Mission & Name
US Foreign Policy (Dr. El-Najjar's Articles)
Exploited and Misused:
Impossible Discourse of the 'Arab Spring'
By Ramzy Baroud
Al-Jazeerah, CCUN, February 4, 2013
A reductionist discourse is one that selectively tailors its
reading of subject matters in such a way as to only yield desired outcomes,
leaving little or no room for other inquiries, no matter how appropriate or
relevant. The so-called Arab Spring, although now far removed from its
initial meanings and aspirations, has become just that: a breeding ground
for choosy narratives solely aimed at advancing political agendas which are
deeply entrenched with regional and international involvement.
a despairing Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire on
December 17, 2010, he had ignited more than a mere revolution in his
country. His excruciating death had given birth to a notion that the
psychological expanses between despair and hope, death and rebirth and
between submissiveness and revolutions are ultimately connected. His act,
regardless of what adjective one may use to describe it, was the very key
that Tunisians used to unlock their ample reserve of collective power.
Then-President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s decision to step down on January
14, 2011, was in a sense a rational assessment on his part if one is to
consider the impossibility of confronting a nation that had in its grasp a
true popular revolution.
Egypt also revolted less than two weeks
later. And it was then that Tunisia’s near-ideal revolutionary model became
prey for numerous, often selective readings and ultimately for utter
exploitation. The Egyptian January 25 revolution was the first Arab link
between Tunisia and the upheavals that travelled throughout Arab nations.
Some were quick to ascribe the phenomenon with all sorts of historical,
ideological and even religious factors thereby making links whenever
convenient and overlooking others however apt. The Aljazeera Arabic website
still has a map of all Arab countries, with ones experiencing revolutionary
influx marked in red.
Many problems have arisen. What tools, aside
from the interests of the Qatari government, for example, does Aljazeera use
to determine how the so-called Arab Spring manifests itself? And shouldn’t
there be clear demarcations between non-violent revolutions, foreign
interventions, sectarian tension and civil wars?
Not only do the
roots and the expressions of these ‘revolutions’ vastly differ, but the
evolvement of each experience was almost always unique to each Arab country.
In the cases of Libya and Syria, foreign involvement (an all-out NATO war in
the case of Libya and a multifarious regional and international power play
in Syria) has produced wholly different scenarios than the ones witnessed in
Tunisia and Egypt, thus requiring an urgently different course of analysis.
Yet despite the repeated failure of the unitary ‘Arab Spring’
discourse, many politicians, intellectuals and journalists continue to
borrow from its very early logic. Books have already been written with
reductionist titles, knitting linear stories, bridging the distance between
Tunis and Sanaa into one sentence and one line of reasoning.
‘Arab Spring’ reductionism isn’t always sinister, motivated by political
convenience or summoned by neo-imperialist designs. Existing pan-Arab or
pan-Islamic narratives however well-intended they may be, have also done
their fair share of misrepresenting whichever discourse their intellectuals
may find fitting and consistent with their overall ideas. Some denote the
rise of a new pan-Arab nation, while others see the ‘spring’ as a harbinger
of the return of Islam as a source of power and empowerment for Arab
societies. The fact is, while discourses are growing more rigid between
competing political and intellectual camps, Arab countries marked by
Aljazeera’s editorial logic seem to head in their own separate paths, some
grudgingly towards a form of democracy or another, while others descend into
a Hobbesian ‘state of nature’ – a war of all against all.
reductionist discourses persist, despite their numerous limitations. They
endure because some are specifically designed to serve the interests of
certain governments – some with clear ambitions and others are simply trying
to ride the storm. In the case of Syria, not a single country that is
somehow a party in the conflict can claim innocence in a gory game of
regional politics, where the price tag is the blood of tens of thousands of
Western media continues to lead the way in
language-manipulation, all with the aim of avoiding obvious facts and when
necessary it misconstrues reality altogether. US media in particular remains
oblivious to how the fallout of the NATO war in Libya had contributed to the
conflict in Mali – which progressed from a military coup early last year, to
a civil war and as of present time an all-out French-led war against Islamic
and other militant groups in the northern parts of the country.
is not an Arab country, thus doesn’t fit into the carefully molded
discourse. Algeria is however. Thus when militants took dozens of Algerian
and foreign workers hostage in the Ain Amenas natural gas plant in
retaliation of Algeria’s opening of its airspace to French warplanes in
their war on Mali, some labored to link the violence in Algeria to the Arab
Spring. “Taken together, the attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya,
the Islamist attacks on Mali, and now this Algerian offense, all point to
north Africa as the geopolitical hotspot of 2013 — where the Arab Spring has
morphed into the War On Terror,” wrote Christopher Helman, in Forbes, on Jan
How convenient such an analysis is, especially when “taken
together.” The ‘Arab Spring’ logic is constantly stretched in such ways to
suit the preconceived understanding, interests or even designs of western
powers. For example, it is now conventional media wisdom that the US is wary
of full involvement in Syria because of the deadly attack on the US embassy
in Benghazi. When seen from Washington, the Arab region appears less
compound and is largely understood through keywords and phrases, allocated
between allies and enemies, Islamists and liberals and by knee jerk
reactions to anything involving Israel or Iran.
One only needs to
compare media texts produced two years ago, with more recent ones. Whereas
the first few months of 2011 were mostly concerned with individuals and
collectives that had much in common with Mohamed Bouazizi – poor,
despairing, disenfranchised, and eventually rebellious – much of the present
text is concerned with a different type of discussion. Additionally there
are almost entirely new players. The Bouazizis of Tunis, Egypt and Yemen
remain unemployed, but they occupy much less space in our newspapers and TV
screens. Now we speak of Washington and London-based revolutionaries. We
juxtapose US and Russian interests and we wrangle with foreign interventions
and barefacedly demarcate conflicts based on sectarian divisions.
“Arab awakening is only just beginning”, was the title of a Financial Times
editorial of Dec 23. Its logic and subtext speak of a sinister
interpretation of what were once collective retorts to oppression and
dictatorships. “The fall of the Assads will be a strategic setback to Iran
and its regional allies such as Hizbollah, the Shia Islamist state within
the fragile Lebanese state,” the editorial read. “But that could quickly be
reversed if Israel were to carry out its threats to attack Iran’s nuclear
installations, enabling Tehran’s theocrats to rally disaffected Muslims
across the region and strengthen their grip at home. It is easy to imagine
how such a conflict would drag in the US, disrupt the Gulf and its oil
traffic, and set fire to Lebanon.”
Note how in the new reading of
the ‘Arab Spring’, people are mere pawns that are defined by their sectarian
leanings and their usefulness is in their willingness to be rallied by one
regional power or another. While the language itself is consistent with
western agendas in Arab and Muslim countries, what is truly bizarre is the
fact that many still insist on contextualizing the ever-confrontational US,
Israel and western policies in general with an ‘Arab Spring’ involving a
poor grocer setting himself on fire and angry multitudes in Egypt, Yemen and
Syria who seek dignity and freedom.
Shortly after the Tunisian
uprising, some of us warned of the fallout, if unchecked and generalized
discourses that lump all Arabs together and exploit peoples’ desire for
freedom, equality and democracy were to persist. Alas, not only did the
reductionist discourse define the last two-years of upheaval, the ‘Arab
Spring’ has become an Arab springboard for regional meddling and foreign
intervention. To advance our understanding of what is transpiring in Arab
and other countries in the region, we must let go of old definitions. A new
reality is now taking hold and it is neither concerned with Bouazizi nor of
the many millions of unemployed and disaffected Arabs.
Baroud (www.ramzybaroud.net) is an
internationally-syndicated columnist and the editor of
PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is: My Father was A Freedom Fighter:
Gaza's Untold Story (Pluto Press).