tunisia_protest002
Op-Ed

Old Definitions Fail to Capture Arab Spring Complexities

Bessma Momani

Structural arguments have been convenient frameworks for understanding many aspects of Middle East politics and history, but they don’t work as interpretations for the Arab Spring. Neo-Ottomanism, neoliberalism, Zionism, neo-imperialism, neo-colonialism, Americanism, globalisation and Islamism – all of these words have been put forward as explanations and paradigms to explain the Arab Spring.

Considering all of the opinions, debates and rebuttals, I must admit that, for the first time, I feel frustrated with academic analysis of this watershed moment. The Arab people have been denied agency. It is high time armchair academics stop trying to fit political history into familiar and convenient theoretical frameworks.

As a political analyst of the never-ending Arab Spring, I have attended numerous conferences and workshops with fellow academics, as well as policymakers and think tank analysts, all trying to understand why the Arab Spring happened when it did. It is natural for academics to want to tie the events of the Arab Spring together, but these grand, global ideas – and yes, those frameworks do exist and have at times been domineering in so many ways – cannot explain where we are today.

When a university educated Tunisian fruit seller set himself ablaze in December 2010, he did not think to himself, “Today I will fight the neo-imperialist system that is forcing me to this hellish life.” Rather, Mohamed Bouazizi was reacting to corrupt police who told him that he couldn’t sell his fruit without paying a bribe.

When Tunisians saw Bouazizi set himself aflame; when Egyptians saw the brutal attack and indignity caused to Khaled Saeed; and when the Syrian children of Deraa wrote those fatal words “down with the regime”, they weren’t attacking Zionism or trying to remove the shackles of neoliberalism. Simply put, they weren’t living in “isms.”

The Arab Spring was about people who said enough is enough. Incredible. Who knew individuals mattered? And yet some experts and critics in the West and leftist Arab intellectuals remain reluctant or maybe even unable to go beyond these grand theories and structural paradigms. It might sound like a wild idea to many academics, but this is a revolution and an uprising instigated by people. The collection of these individuals reminds me of an Arab proverb: “When you add a hair, to a hair, and to a hair, you make a beard.”

The work of Ted Robert Gurr, an American social scientist, helps us understand the psychological aspects and essence of revolution. He points out that individuals revolt when they see a gap between their lot and what they believe they deserve. It’s the Arab Spring at its core.

In recent years, as Arab countries experienced stunning macroeconomic growth – GDP growth was rising around four to five per cent in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria – the rise in per capita GDP was very low and not rising fast enough. What Arab individuals believed they deserved is the truly important aspect and it is immeasurable.

In other words, the Arab population was unconvinced by false symbols of modernisation – shopping malls, full of young citizens lacking purchasing power, and lavish tourist resorts, where foreigners experience luxury. For the past 10 years, the urban landscape of the Arab Middle East changed before our eyes, as Arab Gulf investors rushed into the Arab world with cash to pump money into the one sector of an economy they know best, real estate. Yet, the average resident was not participating and increasingly alienated from yet another sign of their inability to gain from a so-called prosperous economy.

At the same time, the region has been producing university graduates, both men and women, at an incredible pace. Alas, we must get out of the mindset that there’s a lack of educated people in the region. Even still, unemployment and underemployment are rampant among Arab youth; for example, 60 per cent of youth are unemployed in Egypt, 56 per cent in Syria, 48 per cent in Yemen and 54 per cent in Bahrain.

The frustration experienced by so many, fuelling the Arab Spring, is attributable to factors that cause feelings of indignity: being educated, lacking money and experiencing unemployment. While the Arab Spring has been about indignity in the marketplace, it’s also been about questioning every facet of life across all age groups.

For Arab youth, frustration was expressed beyond traditional areas of government concern and control. Young people went to online groups and social networks where they empathised, shared their disillusionment and realised that “hair, by hair, by hair makes a beard”.

Who did the Arab masses blame for their predicament? Not neo-Ottomanism, neoliberalism, Zionism, neoimperialism, neo-colonialism, Americanism, globalisation or Islamism.

It was the very leaders who claim to be representing these people. Arab governments were rightly blamed for socio-economic problems, and they are the ones that are being held accountable today.

The most refreshing aspect of the Arab Spring is that the Arab individual has woken up and said “yes, those grand theories, those grand structures, they exist; they’ve been a part of my story, my history and my past”.

But today, it is that so-called leader in the presidential palace and the prime ministerial office that I am holding accountable. Many of the Arab people who rose up against their governments knew that they deserved better. No matter what we call the aftermath.

Author

More