FOCUS: Narrating the ‘Arab Spring’, Five Years On

FOCUS: Narrating the ‘Arab Spring’, Five Years On

Kathryn Medien

If, one day, a people desires to live, then fate will answer their call

And their night will then begin to fade, and their chains break and fall

For he who is not embraced by a passion for life will dissipate into thin air

At least that is what all creation has told me, and what its hidden spirits declare…

Abu al-Qasem al-Shabbi, The Will to Live

The Tunisian poet al-Shabbi wrote his famous poem The Will to Live in the early twentieth century in opposition to France’s colonial occupation of Tunisia. The poem, which went on to form the final verse of newly independent Tunisia’s national anthem, witnessed a revolutionary revival five years ago. Crowds amassed in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and Tunis’s Habib-Bourguiba Avenue chanting al-Shabbi’s words and demanding the fall of their authoritarian regimes. Today al-Shabbi’s poem, rather than connected to its colonial pasts, is more commonly associated with what is often called the ‘Arab Spring’.

As the story goes, on December 17th 2010 Mohamed Bouazizi, a twenty-six year old from the central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, doused his body in gasoline and set himself on fire. Bouazizi, who had been unable to find legal employment, had taken to working illegally as a street vendor and his self-immolation followed the confiscation of his cart by local authorities.

Bouazizi’s plight spoke to a common Tunisian condition. In the days that followed protests erupted across central Tunisia, with protestors demanding an end to state corruption, unemployment, rising food and fuel prices, and political repression. Within weeks the protests that had begun in the country’s forgotten hinterlands gravitated towards the capital, Tunis. Ben Ali’s dictatorial government, which had enjoyed widespread support from Washington, the IMF, and European governments alike, met protestors with live rounds and tear gas, imposed curfews and attempted to deploy the army across the nation. Following a month of popular uprisings, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled Tunisia since 1987, fled to Saudi Arabia on January 14th 2011.

Mohamed Bouazizi spoke not only to the conditions of life in Tunisia, but sparked a movement across the region. Within days of Ben Ali’s departure, Egyptian revolutionaries began to organise their ‘Day of Rage’ (Youm al-Gadab) for January 25th 2011. The movement garnered nationwide support and drew hundreds of thousands to Cairo’s Tahrir Square with protestors demanding the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime. Within three weeks Egypt’s 30 year-long ruler had stepped down from power. Concurrently revolt was sweeping Libya, challenging the 42 year-long rule of Muammar Gaddafi. By the end of 2012 rulers had been forced from power in Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, and Egypt. While major protests had broken out in Algeria, Sudan, Syria, Jordan, Bahrain, Morocco, Djibouti, among others, and governments across the region had begun to undertake programmes of reform.

While the two conditions that al-Shabbi’s poem was mobilised against – a European coloniser and an Arab dictator – are commonly narrated as two separate periods in Tunisia’s recent history, it is useful to think them together. It is reminder that, while Tunisia formally won independence from France in 1956, the French economy is still very much entwined with that of Tunisia. French owned companies continue to play a major role in Tunisia’s phosphate industry. An industry that provides the cornerstone for livelihood and (un)employment in deprived central Tunisia, the location where the revolution began. It is also an important reminder that, as the revolutionary will of the Tunisian people escalated, French political elites demonstrated their willingness to continue supporting Ben Ali’s dictatorship. The French Minister of Culture, Frederic Mitterrand, brushed off descriptions of Ben Ali as a dictator, dismissing them as entirely exaggerated.” While the French Foreign Minister, Michele Alliot-Marie, offered to send French security forces to quash the revolution. Indeed, as Ian Sanjay Patel notes in his contribution to this issue of Discover Society, discussions of Tunisia “often prettified Tunisia’s past – a colonial history whose subsequent adaptions give character to the present.”

As the other pieces marking the fifth anniversary of the ‘Arab Spring’ in this issue of Discover Society highlight, while the revolutionary movements that swept the ‘Arab world’ are commonly narrated as rooted in the authoritarian polices of northern Africa’s former dictators, they also form part of a complex colonial history and are necessarily entwined with the histories and policies of Europe, as well as the global ‘war on terror’.

In the five years that have followed, the scenes of revolutionary optimism that once grabbed the world’s attention have gradually faded. War in Syria has created over 4 million refugees, displaced 50 per cent of the nation’s population, and left over 200,000 dead. Following NATO intervention, Libya’s war has left the country with no central government and close to half a million people internally displaced, with millions more seeking refuge in neighbouring Tunisia. The wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, along with continuing political repression in Bahrain, Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco, high unemployment in Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, and beyond, and continuing Israeli colonial violence, receive varying levels of coverage in the press. Yet the attendant ‘refugee crisis’ playing out across Europe’s borders has not escaped the world’s attention.

The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and wars in Syria and Libya are articulated as having brought a crisis to Europe’s borders. In 2011 the press was littered with stories of thousands of Tunisians breaking illegally into Europe, while more recently stories of Libyan people smugglers, narratives of Syrians fleeing Islamic violence, and images of sprawling Calais camps are figured by European leaders alike as posing a threat to the ways of life, stability and values of Europe. See, for example, Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban’s recent suggestion that Muslim migrants and refugees “represent a radically different culture, as well as the UK’s foreign secretary Philip Hammond statement that marauding African migrants were posing a threat to the living standards of Europe.

In the wake of the ‘Arab Spring’ Europe has articulated itself as both a champion of democracy and a Christian union at threat, threated by Islamic instability and violence occurring outside of and independent to its borders. This narrative of a victimised and threatened Europe is both dangerous and false. As Amade M’Charek points out in her contribution to this issue of Discover Society, in the wake of the revolutions Europe positioned itself as vulnerable and threatened, swiftly characterising those reaching Lampedusa as criminal “illegitimate border-crossers.” And as contributor to this issue Vijay Prashad has argued elsewhere, the mass unemployment that contributed to the conditions of northern Africa’s revolutions was not driven by Malthusian pressures – too many people, too few jobs to sustain them. It was rather the result of a tonic of neoliberal domestic policies and by the general second-class status of the Global South as the North constructs international policy to favor the corporations.

Five years on, as we look back at the inspirational revolutionary movements that swept Africa and the Middle East, it is important to also reflect upon how they have been narrated. The dominant narrative of the ‘Arab Spring’ has compartmentalised the cause to oppressive Arab dictatorships, placing histories of violence and authoritarianism far from the shores of the West. Yet the western-led ‘war on terror’ both benefited and masked Ben Ali’s brutal rule. And today, while Europe has been quick to denounce previous dictatorships and celebrate post-revolutionary ‘liberal democratic transition’, the pretext of Islamic terrorism is being deployed to deny access to Europe to those escaping conditions created, in part, by the ‘war on terror’.  The recent attacks in Paris, for example, were quickly and falsely blamed on ‘radicalised’ Syrian refugees, rather than on the conditions of poverty and discrimination that affect Europe’s marginalised Muslim youth. A narrative that leaves the structural racism of Europe intact, while justifying the bombing of Syria and legitimating the continuing mass surveillance of Muslims in Europe. This focus on post-revolutionary ‘democratic transition’, ‘Islamist threats’ and a ‘refugee crisis’ fails to acknowledge that the conditions that drove the revolutions did not board the private planes that Ben Ali and his fellow dictates flew into exile.

The ‘Arab Spring’, What’s in a Name?

The term ‘Arab Spring’ is a contentious one. The use of the term as a descriptor for the 2010 and 2011 revolutionary movements is traced back to the U.S. based Foreign Policy magazine. On January 6th 2011, as the Tunisian protests gained critical mass, Marc Lynch wrote an article for Foreign Policy called Obama’s ‘Arab Spring.  Soon after the term ‘Arab Spring’, which attempts to draw parallels to the 1968 ‘Prague Spring’, began to widely circulate and went on to become the favoured term to depict the uprisings.

Recalling the origins of the term ‘Arab Spring’ is useful. It is a reminder that the term was coined by Western political elite, not the revolutionary movements themselves. Rather than simply an arbitrary choice of works, the Palestinian-American intellectual Joseph Massad argues that the term forms part of a US strategy of controlling [the movements] their aims and goals. Whether or not one agrees with Massad’s critique, there is no escaping the omnipresent academic, media and political use of the term. Yet importantly, in the homelands of the ‘spring’, the term revolution (thawra) is favoured, as are collective nouns such as uprising (intifada) and renaissance (nahda).

Within the masses of academic scholarship that the revolutions have given rise to, the term ‘Arab Spring’ is commonly used to depict the awakening of the “Arab masses from their deep slumber” (Abdelrahman 2015: 1). The notion that the peoples of northern Africa and the Middle East have been in a state of ‘winter slumber’ continues a centuries old Orientalist tradition of figuring Arab populations as monolithic, docile and passive. A depiction which arguably ignores the ways in which “these movements have been years in the making.” While revolt is not the only way to read resistance, previous movements – Tunisia’s 1984 bread riots, Egypt’s 2008 general strike, two Palestinian intifadas, continuing Sahrawi resistance, a rich history of anti-colonial movements – remind us that the peoples of northern Africa and the Middle East were never asleep, passively accepting the brutal will of their rulers.

The use of Bouazizi’s self-immolation as temporally marking the birth of a common ‘Arab Spring’ suggested that the movements emerged from a vacuum and that they can all be labeled as a collective phenomenon with a common goal and shared outcomes.Such a framing, which collapses the local politics and colonial histories from which each movement emerged, has led many to search for alternate beginnings. Noam Chomsky has argued that the ‘Arab Spring’ began in 2010 with the protests in Gdeim Izik, and others point to Egypt and Tunisia’s 2008 strikes and protests as an alterative spark. While trying to pin point the origins of the ‘spring’ may be futile – there are limitless events that could be identified as potential catalysts – it is fruitful to consider what the epistemic framing of ‘Arab Spring’ does.

Samia Errazzouki has argued that, one of the most significant consequences of the term “Arab Spring” has been the evocation of a constructed timeline that placed the protests in the North Africa and the Middle East within a limited spectrum of time and space. For Ali Mazrui and Thabo Mbeki, the ‘Arab Spring’s’ limited spectrum of space functions to narrate the African Maghreb and Egypt as part of the Arab world, rather than as located in African continent. Mazrui and Mbeki both suggest that what has been called the ‘Arab Spring’ may better be named the “Afro-Arab Spring” or “African Reawakening” (Mbeki 2015: ix). As Ali Mazrui points out, “the only Arab uprisings which succeeded in removing a dictator have been in Arab Africa.” For Mazrui this is not coincidence, but rather a continuation of an earlier African trend south of the Sahara,” one that includes Sudan’s 1985 popular uprisings, the Algerian war for independence, and Uganda’s 1981 resistance movements against Milton Obote’s dictatorship. Indeed, as Mehita Iqani reminds us in a recent Discover Society article, student protests in South Africa are not unconnected from those in Egypt’s Tahrir Square.

This geopolitical move of removing the African Maghreb from the African continent has a long colonial and racist history. In the 19th century Hegel ([1837] 1975: 173) argued that northern Africa should be renamed “European Africa”, and suggested that the region “does not really belong to Africa but forms a single unit with Spain.” This racialised divide was attacked by Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth, who argued that the splitting of Africa into ‘Arab-Berber’ and ‘Black’ states was a deeply colonial divide, one that was detrimental to pan-African unity and served to undermine the transnational struggle against imperialism. As a manifestation of what Du Bois ([1903] 2000) famously articulates as the “problem of the colour line”, the creation of a northern African fault line leaves many of the pretexts and affects of the ‘Arab Spring’ unconnected. Shamil Jeppie (2015: 2) reminds us that events in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt were felt throughout the African continent; “in Zimbabwe there was a de facto ban on people communicating about events in Egypt…In Senegal there were large and persistent popular protests beginning in June 2011.”

One of the most under discussed consequences of the term ‘Arab Spring’ is the implication that the populations of these nations are Arab, ignoring the important role and history of indigenous Amazigh, Kurdish, and Circassian resistance movements, among many others. For example, the Amazigh (Berber) people of northern Africa have survived centuries of forced Arabization, and were violently marginalised by the Maghreb’s dictators. In Libya, Gaddafi banned the Amazigh languages, all Amazigh books were destroyed, and it was illegal to register an Amazigh name. The threat that Amazigh identity posed to the Arab-facing northern African dictatorial regimes was so strong, that one of the first concessions made by the Moroccan monarch in the wake of the 2011 protests was to give the long ignored Amazigh language national recognition. To characterise the Maghreb’s revolutionary movements as solely Arab fails to grasp the complexity of national identity, and ignores the central role that Amazigh resistance has played in challenging both colonial and authoritarian oppression.

There is no denying that the revolutionary events that took place five years ago have had a dramatic global impact. But when talking about the ‘Arab Spring’ or ‘African-Arab revolutions’ we need to be able to connect these movements to their wider geopolitical histories. Five years on and many of the conditions the fuelled the uprisings are still there; mass youth unemployment, rising food prices, authoritarian policies, and widespread poverty. In post-revolutionary Tunisia, for example, the pretext of the ‘war on terror’ continues to be used as a technology of oppression and authoritarianism. In the seven months that followed the March 2015 Bardo Museum attack, almost one hundred thousand people, or one per cent of the Tunisian population was arrested.  But rather than exceptionalise these practises as intrinsic to oppressive Arab dictators, the recent deployment of France’s state of emergency to enable aggressive raids, mosque closures, and mass arbitrary arrests, reminds us that these Tunisian ‘anti-terror’ practices are connected to a global and racialised security apparatus. The desire to narrate the revolutions and their causes as rooted in the ‘Arab world’ alone, tactically ignores the role that global neoliberal policies, entrenched inequalities, colonial legacies, and the securitization of ‘Islamic terrorism’ played in creating the conditions of revolution. A strategic discourse that simultaneously fractures African histories of protest, struggle, and anti-imperial resistance. In figuring the ‘Arab Spring’ as part of what Gurminder Bhambra recently called connected histories, the mobilisation of al-Shabbi’s The Will to Live against both French colonial occupation and Ben Ali’s dictatorial regime may appear as no coincidence.



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Du Bois, W.E.B. ([1903] 2000). The Souls of Black Folk. Dover Pulications Inc.

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Jeppie, S. (2015). From Cairo to the Cape: The Dilemmas of Revolution. In Villa-Vicencio et al ed. The African Renaissance and the Afro-Arab Spring. Washington: Georgetown University Press, pp. 1-17.

Kallander, A. (2013). “Friends of Tunisia”: French Economic and Diplomatic Support of Tunisian Authoritarianism. In Gana, N.  The Making of the Tunisian Revolution: Contexts, Architects, Prospects. Edinburgh University Press, pp. 103-126.

Mbeki, T. (2015). Introduction. In Villa-Vicencio et al ed. The African Renaissance and the Afro-Arab Spring. Washington: Georgetown University Press, pp. x-xv.

Said, E. (1979). Orientalism. New York: Vintage.


Kathryn Medien is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick. She is currently a visiting research fellow in Women’s Studies and Middle East Studies at Duke University. @kathrynmedien

IMAGE CREDIT: French-north Africans celebrating the fall of Ben Ali in Marseille, France, January 15th 2011. (Image Flickr/marcovdz)