Dubbed by the global media the Arab Spring, the Arab Awakening, the Arab revolution and often by activists the Arab Intifada, the wave of protests that started in Tunisia in December 2010 spread like wildfire through Egypt, Algeria, Morocco and on to Yemen, Bahrain, Oman, Syria and Libya. The multiple denominations allude to the difficulties to make clear sense of the large social phenomena that are currently taking place in the Middle East and North Africa. In order to learn more about the struggles, the demands and the people involved I joined, in April, a solidarity caravan of civil society activists from thirteen countries and three continents who travelled across Tunisia. Interacting with activists and citizens involved in the uprising and engaged in the reconstruction of a wounded society allowed the members of the caravan to add flesh and soul to the too often abstract debates that have been sweeping the global mediascape.
I asked those I met in Tunisia and other activists from Morocco and Egypt that I interviewed at the World Social Forum in Senegal, the questions that are currently shaping the global debate on the Arab revolts. I discovered that often those very questions are often clumsily framed or indeed fraught by limited knowledge of regional specificities and by shallow stereotyping and trivial generalizations that cloud the debate on the Arab world shaped as it is by centuries of exceptionalism, Orientalism and outright racism. These are some of the questions that criss-cross virtual and real public spheres: Who are the revolutionaries that toppled the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and challenge others across the region? How did they succeed to unravel their totalitarian police states and why are they failing in other countries? Why did such irresistible wave of dissent rise against national and regional political and economic systems? Why now? What can be expected of the transition process in the near future? Will Islamist forces get a stronger grip on power?
At the same time broader issues of global governance have been raised: What will the consequences be of these protests for global economic, political and cultural dynamics? How would the changes in the region influence global patterns of consumption dependent on the oil some of these countries produce? What global social changes would be caused by such changes in patterns of consumption? Would stability and peace in the region be compromised? Is there a risk to the very existence of the state of Israel? Would more freedom to Islamic activists both challenge the victories of the protesters and global security? Are demonstrators really democratic? Do they believe in universal human rights and women equality? What forms of political and economic transformations, what new and alternative paradigms of development and social organisation, are these revolutions articulating? Would they challenge Western civilisation?
Whereas the scholarship on these ongoing events is still catching up with their fast-paced development, analysts are developing a growing body of comments in newspapers and televisions such as The Guardian, the International Herald Tribune, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, the BBC, and Al-Jazeera and local and specialist magazines both online and hard-published like Foreign Affairs, Public Affairs, Middle East Quarterly, Open Democracy, the Cairo Review of Global Affairs, the New Left Review and Jadaliyya, to mention just a few of the broader collective efforts at analysis and synthesis. These debates are framing some of the issues that scholars will reflect on in the next years and are animated by, among others, Asef Bayat, Rabab Mahdi, Joseph Massad, Perry Anderson, Michael Hudson, Hazem Kandil, Tarak Barkawi, Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, just to mention a few. Furthermore, the recent debate on the Arab Spring is intersecting long standing discussions on democracy and transformation in Eastern Europe or, further back in time, the French and American revolutions of the XVIII century, the independence struggles in South America in the 1820s, the European ’48, the Russian revolution, as well as the anti-dictatorship and pro-democracy wave of the XX and early XXI century in Latin America, South East and Central Asia, and Africa. Authors like Martin Shaw, Mary Kaldor, John Keen, Michael Hudson, David Held, Stephen Weathercroft, Asef Bayat, Perry Anderson and others have been testing theories of revolution, reform and change on the current events.
Prominent among these debates is the recognition that the Arab Spring might have irreversibly changed some of the preconceptions that marred the discussions on global democracy and human rights across political, ideological and cultural frontiers. This debate, based on less than robust theoretical categories that have become common parlance, has been framed in the terms of an alleged “clash of civilisation” between “The West” and “The Arabs”, on the assumptions of an inherently subaltern nature of the Arab; on their alleged inherently religious nature, and on the declared incommensurability between Islam and human rights.
Such Orientalist gaze, whose origins and ethical foundations can be traced back to the 18th century, depicted the Muslim Arabs (note that the Middle East and North Africa host a wider variety of ethnic groups and religions) as homogeneous, monolithic, agentless (though prone to unpredictable bouts of violence) and immobile due to inherent features of their religion. Among the implications of such depiction was that it would be inconceivable to imagine genuine internal thrusts to change and genuine aspirations to democracy, equality and freedom. Strategic interests of Western countries complemented these speculations and together contributed to design geopolitical doctrines that, with little change, have been applied to the region for two centuries. Domination, control and trusteeship by colonial and post-colonial powers defined the approach to the region. The real or alleged fear of Islamism and the challenge to global security posed by terrorism, together with the commitment to ensure the safety of the state of Israel, legitimised the proxy rule over the region by authoritarian strong men and royal dynasties with treated their own people with contempt and enriched themselves while ruling in the name of foreign powers.
The recent revolutions surprised many for their sudden explosion, their assertive and uncompromising character, their demands for democracy, justice and dignity, and for their widely non-violent character. A myth was challenged, and this may have been the most immediate success of the Arab Spring. At the same time, it matters to highlight that the recent revolts were neither surprising (not more than revolutions always are) nor sudden. The people of the Middle East are not new to powerful accelerations of history and energetically pursued social change in the past. Just in passing let me mention, among the most recent, the 1952 Egyptian revolution, the Iraqi revolution of 1958, the Algerian overthrow of the French colonialist in 1962 and more recently the Iranian revolution of 1979.
The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions and the revolts that spread like wildfire in the region had been brewing for long time and have been ushered in the realms of history by dramatic manifestation of people’s will and demands over the last decade. To mention just some of the most dramatic episodes in the recent history of Lebanon, Iran, Egypt and Tunisia, consider for instance the 2008 miners’ strike in Tunisia that demanded better work conditions and better public services, the 2007 Iranian Green Wave which opposed an authoritarian regime that stifled their demands for fair electoral processes, the Egyptian Kifaya movement of 2004-5 that mobilised for the release of political prisoners, the rule of law, the abolition of the emergency law and torture in Egypt, and the Lebanese Cedar Revolution of 2005 which resulted in the withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon, to mention some of the most dramatic cases.
Widely representative of national societies, these movements have been defined as post-modern, post-ideological, post-Islamist and post-national. This wealth of descriptive and analytical tags aimed at highlighting their novelty and their rupture with previous forms of political activism in the region. Of these recent movements the media have highlighted the technology driven features, the classless constitution, the democracy and human rights claims to political freedoms and the personal demands of ethnic, religious and gender recognition among others.
Consolidated categories of social movement analysis devised in other contexts (mainly European and North American) fail to grasp the cultural and historical specificities of these movements and their ability to explain the dynamics of change of the Middle East and North Africa region are limited and at times misleading. Only recently an alternative scholarship is building on detailed knowledge of the movements in question to offer alternative and complementary analytical concepts. To illustrate the scope of such growing scholarship suffice to say that Asef Bayaf has introduced, among other analytical concepts, the concept of nonmovement, to investigate movement latency and agency in authoritarian contexts. He also proposed the concept of refo-lution to describe the current events in the Middle East and North Africa in order to develop a dialectical term that mediates the binary opposition between reform and revolution in the mainstream literature on social transformation.
The extent to which the engagements with the recent events in the Middle East and North Africa can contribute to a global social science which devoid of Orientalism, that eschews condescending and patronizing analytical attitudes and it is not mere projection of a naturalised moral belief, can only be hinted at here. More can be read in the work of, among others, Asef Bayaf, Sami Zubaida, Quintan Wictorowicz, Roel Meijer, Oliver Roy, Joost Hiltermann, Zachary Lockman, Joel Beinin, Nikki Keddie on the Islamic movement, on the first Palestinian Intifada, on youth movements and women’s movements in the Middle East and North Africa.
In sum, to understand nature and implications of the current wave of democratic movements in the Arab world we need a social science that is neither exceptionalist nor uncritical; a scholarship that does not compare the Middle East to the West and finds it morally and materially lacking; a scholarship that does not uncritically apply to the Middle East social theories developed elsewhere; a scholarship that is sensitive to historical trajectories, cultural specificities, social structure, human traits and dispositions, and engages what it describes in a methodologically sound and situated manner. Such a social science could aspire to become a truly cosmopolitan social science able to both making sense of the world it engages and to contribute to transform it.
To briefly illustrate the width and breadth of the issues that such a scholarship would have to engage with, and to substantiate the claim that an engaged scholarship of the current Arab revolutions can contribute to reformulate a truly post-Orientalist and emancipatory global social science, let me point towards, on the one hand, the latest global crisis and the dynamics it sparked and, on the other, to the multiple revolts and protests it has generated across the planet.
The global crisis of 2008 raised countries and shook them like carpets, the weakest individuals could not cling hard enough and were swept away. Incapable of procuring food for themselves and for their families and abandoned by impoverished global charity networks or national welfare systems, they simply starved. Those among the weakest sections of the population who could cling hard enough started protesting the rise in foodstuff, the lack of jobs, the vulgar wealth of those who speculated even while people were starving and eventually set the spark that inflamed the Middle East and North Africa. As I write these notes the fire has crossed the Mediterranean and protests have been taking place in most of Europe, most notably in Greece, Spain. In the Puerta del Sol in Madrid protesters mention repeatedly the Egyptian Tahrir Square as their example. Opportunities for democratic and inclusive local, regional and global governance might follow from these events. Thorough, robust and engaged social researches might contribute to unveil opportunities and challenges involved and contribute to their transformation.