This article was originally published in Kenyon College’s MESA Journal, Vol. 3, Ed. 1 (November, 2011).
I can already see the entries in future history books: what began with self-immolation by a frustrated young fruit vendor in Tunisia launched unprecedented revolution across the Arab world. Aided by Facebook, Twitter and other social media, movements spread and autocratic regimes fell. It was the dawn of nonviolence in the Middle East, a time of rapid change: the Arab Spring.
I’m not so sure.
It is not my place to attempt a retelling of the events in the Arab World in the past ten months, nor could I begin to address the scope and complexity of various national movements. Instead, I wish to address the way these events have been presented and interpreted, as well as how the Obama Administration has responded. Finally, I will conclude with how American foreign policy should proceed.
Complexity is at the core of my opposition to the usage of the term “Arab Spring” to describe recent uprisings across the Arab world. The common narrative alludes to a process of rolling ignition, seen in the language of “first Tunisia,“then Egypt” followed by a smattering of other countries in varying chronology. This mode of presentation detracts from the existence of opposition movements that predated the uprisings in various Arab countries, and implies a simple progression from Country A to Country B to C and D and E (with the obvious inclusion of social media as the disseminating agent of protest organization) without acknowledgement of the unique circumstances underlying the protests in each individual country. Tunisia is not Egypt is not Syria is not Libya is not Bahrain, and a euphemistic categorical umbrella does not help our understanding of the unfolding events, nor in accommodating a climate of progressive change across the region.
Many of my objections to usage of this term draw heavily from an editorial in Lebanon’s The Daily Star by Dr. Rami Khouri entitled “Drop the Orientalist Term ‘Arab Spring.’” In the article, Khouri notes that the terminology most popular with Western media, “Arab Spring” does not reflect the language used by those engaged in the movements themselves. The implicit temporality and passivity of the word “spring” should also give its users pause. The phrase does no justice to the millions who have courageously stood up to brutal, malicious regimes, and to the thousands who have lost their lives in those struggles.
The collective movements that allegedly began with vendor Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation did not end with Tunisia’s successful elections last month. While the developments in each country will follow their own respective trajectories, each transition will be most unlike those between seasons (buds to blossoms to barren). The analogy oversimplifies what is certain to be a long, arduous, non-linear process. The reclamation of the political agency of Arab peoples is not a seasonal phase, but a dramatic shift that will take more than passive observation of changing foliage and clime, but tireless activism, strong will, and honest governance. The transition taking place doesn’t involve leaves falling from trees, but people dying at the hands of ruthless autocrats. Reducing their struggles to an Arab Spring minimizes the importance of their efforts.
The language we use to describe these events is symbolic, to be sure; however, it can serve as a useful mark of the more necessary shift: one in attitudes and actions by Western leaders towards the Arab peoples and the governments that represent them. Khouri argues:
Western powers for the past century and a half or so have assumed that they can shape and control most aspects of power and policy across the Arab world, whether due to imperial self-interest, energy requirements, economic needs, or pro-Israeli biases….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.
Prior to the outbreak of large-scale revolutionary activity, this sentiment was put another way by Iraqi-Canadian rapper The Narcycist in his book, Diatribes of a Dying Tribe: “If the restaurant of life were an Arab establishment, dictators would be the waiters to a Capitalist chef.” As regimes shift or topple and tides of public sentiment grow louder, it is time for Washington to listen to some Bob Dylan : “The times they are a changin.” What is the intended result of the uprisings of the past year? Agency for Arab peoples.
I hope to look back at the last year as a watershed in the history of American foreign policy
towards the Arab world. I hope to watch Arab political power expressed justly through free and fair elections, through leaders who are appointed by the masses to serve the masses. I hope to see genuine structural changes to the power structures in Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, and other nations that face unequal and unjust representation. I hope to see the monarchs of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Morocco continue, however gradually, to shift power to elected legislatures and executives.
As desirable as those outcomes may be, it is not the role of American foreign policy to produce them. Instead, the U.S. should craft a foreign policy that respects the agency of Arabs, encourages struggles that align with our nation’s founding principles, and rejects political violence against civilians. The continued hypocrisy of the Obama Administration toward unfolding events in the region violates our nation’s values and ideals and inhibits our ability to act as an impartial arbiter of peace within the international community. While our economic and national security needs may remain, the means through which America meets its strategic interests in the region must change.
The fall of Hosni Mubarak has revealed that the military holds the real power in Egypt. The seasonal change that seemed so evident in February has not occurred at a rate suitable to anyone save the army and its interests in the business sector. Delayed elections, difficulties in developing and organizing new political structures and military trials of civilians by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces have shown that Egypt’s revolution remains incomplete. Political stagnation isn’t the only issue facing Egypt: recent incidents of violence by security forces against Coptic Christians, growing popular support for well-organized Islamist political factions, and an attack on the Israeli embassy have left many concerned about Egypt’s prospects for a smooth transition to representative democracy.
These problems are real and complex and will need to be solved through persistence, cooperation, and empathy by the Egyptian people and their leadership. Yet, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:
The great stumbling block in [the] stride toward freedom is… the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; … who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom….I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with.
Dr. King’s description corresponds with what has been labeled the Arab Spring, and it is far from over. Rather than set a paternalistic timetable, or attempt to gloss over the distinctive aspects of each revolution, we must allow change to take its natural course. Majorities in many Arab countries have chosen instability over injustice, and the U.S. should no longer stand in the way of their causes to advance American interests. What is required is not a new season in American foreign policy, but an entirely new paradigm: one that replaces collectivism toward the region with informed analysis, and shuns convenience in favor of integrity and legitimate governance.