“Arab Spring” Label Hampers Global Protests’ Solidarity Potential

In its unsubtle suggestions of “foreign,” “not white” and implicit condescension, the handy moniker American media has developed in its attempt to make sense of 2011's global unrest – “The Arab Spring” – is counterrevolutionary, perhaps deliberately so.

America loves a good historical precedent when naming something, and America insists on naming everything. Only when an event's magnitude is incomprehensible and distilling it to a catchphrase impossible, is a name devised that requires no antecedent – the most important such example, the demolition of towers by commercial airliners, referred to only by the date on which the event occurred. For everything else, we've got templates. Political scandal? Add “gate” at the end. Music festival? End it in “-stock.” Widespread societal ill? Add “Nation” to a book title. The problem is the historical antecedent chosen is often an attempt to manipulate opinion and manufacture division. “The Arab Spring” is an example; not only is the name wrong, but it's also counterrevolutionary.

Remember how the term arose: 2011 was young and fresh when Mohamed Bouazizi died. The 26-year-old Tunisian street vendor had set himself on fire 18 days earlier, “after the authorities confiscated his fruit, beat him and refused to return his property.” The ensuing revolution that deposed Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who had been in power since Bouazizi was three, was widely called the “Jasmine Revolution.” Naming precedents included Yugoslavia's Bulldozer Revolution, Ukraine's Orange Revolution, Kyrgyzstan's Tulip Revolution, Lebanon's Cedar Revolution …

But 11 days after Ben Ali's ouster, Tahrir Square in Cairo was filled with people demanding the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled Egypt six years longer than Ben Ali had Tunisia. The naming had to expand from reference to jasmine (the national flower of Tunisia) to accommodating the broader region, where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned a “perfect storm” was brewing. The American media developed a moniker: “The Arab Spring.” Ostensibly, this was an uncontroversial descriptor: Arabs, of the famous “Arab world” were taking to the famous “Arab Street” to rise up against the famous “Arab dictators.” I first came across the phrase “Arab Spring” on 26 January, the day after heavy protests began in Egypt, in an article by Dominique Moisi; by March, no less prestigious a writer than Rashid Khalidi used the term.

The expansion of turbulence from Tunisia to the rest of the region was early enough that people were prepared to alter the branding appropriately. But even during the uprising's spread to a global stage, the media clung to their “Arab Spring” frame. January's university uprising in Puerto Rico and February's capitol occupation in Wisconsin made it clear 2011 was a year for protest all over the world, not just in the places where Arabs constitute majorities. So international is the spirit of rebellion that it calls to mind Christopher Hitchens' description of 1968, the year of the “Prague Spring” as the referent for Arab Spring:

Almost every morning, my little transistor radio would wake me with seismic tidings: the black ghettos of America aflame; the mighty American army baffled in the Mekong Delta; the Portuguese empire shrinking under the pressure of guerrillas in Mozambique and Angola; the streets of Madrid and Barcelona filled again with anti-Franco protests; the students of Mexico City cut down outside the Olympic stadium. There were just not enough hours in the day.

Recently, as “the streets of Madrid and Barcelona filled again,” the press' stubbornness on the naming point resulted in stupid headlines like The Atlantic Wire's “Has the Arab Spring Come to Spain?” and Asia Times' “The Arab spring conquers Iberia.” Who, in 1968, could have published the headline, “The Prague Spring Reaches Tokyo,” and not been looked at askance by observers of world affairs? Obviously “The Arab Spring” doesn't cover the scope of what it sets out to describe any more than “Prague Spring” covers the global protest movements in 1968. A broader signifier is in order.

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But what? Reviewing the factors at play in 1968 gives a perspective on what is afoot now – and a worthwhile jumping-off point for devising a more accurate name. Then, as now, resistance was the worldwide response to global conditions, expressed according to local challenges. What the Vietnamese did in their militant struggle for national self-determination differed from what the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were up to in Selma and Montgomery; and anti-Soviet Polish university students had different concerns than Zimbabwean anti-colonialists. But different as the individual movements seemed, they linked to and fed one another – a global revolutionary symbiosis which, because one of its most thrilling episodes involved French students and trade unionists taking over Paris, acquired the name les soixante-huitards, or the sixty-eighters.

Contributing factors in all these cases included a young generation much larger than its predecessor and more closely linked on a global scale by a newly ubiquitous piece of technology, the television. The 2011 protest movements echo these conditions. The younger generation is much larger than the previous – especially true in the Middle East, outlined by a report published by The Brookings Institution called “The Youth Favor: The New Demographics of the Middle East and the Implications for U.S. Policy.” Youth in 2011 are similarly connected as never before by a revolutionary piece of technology: the Internet.

The rebelliousness of the 1968s, whether Angolan or Mexican iteration or any in between, represented a rejection of dominant modes of thought – the Czech revolutionaries, for example, declining both Soviet-style Communist authoritarianism and American-style capitalistic exploitation in favor of what Alexander Dupcek called “socialism with a human face.” The 2011 revolutionaries similarly object to prevailing power vectors, proposing not that one party or another gain power, but the abolition of conventional notions of power and their replacement with new ones.

Pepe Escobar makes this point well:

The outraged [Spain's los indignados] respond they are not anti-system; “it's the system that it's against us.” Their original manifesto condemned the Spanish political class as a whole, but corporate media, as allies to financial capital; those that have caused and are benefiting from the economic crisis.

Egypt's revolutionary youth reject not just Mubarak-style obeisance to American hegemonic power, but also Saudi- or Iranian-style reactionary theocracy (in the figure of The Muslim Brotherhood). The Middle East's younger generation understands that neither of these approaches is sufficient to provide the social uplift for which it thirsts.

What linked the sixty-eighters, the critical factor that turned what might otherwise have been disparate local movements into a global revolutionary force, was solidarity. Solidarity has acquired near cliché status, but it remains an inestimably important ingredient in the struggle for freedom, justice and equality. As Chris Hayes explains in “In Search of Solidarity“:

In its mundane sense, solidarity means a robust feeling of togetherness, a “one-for-all, all-for-one-ness” that holds fast a group of people in a common activity. It is best summed up in Benjamin Franklin's exhortation to his co-conspirators that they must all hang together or surely they would hang separately. This kind of solidarity is morally neutral. Union members refusing to cross a picket line exemplify solidarity, but so do white homeowners in a Chicago neighborhood signing restrictive covenants to keep black families out.

Sublime solidarity, on the other hand, embodies a powerful moral aspiration to realize the fundamental fellowship of humankind. The human subject imbued with full solidarity would treat each person the same way she would treat the interests of her closest kin. My father, a community organizer and one-time Jesuit seminarian, explains why solidarity is his favorite word by sketching a continuum that ranges from pearl-clutching pity through sympathy and empathy to arrive finally at solidarity, wherein you are propelled to do something for your fellow human beings, to act as if their interests were your own.

Sublime solidarity bound the sixty-eighters to one another. In its most moving example, Vietnamese activists, under heavy US bombing, held a rally “in defense of the American Negroes' struggle against discrimination and police brutality in Watts, Los Angeles.” Clearly, les soixante-huitards were les soixante-huitards, whether casting off colonial regimes or agitating for racial equality or objecting to neo-imperial expansionism or breaking open closed societies.

It is time to expand the “Arab Spring” to “the eleveners” (les onzards, to Francophiles) and to affirm les onzards are les onzards, whether raging against austerity budgets that impoverish the vulnerable or undoing brutal autocracies or fighting for national liberation from occupation. Revolutionaries of 2011, like their 1968 precursors, profess solidarity with one another. For example, Egyptian labor leader Kamal Abbas, released a statement in support of Wisconsin protesters. This solidarity is the crucial component that can make 2011 a revolutionary year, and the term “Arab Spring” undermines solidarity, depicting today's rebellion as a specifically Arab phenomenon.

To be clear: the Arab world does confront specific problems – including theocracy and autocracy – that are different from problems elsewhere. However, only a bankrupt understanding of the dynamics at play from Benghazi to Sana'a would lead an observer to conclude these are the only factors sparking the uprisings. While theocracy and autocracy compound the fallout from the global economic crisis and structural economic inequity, the latter is a more immediate source of the unrest. As Basel Saleh wrote of Tunisia during the initial unrest there, “Twenty-four years of ruthless corruptions, dictatorship and neoliberal economic policies led to wealth being concentrated in the hands of very few people connected to President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his wife's family.” He also noted:

The miserable economic conditions in the interior of the country, lack of employment opportunities and political freedoms pushed [self-immolating street vendor Mohammad] Bouazizi, like thousands of other young men and women in the Maghreb countries, to the margins of society. Tunisia's national unemployment rate, which understates the true unemployment situation, stands at 14%. However, the youth unemployment rate (those between 15-24 year-old) is at 31%. The income share of the top 10% is approximately 32% and the top 20% of the population controls 47% of Tunisia's income. Tunisia's inequality is so severe that the bottom 60% of the population earns only 30% (the top 40% take home 70% of the income). Still, the IMF describes the government management of the economy and the uneven economic growth which benefited mainly northern and coastal cities while marginalizing the interior of the country as a “prudent macroeconomic management.”

Similar statistics permeate the entire Arab world, as the UN's “Third Arab Report on the Millennium Development Goals 2010 and the Impact of the Global Economic Crises” makes clear. “The financial, economic and social costs of the [Food, Fuel and Financial] crises in the Arab region [Least Developed Countries],” concludes the report, “should not be underestimated.”

There is a name for the plague expressed in the forms of unemployment, social stagnancy, rampant inequality, corruption and cronyism: plutocracy. And the West, too, is racked by that plague. Objections to these conditions have wrought the second-largest protest in the history of London on 26 March; a shutdown of the city of Athens; the rise of “los indignados” in Spain; and thousands of anti-globalization activists rallying in La Havre, France. Apparently, some of the same sparks that ignited Tunis and Cairo are heating up Madrid and Athens.

And that just won't do! The American power structure is afraid that, once Americans realize general strikes and constant protests are not an “Arab” phenomenon only (indeed, that such protests are ongoing in first-world democratic countries populated by educated white people and robust middle classes), they might conclude it is time to join, to counter plutocracy with solidarity.

The conditions in the United States are ripe for unrest. As Dave Lindorff writes:

Unemployment in Egypt among young men and women is about 30%. In Tunisia, it is over 40%. The White House claims that with figures like that, the future for democracy in those countries is tenuous.

But wait a minute. What about the US? Unemployment and underemployment here is still up around 20% overall and it is much higher among young people. Black youth unemployment fell so far in 2011 to an official rate of 44% from 50% last year (because so many young workers just gave up trying to find work)! Among Latino youth, the official unemployment rate is stuck at around 30%. Overall, youth unemployment, according to the official Labor Department figures, is 20%, but remember, the official rate does not count those who are working part time who want full-time work and does not count those who have given up looking for work.

Sarah Jaffe sees these statistics as constituting writing on America's walls. She writes, “One thing is sure: a rising tide of unemployed, debt-ridden youth is not simply going to go away without action. If the federal and state governments don't do something soon, the 'graduates with no future' may well bring the unrest here.”

There are stirrings of protest in the United States, including the actions of US Uncut (with which, full disclosure, the author is active) and The Yes Men. But many
forces are interested in containing the influence of these groups. Hence, the proliferation of the “Arab Spring” frame, serving to bolster plutocracy by demolishing solidarity, to alienate Americans from the uprisings, to make the uprisings Other, exotic.

Of course, there is nothing as Other, as exotic, in the dominant American psyche than Arabs. And that is no accident: it is the result of a lengthy and effective operation to foster suspicion and hatred. As Max Blumenthal said on Press TV (the state television channel of Iran, a nation that itself has little love for Arabs):

The campaign [to gin up anti-Arab bigotry] can go back all the way to the 1930s, the '40s. The American public was bombarded with anti-Arab Orientalist images in their popular culture through cartoons by Leon Schlesinger, the animator from Warner Brothers, that portrayed Ali Baba, this Arab savage, or the Leon Uris novels, which were transformed into Hollywood productions like Exodus, which is this famous Otto Preminger film starring Paul Newman about the foundation of Israel. The reason the film was made was because the American Jewish public was insufficiently sympathetic to or interested in Zionism and the establishment of the state of Israel. They just weren't very enthusiastic, so they made this film that had scenes of Jewish terrorists from the Irgun portrayed as heroes, saying, 'Duck, there are Arabs out there' and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem collaborating with Nazis to portray the Palestinians as Nazis. So there was already a pre-existing context where Americans were cultivated to hate and demonize Arabs and after 9/11, it turned into a full-on political campaign.

Issandr El Amrani detected the palimpsest of this portrayal in Western coverage of events unfolding in the Middle East. If Americans successfully foster the attitude that 2011's unrest is Arab – suicide-bombing, five-times-a-day-praying, turban-wearing, oil-hoarding, camel-riding Arab – rather than global, it diminishes the likelihood of large-scale American solidarity with Middle Eastern revolutionaries and, therefore, the likelihood of Americans taking up their own “Spring” against sweltering American plutocracy.

As 2011 turns to summer, the onus is on American activists to make the case that, as with its Saudi and Israeli partners, the American power structure is working against the world revolutionary tide and it is up to discontented Americans to undertake solidarity with their revolutionary brothers and sisters worldwide, as American youth did in 1968. This will involve declaring dissatisfaction with the system, not just with the Democratic and Republican Parties, and demanding its replacement. A new society will only be acceptable if founded on opposition to the abuse and exploitation perpetrated by the upper-echelons of American political, financial and military power, which have led to such misery in this country.

The poet Martín Espada ends his “Imagine the Angels of Bread” thus:

If the abolition of slave-manacles began as a vision of hands without manacles, then this is the year;
if the shutdown of extermination camps began as imagination of a land without barbed wire or the crematorium, then this is the year; if every rebellion begins with the idea that conquerors on horseback are not many-legged gods, that they too drown if plunged in the river, then this is the year.

So may every humiliated mouth, teeth like desecrated headstones, fill with the angels of bread.

The year 2011 can still go to the plutocrats. If it doesn't, it will have been partly because Americans chose to see the globe with new eyes: an entire world – not just an Arab one – engaged in individual revolutionary acts – connected by the thread of solidarity.

Vive les onzards.