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.