Where does the term “Arab Spring” originate?

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When I first moved to the Middle East, to Egypt in September 2010, the talk on the street was of despair. The government of Mubarak was presiding over a state of national self-hate and humiliation. No rights. No jobs. No prospects. No transparency. No respect. The politics of the mini-cab driver – naturally, the heartbeat of any society – was one of hopelessness. At least, that’s what they chose to talk to me about, a foreigner in their land. The ridiculousness of the situation in Egypt was emphasised when the ruling National Democratic Party won 95% of the vote in Parliamentary elections that November. And then, drama: a young Tunisian fruit vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself – and the region – on fire on 4th January 2011.

At the time, the migrant friends I had made out there (an Englishman-citizen-of-the-world, a Kiwi, a Syrian, and a Kuwaiti) and I questioned the use of the term “revolution” to describe the events taking place. An entire debate can be had about what constitutes a revolution, but the protests that were occurring in Egypt – revolution or not – were characterised by one word for many people: dignity. The Arabic for this, كرامة, karama, was heard on every street, on every march, and with every waving flag.

Of course, many hijacked the revolution for their own political gains. Furthermore, in “the West”, a different term was employed. “Arab Spring” became a familiar term in the media, and our own taxi drivers, baristas, and street soothsayers used the term widely and confidently (and I mean no disrespect – I regularly enjoy cafe punditry, and I always talk to taxi drivers). There has subsequently been quite a backlash against this. Many – scholars, journalists, and others – have objected to the term as being somewhat generalising, Orientalist, dismissive, irrelevant, and out-of-touch. There are accusations that such a framing of these events is a way of controlling and undermining them, in a classic Edward Said-ian analysis. There is the idea that the term should not be used because it is inauthentic – it is not the term the protesters themselves used to describe their ثورة (thawra), or “revolution”. These objections feel a little over-egged, but nonetheless, “Arab Spring” is indeed inappropriate – for the simple reason that it seems to me far too optimistic and glib.

Nonetheless, the term is what stuck. Joshua Keating has written an excellent study on the first uses of the term “Arab Spring” to refer to the 2011 uprisings (Foreign Policy website, 04/11/11). He finds that Foreign Policy’s Marc Lynch probably made the earliest reference to the term on 6th January 2011, just two days after Bouazizi set a fire in his own flesh. However, this was in reference to a 2005 event which previously had been called an “Arab Spring”. The earliest use that Keating could find without reference to 2005 was in a 14th January 2011 editorial of the Christian Science Monitor.

The 2005 “spring” fell into the neo-con narrative of democracy toppling states like dominoes in the aftermath of the Coalition invasion of Iraq and the subsequent Iraqi elections. Parliamentary elections were held in Iraq in January 2005 – followed by the “Cedar Revolution” in Lebanon, local government elections in Saudi Arabia, women’s protests in Kuwait and the announcement of reforms and so-called presidential elections in Egypt. The words “Arab Spring” were subsequently used by an Egyptian writer, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, in February 2005:

“If seriously implemented, these steps [the proposed Egyptian reforms] will transform Mubarak’s legacy. Along with events in Lebanon, Iraq, and Palestine, they may well usher in an Arab spring of freedom, one long overdue”. (Project Syndicate, 28/02/05).

However, the term predates even this early use. In 2003, George Packer wrote an article for the New York Times, “Dreaming of Democracy”, in which he interviewed Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace about the concept of a domino effect of falling tyrants and rising democracies in the wake of an American invasion of Iraq. This theory, according to Carothers, is called “magical realism, Middle East style”. By puffing the magic dragon (in this analysis), Bush, Blair, and the neo-con hawks believed that an invasion of Iraq would ‘strike one great blow at terrorism, tyranny, underdevelopment and the region’s hardest, saddest problems’, displacing Islamists from the region as nations followed the beacon of democracy that the former Hashemite kingdom of Iraq would surely become. However, Packer goes on:

“The war, which is vastly unpopular in the Arab world, is far more likely to improve the fortunes of the Islamists, [Carothers] says, and provoke governments to tighten their grip, than to ventilate the region with an Arab spring” (New York Times, 02/03/03).

There it is – “Arab spring”. So, the term, in this early usage from 2003, was deployed by an opponent of the developing US-UK policy towards Iraq, and a rejectionist of the domino theory. It was used to conjure an image of something mythical, and a pipe dream.

The term “Arab Spring” itself is quite interesting. In Arabic, the phrase is translated as الربيع العربي, ar-rabi’ al-‘arabi, which is so poetic that it almost sounds like an English public school joke for the “in crowd”: the sort of facetious humour that would publish an empty page in the university literature magazine and call it “poetry in blank verse”.

The term itself carries with it very significant European connotations. The Prague Spring of 1968 – the culmination (at that time) of the Czech reform movement of 1966-1968 – fell very much within the context of the Cold War dichotomy between communism and the “Free World”. Spring sprang and could be seen as a warming up of politics, liberty, and economic reform – a coming in from the Soviet cold. In 1848, the European Spring of Nations saw movements that demanded national rights, and greater middle class liberties. In political terms, neither the Prague Spring nor the European Spring of Nations were immediately successful in their aims, but they laid the groundwork for later developments. It remains to be seen whether الربيع العربي will follow a similar trajectory, or indeed if it is a part of the same trajectory.

The only previous example of a “spring” in the Middle East, other than those cases discussed above, was in 2000-2001 in Syria following the death of Hafez al-Assad. The “Damascus Spring”, as it was called, consisted of political debates held in cafes and bars calling for political reform – an event more akin to the debates in Putney and Saffron Walden in 1647 (check it out) than to the “Arab Spring” of 2011. Przemyslaw Osiewicz, a scholar, has contributed a very interesting piece to the discussion about terminology by considering the terms that are used for الربيع العربي in the Middle East itself: “awakening”, “revolution”, “revolt”, “uprising”, “e-revolution” (see “A Critical Analysis of Terms Applied”, in Transformation Processes in Egypt after 2011). These are perhaps more “authentic” in some ways, but each term carries with it significant linguistic and cultural baggage – baggage that is often inappropriate.

For myself, I shall continue using my own terminology, and will continue to call these events “the protests of 2011”, because, living there at the time, that is what I feel I witnessed. I may, if in a more poetic mood, air quote الربيع العربي, but I would argue that it is more justifiably left to the historians of the future to decide whether the protests of 2011 deserve such titles as “Spring”, or “Awakening”, or even “Revolution”. Let those with the benefit of hindsight decide – at the end of the day, when all’s said and done, when the chips are down and the cards are on the table.

Further Reading: Ibrahim Abusharif, “Parsing Arab Spring”; Przemyslaw Osiewicz, “A Critical Analysis of Terms Applied”.

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