The Arab Spring?

This op ed is currently published in the Association of American Geographers Newsletter.

The street protests in Tunis that lead to the ouster of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, an autocrat who governed Tunisia since 1987, have emboldened disenfranchised masses across the Arab world to confront entrenched autocracies. The courage of the demonstrators is to be admired but we would do well to be wary of embracing some of the clichés surrounding these events. First, how protest events diffused across some of the Arab world remains to be explained. Single factor accounts that emphasize information technology (the web, Facebook and Twitter), satellite television, the demonstration effects of demonstrations, or basic geographic diffusion are insufficient. What we are seeing is a broad cultural area ‘protest wave’ formed in opposition to place-specific structures of neopatrimonial corruption, youth unemployment, and repressive rule. How protests come together, under what banner, and with which leaders needs to be explained on a country-by-country basis. In fact, the analytic lens needs to be even more geographically sensitive. The power of mobilized urban demonstrators in the capital city to occupy key symbolic places in order to enact a theatre of dissent may work in certain states but not in others. The brutal struggle between defecting army elements and the Gaddafi government in Libya reveals other significant theatres of revolt. The history and positionality of specific places, like Benghazi and Sirte (Gaddafi’s home town) in Libya, within authoritarian state formations is worth noting as much as the fragile social basis of some state systems. Indeed, the particular interconnectivities of both may be vital factors in explaining outcomes. Moments of ‘thickened history’ should not be moments for ‘thin geography’ on the part of the media.

Second, the longer-term meaning of the protests is far from clear. To see the protests as victories for ‘democracy,’ and ‘freedom,’ or for a Western ‘freedom agenda’ in the Arab world, is to fall once more into a trap of willful blindness about the Arab world. Our Cold War-based narratives of national liberation are not necessarily the best guides. Dubbing events as the ‘Arab Spring’ is a hopeful journalistic frame but its misleading. This is not to endorse the views of those busily countering the hopeful images with negative stereotypes (the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Qaeda, terrorism, danger to Israel) about the region (interestingly, some of these views are echoed by the paranoid Gaddafi!). Rather, it is to caution that a crowd can also be a mob, a charismatic leader a demagogue, and an idealistic young military officer, as Mubarak and Gaddafi were in their day, a future brutal autocrat. Removing the head of a dictatorship does not remove the everyday structures of power that kept it in place for so long. Transitions from dictatorship to ‘democracy’ can happen but we would do well to have lots of categories for the important in-between circumstances. Otherwise we run the risk of falling for our own fairy tales once again about the Arab world.

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About Gerard Toal

I am an Irish born DC based Political Geographer researching territorial conflicts and the dynamics of geopolitical competition in post-Communist Europe.
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One Response to The Arab Spring?

  1. Stephen Musau says:

    You are critical here Dr.

    I like the way you have put the case for the Arabic Spring. Failures to analyse the contexts, contests and contents of peoples actions leaves a lacuna on what one wants to say.

    As a Masters student in Sant’Anna Pisa, Italy, I am extremely touched by your work and am concerned with places and power struggles, any peoples action needs to be defined in the contexts of how organised, structured and able are they to sustain and carry on the same for their better tomorrow. Am not underestimating what is happening in the region for people have abilities to do these things, but what we have seen so far appears more of emotional actions, with very minimal basis for organisation. They are sporadic happenings that leaves the structures as intact as ever, leaving the question of the same issues of inequalities, disparities, unemployment etc unanswered! The world now needs critical geopoliticians than before, able to analyse and critique happenings.

    Keep writing critically and geopolitically

    Steve

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