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You Have One Revolution Awaiting Confirmation

February 11, 2011

Samuel Huntington famously observed that democratic transitions come in waves. The recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt seem to be proving his point. Although the situations in Tunisia and Egypt are different, the rhetoric that surrounds them consistently minimizes their differences, blurring each of these uprisings into one “wave” sweeping across Arab nations.

In other words, even though they’re talking about different populations in different countries, political commentators consistently make the political unrest in Egypt and Tunisia seem analogous, like different manifestations of one democratic “tsunami” sweeping across the national borders the Arab world. People are using these events to call for Arab unity and an Arab moment against dictatorship.

But calling this an Arab phenomenon also channels that metaphorical tsunami into a fairly narrow space. There’s no worldwide push to challenge dictatorships.  Even sub-Saharan authoritarian regimes that share a continent with Tunisia and Egypt go unmentioned.  Here are a few examples:

  • Burhan Ghalioun of the Sorbonne is quoted in the New York Times as saying that with Ben Ali’s ousting, Tunisians have “opened the road to freedom in an Arab world devastated by years of waiting on the curb.”  Here, after only one country had ousted a leader, borders were being cut down across North Africa and the Middle East, while simultaneously being erected around the region. This was an affair of the Arab world, an Arab awakening.
  • Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian writer, picks up on the Arab solidarity movement, recalling an activist in Syria telling her “I am in Damascus, but my heart is in Cairo.”  Eltahawy’s entire piece invokes Arab nationalism in order to push the democratic flood across the Sinai Peninsula and into the rest of the Middle East. She writes of Tunisia as a catalyst for igniting the “Arab imagination” to “set on fire the Arab world’s body politic.” Quite the macabre statement, seeing as a young, unemployed Tunisian who self-immolated in protest has become the symbol of the revolts!
  • Oraib Rantawi, a political analyst and government opponent in Jordan, believes, “Jordan is Egypt is Tunisia.”  Rantawi also abolishes borders, wishing to see one people, one movement marching against oppression in solidarity across the Middle East. Jordan is Egypt is Tunisia, or these North African states are the same as the Middle Eastern states.
  • Fahed Fanek, a columnist in Jordan’s Al Rai, also stresses the regional face of political change, witnessing “The winds of democracy and freedom… blowing across the Arab world.” Replace tsunamis with winds and, well, it’s the same argument from a political weatherman.

It would appear, then, that the idea of Arab nationalism, that all people across North Africa and through the Middle East are one, is being employed as a rhetorical tool to import the revolution. Framing these uprisings as an Arab affair seems to have resonance and pushes the political protest through in other Middle Eastern and North African states. Framing is, of course, not the only tool responsible for the uprising in the tumultuous politics today, but the solidarity factor has certainly been trumpeted as a rallying cry across the region.

Though the spotlight remains on Egypt, analysts are searching for the next Tunisia. Which Middle Eastern country will topple its king or president-for-life next? The success that other opposition politicians have in bringing the uprising to their countries may depend partially on their ability to use the rhetoric of Arab solidarity (rather than any specific nationalism) to rally their troops. But another result of Arab-focused language means this pro-democracy wave is a regional movement against authoritarianism, not a worldwide event.

Some have dubbed this the Facebook revolution. What we should remember, however, is a tool like Facebook facilitates communication, but the message being spread must be powerful. The content, and not the delivery mechanism, is crucial for success. This applies equally to revolutions, this blog, or even revolutions started by this blog. Over the coming months, we will see how much purchase other Middle Eastern states can muster through calls for Arab opposition to authoritarianism. As for a global democratic tidal wave, non-Arab states may find themselves left high and dry.

If you want to know more:

  • The opening observation comes from Samuel Huntington’s  The Third Wave:  Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (1991).  His proponents, as well as democratic enthusiasts, can point to the domestic uprisings in Yemen, Algeria, and Jordan as further examples of the wave emanating from Tunisia.  However those three countries also share an Arab identity.
  • For more on framing, George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant is a brief, popular introduction.  Or read more on The Silver Tongue here.

Benedict Teagarden holds a master’s degree in Violence, Conflict and Development from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He currently works in Kigali, Rwanda.  He thanks the editors of The Silver Tongue, especially Doug Cloud, for their helpful comments on this post.

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