Since the Tunisian uprising in late 2010, various countries in the Middle East & North Africa have experienced uprisings by the people against entrenched dictatorships. This series of uprisings has been labelled the “Arab Spring,” which now appears to be a widely-accepted term. It is even being used at conferences and in academic settings, despite the problematic nature of the term.
There are 2 reasons why I don’t use the label. First, the word “Arab” by definition excludes many groups and countries in the Middle East and North Africa. It was arguably Iran, in 2009, that set the precedent and built the momentum for the uprisings that were to happen in Tunisia and Egypt; and yet by using “Arab Spring” we are automatically excluding Iran from consideration. Another group that is excluded are the Kurds, who do not necessarily identify as Arab, yet have been struggling for a very long time to achieve political, social and economic rights in various different countries. Are their struggles not part of the uprisings happening in the ME and NA?
The second reason I am against the term is because of its origin. It was basically coined by mainstream American media, and seemed to imply that the Arab world was finally waking up from apathy and laziness, to a “new Spring.” This discourse basically sees people in the Middle East as apathetic to democracy, human rights, change, etc, and reminds me of the infamous “Arab exception” – the widespread belief in academia that Middle Eastern countries possess structural barriers that prevent them from being democratic (and by structural it is implied cultural and religious, of course). Soon after the Islamists began winning seats in elections in both Tunisia and Egypt, the mainstream western media coined another term: “Islamic winter.”
I was browsing Twitter one day a few months ago when I saw an interesting suggestion from a Palestinian activist (don’t remember who exactly now): why don’t we refer to the struggles across the Middle East as intifadas? There is no doubt that the Palestinian intifadas were important in inspiring many young Middle Eastern people to challenge their own corrupt regimes. Moreover, the word intifada simply means “uprising” – which is exactly what these struggles are. By using the label intifada, we can be inclusive to different groups in the Middle East, and at the same time stop using terms such as Arab Spring, with all their Orientalist baggage.
I recently attended a conference in Cairo entitled “Narratives of the Arab Spring.” A very prominent Iraqi women’s studies scholar, Nadje el-Ali, raised the problematic nature of the term “Arab Spring.” She mentioned the origins of the term as well as that many Kurds she spoke to felt left out because of the word “Arab.” Her point really made me reflect on the importance of labeling and the inclusionary/exclusionary nature of language. When we say Arab instead of Middle East, so many groups in the ME are left out; and the same happens when we say “Islamic world” instead of Middle East.
Since hearing Nadje’s point, I have consistently referred to the struggles happening in the ME and NA as uprisings or intifadas. I have also tried to see the struggles from a comparative perspective in order to offer more solidarity to groups in the ME that have been long marginalized by major Arab countries such as Egypt. Little attention is given to Iran or to the Kurds, for example, and this is very problematic. Another important groups is the Copts in Egypt, who are facing more & more insecurity as certain strands of Islamism gain ground. One cannot call for freedom, equality, and dignity for some groups and not others. Indeed the only way to fight a system that is so strong is through solidarity, and the only way to do this is to see our struggles as linked and to support one another.