Friday, August 19, 2011

Spring Or Revolution?

By Rami G. Khouri
One of the fascinating aspects of the current wave of citizen revolts that are toppling, challenging or reforming regimes across the Arab world is that people around the world use different terms to describe the phenomenon.
The term that seems to have gained much currency across the Western world is “Arab Spring”. I find this term totally inappropriate, and have banished it from my own writing and speaking, and I urge my fellow journalists across the world to consider doing the same.
The most important reason for this is that the term is not used at all by those brave men and women who have been on the streets demonstrating and dying for seven months now.
Every time I run into a Tunisian, Egyptian, Libyan, Syrian, Bahraini or Yemeni, I ask him how he refers to his people’s political actions. The answer is an almost universal, “revolution” (thawra, in Arabic), to describe what they are doing.
When referring to the collective activities of Arabs across the region, the plural, “revolutions”, (thawrat) is often used.
Also used are descriptor nouns, such as Arab “uprising” (intifada), Arab “awakening” (sahwa), or Arab renaissance (nahda), the latter mirroring the initial Arab awakening against Ottoman and European domination in the early years of the 20th Century.
I personally like the term “Arab citizen revolt”, which captures the common demand among all Arab demonstrators to enjoy full citizenship rights with appropriate constitutional guarantees.
The terms Arabs use to describe themselves are far stronger and more substantive than “Arab Spring”. Inherent in the term “spring”, for sure, is the idea of an awakening after the winter slumber, but it also denotes a brief or limited transitional moment that soon gives way to the next season. It mirrors Czechoslovakia’s brief “Prague Spring” liberalism of 1968, which the Russians quickly halted, and also the European revolutions of 1848.
Tellingly, the “spring” metaphor was not applied to the revolutions that swept the Soviet Empire in the 1980s and early 90s. When real change happens, the world tends to describe this as a revolution, not a spring, except, it seems, in the Arab world.
Perhaps I exaggerate, but I am troubled by the unspoken connotations that accompany calling this phenomenon a “spring”, which downplays the severity of the challenge to existing regimes and downgrades the intensity and depth of the courage that ordinary men and women summon when they dare to take on their often brutal, well-armed national security services.
“Spring” is a passive phenomenon, something that happens to people, helpless people who have no power and no say in the process. The terms Arabs use to describe themselves are the epitome of activism, will, empowerment, determination and agency, denoting citizens who have the power to change their world and are going about that business with diligence and perseverance.
I suspect that the popularity of the “Arab Spring” term across the Western world quietly mirrors some subtle Orientalism at work, lumping all Arabs as a single mass of people who all think and behave the same way. It might also hide another troubling factor: Many quarters of many Western lands remain hesitant in fully acknowledging - let alone embracing or supporting - the implications of free and self-determinant Arabs who have the power to define their countries and shape their national policies.
Western powers for the past century and a half or so have assumed they can shape and control most aspects of power and policy across the Arab world, whether due to imperial interest, energy issues, economic need, or pro-Israeli biases.
As Arab citizens now shed docility and threaten to take control of their own societies, many in the West are not sure how to deal with this possibility.
Perhaps some in the West also do not want to acknowledge the full reality of Arabs reconfiguring their power structures because Western powers (including Russia) enthusiastically supported those old, failed authoritarian systems that are now being challenged and changed.
An Arab “spring” conveniently removes the element of culpability and foreign complicity in the dark, bitter and endless “winter” that we endured for three generations of incompetent Arab police and family mafia states.
Revolutionary, self-determinant, self-assertive Arabs frighten many people abroad. Softer Arabs who sway with the seasons and the winds may be more comforting. However, if in their greatest moment of modern historical self-assertion and nationalist struggle assorted Arab citizenries find that major Western quarters (politicians, media) refer to them in the vocabulary of the wind and tides, we are certain to continue feeling the century-long impact of the great battle of colonialism vs. nationalist resistan?e that seems still to define the Arab region’s relations with many Western powers.
Language may be the easiest place to start reversing this troubling legacy. Dropping the term “Arab Spring” for something more accurate is my suggested starting point.
This commentary was published in The Jordan Times on 19/08/2011

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