral reforms across MENA. 2005 marked Saudi Arabia's Consultative Council establishment of the kingdom's first (municipal) elections since the 1960s, female enfranchisement in Kuwait, and Mubarak's promise to hold free presidential elections. As history is testament to, we can easily see how that promising "springing" of "reform" produced little democratic change.

There is also the even more offensive "Arab Awakening" that suggests that the Arab populations brutally repressed by these regimes that ruled with impunity were "asleep" this whole time. The Economist, which continues to refer to the events in the regime under the expression "Arab Awakening," even dedicated a summer 2009 issue to the Arab world that was "waking from its sleep" as the front cover read. Also, this phrasing was used to describe the Arab nationalist challenge to the Ottoman Empire, which resulted in a mandate system of indirect rule of their lands by European countries England and France.

The inadequate fitting of the straitjacketed terminology clothed and tailored by Western media became explicitly clear to me after touring MENA this past summer, through learning about USC researcher VJ Um Amel's cultural analytics of social media activity around the Arab region, and in the process of co-editing a book on the Arab Revolutions.

Most of this past summer was spent for me conducting research for my doctorate and investigating stories for freelance projects in Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, Lebanon and Spain. In every location, I made it a priority to ask youth organizers about their respective movements. In Tunisia, I discovered youth activists strongly rebuffed another Western imposed phrase: the Jasmine Revolution. This was utterly insulting for those who actively sacrificed their livelihood and put their families in danger to have their movement to overthrow Ben Ali. It was part of a fundamental step towards questioning how it we "here" speak of what is going on "over there."

I discussed these ethnographic observations with my colleague at USC, VJ Um Amel, creator of the virtual lab R-Shief, whose cutting edge cultural analytics research of Tweets and Facebook updates reveals that the three most popular words used to describe the uprisings in MENA are: karama, thawra and haqooq (dignity, revolution and rights). This, in conjunction with all the signage and graffiti, reminded me of the abundant demands for "karama" and calls for "tharwa" paraded across city squares, casbahs, and on the lips of protesters, ones that were visibly heard, seen and felt during my trip -- and consequently gave me more pause.

Lastly, after being approached to co-edit a book on youth voices from the revolutions in the Arab world, my co-editor and I wrote up a project description for a call for submissions with the subject headline "Would you be interested in contributing to a book on the 'Arab Spring'?" We quickly received response after response asking us to clarify what it is we meant by "Arab Spring." Realizing our faux-pas, we reached out once again with a supplementary question. In addition to asking them to contribute to their stories to the book, we asked "what do you call the movement in your country and in the region?" Once again, "thawra" or "thawrat" (plural of revolutions) became the dominant response and as the essays later illuminated, the demand consistently was for an inalienable right to "karama."

The irony of the Western invention of the "Arab Spring" is that regardless of citizenry remonstrations for "self-determination," we still continue to see the Arab region in our eyes and not through theirs. What is going on in the MENA is something deeper than a democratic transformation, it is what democracy is predicated on -- a demand for recognizing the right to human dignity. What is revolutionary about the revolutions sweeping the Middle East and North Africa is not the call to overthrow dictators, or even the inspiration that Arab world has played in the global staging of governmental greed grievances from European anti-austerity measures protests to the Occupy movement that started in the States. What has been revolutionary is the call to establish a new way of envisioning human treatment, through a demand for dignity.

 
 
 

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