December 11, 2019

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  • What “Arab Spring”?

    In Egypt, where the military still seems to be holding all the cards even after the election of a new president, the Arab Spring seems like a distant dream as protesters have returned to Tahrir.


    Is anyone else tired of the bizarre label used to describe the upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa?

    Arab Spring.

    What on earth does it mean?

    Considering historical allusion, the “Spring” part is used in reference to such leaps in human development that came about during the Renaissance (French for rebirth), which is synonymous to the blossoming of flora as snow thaws; fresh brooks and creeks to run through the land, a time of re-invigoration, reformation, and reawakening.

    In a nutshell, think new beginnings.

    The first part of the term, Arab, is a misnomer. In Tunisia, for example, Berber societies were also at the forefront of the uprising. In Syria, Kurds have also voiced their discontent. In Iraq … well, it is a smorgasbord of different Arab and non-Arab ethnicities.

    Furthermore, the countries which went through sociopolitical upheaval are as similar as they are different. In Bahrain, the Shia-Sunni strain plays a pivotal factor in how the region reacts (Saudi Arabia’s quasi-annexation of Bahrain is to maintain Sunni power over the embattled nation and circumvent Iranian Shia influence). In Libya, tribal alliances and betrayals ultimately brought an end to Qaddafi’s reign, whereas zero tribal considerations played a role in unseating Hosni Mubarak from power in Egypt.

    It is historically inaccurate to place the events in these countries — and the factors which led to their emergence — under the umbrella of one designation as if everything can be compartmentalized under one headline. This is not a Hollywood film where all the “Arab” baddies are being knocked off by the Terminator.

    Moreover, the term was applied freely and carelessly even before the nations of the “Arab Spring” concluded their uprisings or established stable, reformist governments. In Syria, the situation is a civil war, not an awakening. In Yemen, the country is in de facto civil war. In Bahrain, there is a risk of a regional conflict. In Egypt, Mubarak’s Ministry of Interior is as brutal as it ever was, and his official mouthpiece state media has neither been reformed nor held accountable for some unscrupulous coverage of events.

    Why count your chickens before they hatch?

    The term Arab Spring was used as early as January 2011 by Foreign Policy and The Christian Science Monitor.

    According to noted Tunisian journalist Habib Toumi writing in the Gulf News in December of last year, The Times referred to the upheaval in the Middle East as “the Arab Spring, the great awakening, 2011’s equivalent of the fall of communism in 1989.”

    Some in the media have tried to allude to the Prague Spring of 1968 when young Czechoslovakians briefly stood up to the might of the Soviet Union and demanded self-determination. But this would be an insult to history. The Prague Spring lasted for eight months, when Warsaw Pact countries invaded the country and rolled over the reformist policies of the newly established government at the time.

    This only mimics what has happened in the Middle East in terms of failure, not success. Furthermore, why must there be a link to dramatic changes in Europe’s political landscape? Why does there need to be a connection? Could analysts and Western Media not have looked at Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria, for example, through a unique paradigm with a terminology that is reflective of the trends and situations in these countries?

    Sociopolitical conditions in the Middle East are at polar differences with those in Europe. Religion and the power of the clergy, for example, are radically different between Europe and the Middle East. So why look for linkage?

    Perhaps it is because the West was not yet prepared to accept that a true democratic process in the Middle East and North Africa is likely to usher in a Muslim theocracy. Such a premise is the most loathsome because it immediately alludes to the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran — to the Western mindset. Never mind that Iranian (Persian) history is very different from Arab history and that different undercurrents are at play. Islam in Iran and Islam in Egypt are not immediately mutually inclusive; to think that, is to write out the cultural histories of these two great peoples.

    When audiences began to see a difference between the coined term and the reality of the situation in the Middle East, some in the media began to wonder what happened to the Arab Spring. Some supplanted summer and winter instead of spring. The Huffington Post started using the much more historically accurate and neutral description of “Arab uprising.”

    When talk show host David Letterman recently asked news anchor Scott Pelley what happened to the “Arab Spring,” the latter replied: “It’s almost as if the revolution never happened.”

    The Middle East and North Africa region is overdue for new beginnings. But to use a celebratory phrase to refer to what is happening is disingenuous and misleading, endemic of a media jumping on the bandwagon and “running with it.”

    No one in Syria knows what will happen. In Libya today, there are undercurrents of dissent and there are fears of the country disintegrating. Same with Iraq — the differences between the Baghdad government and the Kurds is growing, particularly over oil rights. Yemen is struggling with a relentless Al-Qaeda war machine which has caused the deaths of hundreds of government and police troops in the past year. The north and south of the country are at loggerheads.

    More importantly, in Egypt — the most populous and influential Arab country — revolutionaries, political analysts, even party pundits are unsure how the populist uprising of January 25, 2011 will ultimately play out. Right now, the country is fractured between fear and religious loyalties; there is distrust and loathing, lack of security, a lack of confidence in the economy, with the military appearing to hold all the cards.

    Western media got it utterly wrong with the Iraq War and the infamous WMDs that Baghdad did not have. So certain, so gung-ho, were newspapers like The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The New York Times and others that to this day, a recent poll reveals, 63 percent of Americans still believe Iraq had WMD.

    Utter classic #Fail.

    Firas Al-Atraqchi is a Cairo-based columnist and former Chief Editor of Daily News Egypt. He is Associate Professor of Practice at the American University is Cairo’s Department of Journalism and Mass Communication. This article is exclusive to The Egypt Monocle.

    5 Responses to “What “Arab Spring”?”
    1. Troy Carter says:

      Dear Firas,

      Your argument seems to hinge on the notion that ‘Springs’ are successful democratization movements. I’m not sure if that’s how others understand it, myself included. About 2011-12 I agree that yes, western publications did use the term quite a bit, but won’t agree with your crediting FP & CSM authors for inventing a term that describes a wave of democratization movements in Arab countries and disagree again with the notion that western media is solely responsible for its usage in pre- or post-2011 articles.

      As you may know the term Arab Spring was in common usage years before January 2011. In fact one of the earliest usages of Arab Spring was by an Egyptian political science professor from the American University in Cairo in an op-ed published on Al Jazeera’s english website in 2004.

      I’m researching a timeline of the terms use, including discussion of its probable genesis and promise to share it with you as soon as it’s complete. Though it won’t include anything relating to Iraq (how did you manage to work that bit in?) except to say that the elections there were used by the Bush Administration and its supporters to celebrate the beginnings of an Arab Spring and claim ‘Bush was right.’ Relative to that period, 2011 was much more a spring than ever before.

    2. Daniel says:

      For me as a journalist it is always amazing to see, how Egyptian journalists speak about THE Western media, but quote only US-American media. In many fields there is a huge difference between US media and for example German media. The author is doing what he is complaining about: generalising…

      • Firas Al-Atraqchi says:

        By sheer weight of influence in the region – and Egypt, in particular, US media dominate; it was US media that coined the term(s). When was the last time German media helped launch a war in the past 30 years? Or defuse one? Think in terms of influence. I doubt the German government played a role in bringing about the Camp David Accords, and I doubt Egypt’s body-politic is really affected by the Greek or Finnish points of view on the uprising. Wherever you look, Egyptians speak of US influence on the military, whether the US should be pressuring Tantawi or whether it could have done more to help the “revolutionaries”. I never heard anyone say “The EU is playing a role,” for example. Oh, and am not Egyptian = ) … Incidentally, if this were a German-language website, I am sure it would lean more toward German media.

    Check out what others are saying...
    1. buzz says:

      Op-ed: What “Arab Spring”? : EgyptMonocle…

      “Could analysts and Western Media not have looked at Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria, for example, through a unique paradigm with a terminology that is reflective of the trends and situations in these countries?”…

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