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Three Powerfully Wrong--and Wrongly Powerful--American Narratives about the Arab Spring

[Egyptian carrying sign in Tahrir. Image from Politirature.] [Egyptian carrying sign in Tahrir. Image from Politirature.]

The “Arab Spring” that actually began in the dead of winter has spread from Tunisia to Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria…and the year only half over. As the media, policymakers, and global audiences struggle to make sense of changes that have inspired hundreds of millions to “just say no” to decades of dictatorship, a number of narratives have taken hold in the US—evident in remarks on cable news talk shows, at academic and policy symposia, and on Twitter—about precisely what is happening and what these massive crowds want. While elements of these narratives have some foundation in truth, they also present such a simplified view as to obscure crucial dimensions of the power struggles across the region. Below we unpack three of the most common narratives whose “truth” has become almost conventional wisdom, tossed out at cocktail parties and across coffee shops and metros. We aim to highlight what kinds of politics are made possible (and what kinds of challenges to power are foreclosed) as these narratives become part of the “common sense” that shapes our understanding of these extraordinary events.

Narrative #1: The Obama Administration has been behind the curve.

 “The US government spent months watching from the sidelines until Obama crafted a vision with his May speech.”

Since January, the President and his National Security Council have gone to great pains to reassure all who are listening that US policy is rightly calibrated concerning the changes introduced by the popular uprisings against incumbent autocrats in the Middle East. The Administration, they argue, has advocated a case-by-case set of policies that sees the protests as opportunities to improve relationships in the region.


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.

7 comments for "Three Powerfully Wrong--and Wrongly Powerful--American Narratives about the Arab Spring"

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There are probably a few more narratives; e.g., one i'm following at the moment is it's all CIA Colour-Revolution tactic that was designed from the beginning to destabilize the Arab region. Yet, this dismisses the suprising aspects of the uprise, the continued resistence, the flip-flopping by various govts and most importantly it takes the impetus and responsibility for the movements away from Arab ability and intent effectively reducing the Arab to a poor proxy. This is the tactic of Webster Tarpley. Although he says a lot of things he has strong connections to 'crisis teams'. He's a doppleganger i think!

paul wrote on June 11, 2011 at 04:00 AM
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Thank you for this concise article. It will help me to talk to the people who watch "news" that tells them what to think. I appreciate the help.

Susan Lindson wrote on June 11, 2011 at 09:33 AM
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the western involvement is in libya and syria.

elwood wrote on June 11, 2011 at 01:55 PM
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Great article. I'm particularly interested in the collective identity piece and the articulation of political and economic aspirations on national terms. I wonder how that notion applies to the 'nation' of Palestine.

Bonnie wrote on June 12, 2011 at 09:37 AM
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Thanks for this interesting article. #2 suggests the usefulness of tracking just how economic democracy gets 'decoupled' from political democracy in different places and situations. In the states, for instance, would you say that campaign financing and lobbies backed by media are the main instruments for accomplishing this?

xavier wrote on June 12, 2011 at 08:30 PM
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Interesting article. A few comments from the perspective of someone living in Tunis.

The second narrative "These revolutions are about democracy, not the economy" misses the point about political systems. Speaking only about Tunisia, it's true that much of the debate has been about very technical questions, as opposed to what the ultimate role of the state should be. However, this is for two reasons that are unrelated to the narrative the West likes to portray about the region.

1) There are legitimately democratic interests that think that elections should be held before those questions are decided. The revolutions, as you pointed out, toppled regimes, and arguably called for greater political voices, however, it did not call for a specific system to be in place. Elections offer the population a democratic way to express themselves on this question. It is thus quite natural to have these technical debates before the people have had chance to express themselves.

2) In many ways, these technical debates shelter society from the extreme fissures that have been exposed with the toppling of the regimes. The reality is that Mubarak and Ben Ali maintained regimes that unified their countries, albeit artificially. Without these constraints, these societies are finding that they are not nearly as unified as they thought. And this makes people justifiably nervous. In many respects debating technical issues offers a way for discourse to continue for political interests that otherwise could not engage one another in public discourse.

Erik wrote on June 28, 2011 at 10:30 AM
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Too detailed for my liking, :) All I know is that no matter what your background, your belief or your views about the political and non-political world are, I only know one thing to be centre of everything and that is "Evil will never win no matter how specific, calculated or planned it is". If you don`t believe in that sentence above, well you`ll allways be going round in circles trying to find an explanation to each calculated step the world is put thru, just believe that there are minds in this world, as cleverer as the Devil himself.

Semra wrote on May 12, 2012 at 06:42 PM

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