Sunday, April 21, 2013

About "Arab Spring," the phrase and its resilience.

Here's a story of mine published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. It's about the "Arab Spring" phrase and the various objections to it.  I paste it in below.


In February, an important two-year mark of the Arab Spring was commemorated in Cairo's Tahrir Square with demonstrations that were anything but springlike. The frustration and violence reflected none of the hope that once riveted the eyes of a global audience on Tunisia and Egypt, where masses gathered to topple two entrenched leaders, each autocrat permitted to abdicate with a pulse.

Since that original spark, there have been constitutional crises, sectarian strife, economies on the precipice, military intrigue, and sporadic lethal confrontations, all of which have dimmed the luster of the movement's early days. Yet despite the setbacks and the wariness they evoke, the cheerful phrase "Arab Spring" has managed to stay in style. And there are reasons for this.

Early in 2011, the convulsions in the region needed nomenclature broad enough to cover the borderless dissent and also convey the symbolism the revolutions embodied at the time, at least as it was interpreted by various interests. Monikers were bandied about in the Western press: "Arab Revolts," "Arab Uprisings," "Arab Revolutions," "Arab Awakening."

Out of the medley, the hopeful-sounding and ideologically packed "Arab Spring" separated itself from the rest. The coinage, in fact, spread so quickly that it became a new Arab export, as popular protests around the world referenced the Arab Spring, ostensibly took inspiration from it, or borrowed the "spring" meme (just as it was borrowed on behalf of the Arabs).

I'm talking about the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York, Wisconsin's labor-union strife, Spain's unrest over employment woes, and the self-immolation and massive street protests in Tel Aviv. Even the pope's decision to resign was not spared. Hans Küng, bending spoons in an op-ed in The New York Times, wrote, "The Arab Spring has shaken a whole series of autocratic regimes. With the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, might not something like that be possible in the Roman Catholic Church as well—a Vatican Spring?"

The compelling seasonal descriptor has been picked up in the Arabic-language press and used alongside other, more indigenous phrases. (The Arabic word for "spring," rabi', conveys key metaphors associated with its English counterpart, like renewal, hope, and fresh growth. So the political trope is not lost in translation.)

If speed and ubiquity are reliable guides, then it would seem that "Arab Spring" was welcomed without much resistance. This, however, is untrue. The companionable phrase elicited objections in the press and the academy. Two main streams carried the disapprovals along, each one guided by a well-worn suspicion.

The more popular argument warns that the unrest in the Arab world will enable Islamists to game the transitions in order to take power they could not have seized under the rule of the previous despots, and that trading one authoritarian system for another is hardly a "spring" effect. It's likely that partisans of this argument are feeling smug and smart, since the Islamist Nahda Party, of Tunisia, has won considerable representation in the country's parliamentary elections, and Egypt's president, Mohamed Morsi, has a known Muslim Brotherhood pedigree.

But not all observers of the Middle East value the prescience in this pop-argument. Rather, the "Islamism" juggernaut is usually referenced in a mercilessly decontextualized form. The mere mention of the term inspires an unparsed sense of threat and implies precisely what Islamist movements are not, never have been, and never will be: that is, alike.

Recently, Lindsay Benstead and colleagues, in Foreign Affairs, highlighted research that suggested, "International observers are increasingly cynical about the prospects of democracy, arguing that the Arab Spring has turned into an Islamist winter. This bleak prognosis is based on an incomplete understanding of the complex issues at hand and unrealistic expectations of a rapid, smooth transition."

Maha Azzam, a fellow at the policy think tank Chatham House, has argued that the Arab Spring, in fact, has marginalized extremists, particularly Al Qaeda's "ideological and political appeal." In "The Arab Spring: Implications for British Policy," Azzam writes that "Islamism" can be used to describe "two very different trends; first, the nonviolent quest for an Islamic friendly society based on the 'principles of Islam.' ... Second, Islamism is also associated with violent extremism, most notably that of Al Qaeda in the promotion of terrorism."

Taking a more candid approach, the Brookings Institution's Shadi Hamid, writing also in Foreign Affairs, argued that if truly democratic governments form in the wake of the Arab Spring, "they are likely to include significant representation of mainstream Islamist groups. Like it or not, the United States will have to learn to live with political Islam." If prescience is to be found, then it is in Hamid's point. Secretary of State John Kerry recently visited Brother Morsi promising financial aid to Egypt.

There is, however, another line of dissatisfaction with "Arab Spring," which has not received equal attention. It's not a countervailing argument per se; rather, its objections are moved in part by a postcolonialism dialect. For one, Joseph Massad, of Columbia University, protested in a piece on Al Jazeera English online that the "dubbing of the uprisings in the Arab world by Western governments and media as an 'Arab Spring' ... was not simply an arbitrary or even seasonal choice of nomenclature, but rather a U.S. strategy of controlling their aims and goals."

Marion Dixon, a sociologist at Cornell University, writing in the Review of African Political Economy, sees an "imperial reach" in hijacking an Arab narrative. Dixon contends that the "effort of claiming and co-opting is funneled squarely to prop up the neoliberal agenda that has brought to the region much of what the movements have risen to reject." Those problems include "oligopolistic economies, rising food and housing prices, slashed wages/prices and protections for workers and farmers, dropping standards of living with weakened public-welfare programs."

Stopping short of burning a linguistic effigy, Rami Khouri, a respected journalist and director of the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut, argued in Lebanon's Daily Star that the "Arab Spring" signifier is "totally inappropriate," and that he has "banished it from my own writing and speaking. I urge my fellow journalists to consider doing the same." The reason for this, Khouri contended, is that "spring" is not the term used by those who risked everything to confront their government's authority.

For other critics, it's the "Arab" part of the moniker that's bothersome, because, in their view, the unrest in the Middle East is part of a worldwide rejection of globalism and corporate hegemony, and the parochial-sounding "Arab" fails to convey the international solidarity that animates the region's angst. J.A. Myerson, an independent journalist writing for Truthout, insists that "not only is the name wrong, but it's also counterrevolutionary."

The unease that some have with "Arab Spring" (with or without the quotation marks) has done little to suppress its use. It seems that the phrase has opened opportunities for ideologues to insert their own plot lines into this closely watched region, the epicenter of some of the biggest policy debates and blunders of our day.

The dynamics of framing, it seems, require cleverness, a sense of history, and luck. "Arab Spring" (in its current iteration) benefited greatly from the fact that it was established early and often by the remarkable events of Tunisia and Egypt. It's unlikely that the "spring" descriptor would have stuck had the Arab tumult started with the brutal strife we've seen in Libya and especially now in Syria. Also, Western powers aiding Arab rebels in their struggle against autocrats had an easier time persuading their publics to support a "spring" than a "revolt" or "awakening" or "intifada."

Despite the 19th-century European origins of "spring" as a political metaphor, there's something else compelling about the word as applied to the Arab world now. "Arab Spring" suggests a progression of change that moves well beyond revolution. And this process will most likely take a decade, if not more. There's something premature, then, in evaluating the Arab Spring, since it's not over yet. This is the sentiment I gather from many Arabs I've spoken to since the spring started.

If this is true, it offers no consolation for those who have suffered and continue to suffer from the disorder, loss of life, and debilitating financial turmoil. Right now, regardless of what descriptor is in fashionable use, people in the region will be happy if they experience one thing from their governments: competence.

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