The turmoil that continues to shake the Arab world has been referred to variously as revolutions, protest movements, pro-democracy movements, Arab uprising, rebellions, the January 25 movement (the Egyptian revolution), mass demonstrations for change, the Arab revolt, to cite but a few.
But none of the descriptions given to the events in the Arab world adequately and collectively captures the diversity of the events. And that despite the undeniable fact that they were all fuelled by common grievances: frustrations at the absence of democracy, denial of fundamental rights and liberties, deteriorating standards of living and anger at corruption and growing social injustice.
Take the term revolution in the sense of often violently demolishing an entrenched regime, uprooting its governing structures and destroying its symbols. While this may describe the events in Egypt (minus the violence on the part of the revolutionaries), it does not apply to Libya for instance where civil war is a more adequate description. While the term pro-democracy movement may properly describe the events in Tunisia, it is not helpful in furthering our understanding of the events in Syria or Bahrain where the term rebellion would be more appropriate.
My favourite description of these upheavals is the Arab Spring. There is something discreetly elegant about this term. Perhaps because it keeps a distance from the events, and is thus able to observe them as a set of interrelated events that can collectively and adequately be subsumed under a general heading.
Arab Spring may be elegantly discreet as a term but it is pregnant with meaningful connotations. First, spring suggests youth, and in this sense the usage of the term Arab Spring may be viewed as paying tribute to Arab youths who fuelled the pro-democracy movement. Spring also suggests optimism and hope; and in this sense the usage of the term Arab Spring may be expressive of the hopeful expectations for the success of the movement to end authoritarian regimes and usher in democracy and respect for human rights.
US President Barack Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed support for these two elements of the Arab Spring: Youth, and hopeful expectations as the driving force for the transition to democratic governance.
The principal historical precedents for the use of the word spring in political speak place a sobering footnote to what otherwise looks like an optimistic but entirely plausible interpretation. The term spring was used in 1968 to refer to the reform movement in Czechoslovakia, which attempted to use political reform to loosen the grip of Soviet communism. Moscow responded to the attempt at liberalisation in Czechoslovakia by sending its tanks to Prague. That was the end of reform; and the end of the Prague Spring.
Interestingly the term spring, from the Prague Spring experience, was not used by the West to describe and encourage the pro-democracy movement that swept across eastern Europe following the Gorbachev revolution, in the 1980s. The democratic revolutions in eastern Europe were described by media and scholars in the West by reference to a specificity of theirs. Thus in Czechoslovakia, it was the velvet revolution, emphasising its very peaceful character and the involvement of many intellectuals in it, one of them — Vaclav Havel — became the first president of the democratic Czechoslovakia. In Ukraine, it was called the orange revolution referring to the sea of orange flags carried by the demonstrators to the parliament building.
More recently the term spring was used to describe the mass protests by Lebanese demanding the departure of Syrian troops. Syria complied and for awhile it seemed that the Lebanese Spring actually referred to the success of a popular movement that peacefully achieved its democratic demands. But Damascus managed to base its influence in Lebanon no longer on occupying troops, but on the loyalty of political allies in Lebanon.
Diversity of events
If the two precedents for the use of the term spring (Czechoslovakia and Lebanon) suggest that the term — as a description — refers to a popular movement making democratic demands, the struggle to achieve them is aborted by representatives of the established power.
If this were the case, how does the term Arab Spring apply to the diversity of events in the Arab world? The success of the pro-democracy movements in Tunisia and Egypt would disqualify these two countries from being part of the Arab Spring, unless one referred to the very beginning of the revolutions in these two countries. In Syria and Yemen, assuming that democratic reforms were foremost among the demands, it would seem that the Arab Spring there is still under way. In Libya, only civil war seems to be raging, much to the consternation of the western powers whose military intervention on the side of the rebels should have, but has not, settled the issue once and for all. Arab Spring in Libya? Definitely not.
The use of the term spring is also designed to send a political message about the values of the West, with which it is infused. But as often happens in international relations, its use is not governed by uniform and consistent standards. For instance, the popular movement that toppled the Shah of Iran in 1979 did not receive the blessings of Washington, and therefore no one in the Carter or Reagan administrations, nor in the influential media, was in the mood to refer to the spring of Tehran. Similarly Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos was driven out of the Philippines by a popular movement demanding democratic reforms. But Marcos, like the Shah before him, was a friend of Washington. Therefore there was no Manila Spring.
Finally, there is the special case of the Moroccan King Mohammad VI who distinguished himself from the rest of the Arab leaders with two actions unprecedented in the modern history of Arab dictatorship. First, he established some six years ago a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to look into the gross and sustained human rights violations during the oppressive reign of his father King Hassan II.
Secondly, last June, King Mohammad VI, introduced important constitutional changes that divested power from the king and vested it in the prime minister — an elected parliamentarian from the party with a majority in parliament. If these and other changes were implemented without delay or equivocation, King Mohammad would have single-handedly transformed his monarchy from an absolute one to a constitutional one. And in the process, Morocco may just give the term Arab Spring a new meaning.
Adel Safty is Distinguished Professor Adjunct at the Siberian Academy of Public Administration, Russia. His new book, Might Over Right, is endorsed by Noam Chomsky, and published in England by Garnet, 2009.