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Awakening, Cataclysm, or Just a Series of Events? Reflections on the Current Wave of Protest in the Arab World

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Perhaps the best starting point for understanding the current remarkable wave of protest spreading across the Arab world, would be to examine the nomenclature used to describe or frame it.   To some observers it is seen as a ‘cataclysm.’ Others speak of the ‘contagion effect’. Still others might see it as simply a series of (fortunate or unfortunate) events not significantly related to each other. The terminology we use influences the conclusions we draw. We can see this if we juxtapose this Western branding which invokes undesirable images with the terms used by many commentators in the Arab world such as a ‘blossoming’ or ‘renaissance.’   What are these movements: a ‘disease’ or a ‘cure’? Are they monolithic or locally distinct? Is the outbreak of one protest related to, or caused by another? Finally, are the various Arab countries (and must they be only Arab?[1]) equally ‘susceptible’ to the contagion?

What’s In a Name?

As the aftershocks of regime change in Tunisia and Egypt reverberate throughout the Arab world and beyond, political analysts are struggling to define what is going on. They point to the varying degrees of popular protest in almost every Arab country, including Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Oman, Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Jordan, Sudan, the Palestinian Authority, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.

Surveying the flood of analysis, one notices that commentators from outside the region are frequently writing about what they call ‘the contagion effect;’ others are asking whether we are seeing an ‘epidemic’ of popular protest and revolution. In the more Realpolitik policy circles some speak of “cataclysm” and forecast grim consequences for the regional and global status quo.  With no disrespect intended to the Japanese who are suffering a human catastrophe, I have heard the Arab upheavals described as a ‘tsunami’. But many commentators of liberal disposition in the Arab world and the west use very different nomenclature: they may speak of ‘a new dawn,’ ‘a blossoming’, even a ‘renaissance’ of democracy, freedom, and good governance.

The terminology we use often influences the conclusions we reach. The dictionary defines a ‘contagion’ as ‘the spreading of a harmful idea or practice.’ An ‘epidemic” is “a sudden, widespread occurrence of a particular undesirable phenomenon.” On the other hand, ‘blossoming’ means “to mature or develop in a promising or healthy way” and ‘renaissance’ in its broad sense refers to “a revival or a renewed interest in something”, and their Arabic equivalents—ba’th and nahda—mean “awakening, renewal, reemergence, rebirth.”

This article is now featured in Jadaliyya's edited volume entitled Dawn of the Arab Uprisings: End of An Old Order? (Pluto Press, 2012). The volume documents the first six months of the Arab uprisings, explaining the backgrounds and trajectories of these popular movements. It also archives the range of responses that emanated from activists, scholars, and analysts as they sought to make sense of the rapidly unfolding events. Click here to access the full article by ordering your copy of Dawn of the Arab Uprisings from Amazon, or use the link below to purchase from the publisher.

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4 comments for "Awakening, Cataclysm, or Just a Series of Events? Reflections on the Current Wave of Protest in the Arab World"


I believe it was John McCain who referred to the Arab uprisings as a "virus", perhaps feeling upset his "good friend" Mubarak was infected and ending up going down with it ("regrettably"). His comments simply reflected the unease of the American administration about the potential overturning of the status quo in the region, that they are yet to come to terms with.

Reza wrote on May 18, 2011 at 02:54 PM


zerozero wrote on May 19, 2011 at 01:47 AM

But McCain was one of the first U.S. Senator to exploit his visit to Tahrir Square. Quick turn-around when he saw where the revolutiom was truly headed.

Roxanne wrote on May 20, 2011 at 01:11 PM

Islam, it is said, also counsels obedience even to a bad ruler over the worse alternative of fitna or chaos. This is one of the most dangerous and lethal statements made by unknown followers of Muhammad Rasulullah. It is often referred to the four Imams. But their write ups never said so.

Mustapha wrote on June 21, 2011 at 04:15 PM

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