The ongoing upheavals in north African and middle eastern countries, which began December 2010 and continue to this day have generated a massive media coverage within the Arab world and beyond. Journalists, academics, and policymakers were and still are stunned at the rapid developments that spread across the region, demanding social and political change. Movements that until recently seemed improbable given the cultural and sociological complexities of the region. This paper will examine first, the development and the metaphor of the term “Arab Spring” as it has become the dominate descriptor of the events in the western media, as well as examining the favored terminologies used in the Arab press. Second, show how the term “spring” spread to other regions experiencing civil unrest. Thirdly, outline the objections to the use of the term “spring” due to the fear of “Islamists” gaining power through an electoral process. Fourth, dissect the role that social media plays in organizing and empowering large-scale demonstrations throughout the region.
Metaphor and Developments
According to an article written by Ben Zimmer, a language columnist for Wall Street journal and former language columnist for the Boston Globe and the New York Times Magazine. The usage of the term “Spring” goes back to early 1800’s. He wrote ‘ the European revolutions of 1848, which historians dubbed springtime of the people’s or spring of nations. Those terms are translated from German “Völkerfrühling” and French “Printemps des peuples”. He added that Germans “latched onto the political metaphor of springtime first”. Ludwig Borne, a political philosopher used the term Völkerfrühling in an article in the paper “Die Wage” in 1818, and that Borne’s expression received the English translation “the people’s springtime” around 1832. Therefore, when revolutions swept Germany and other European countries, the nomenclature Völkerfrühling comes into existence. Zimmer explains the reasoning behind it: “These springtime labels all owe their rhetorical power to a master metaphor that transfers the qualities of seasonal change to political change. The idea of political seasons is an ancient one: Think of Shakespeare’s famous opening line in Richard III, “Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by this sun of York””.
Several academics, unbeknownst to one another for all I know, made parallels between the European 1800’s springtime and the Arab spring. Jonathan Steinberg, a professor of modern European history at the university of Pennsylvania argue the similarities between the two. In an article for Foreign Affair magazine, Steinberg stated that the Chancellor of the Austrian empire had to flee from Vienna as an angry mob marched in. The scene was no different than that of the Tunisian president fleeing from Tunis to Riyadh following the 18 days of the Tunisian revolution protest. However, it is widely believed that the first specific use of the term “Arab Spring” is attributed to the political scientist Marc Lynch, in a 6 January 2011 article for Foreign Policy Magazine. Marc Lynch wrote, “If these protests continue to spread, both inside of countries and across to other Arab countries, then we really could talk about this being Obama’s ‘Arab Spring,’ only with the extra intensity associated with climate change.”. As a result, the “Arab spring” moniker become the most favored phrase among Western news media and policy makers. In February 2011, US Secretary of state Hillary Clinton while speaking at the Human Right Council in Geneva stated: “Young people in the Middle East have inspired millions around the world, and we celebrate what some are rightly called the Arab Spring. This is a hopeful season for all humanity because the cause of human rights and human dignity belongs to us all.”
Although the term “Arab Spring” spark positive appeal and acceptance within the international arena, and was implicitly approved by the US government. Joseph Massad, a professor of Modern Arab politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University stated that the use of the term “Arab Spring” by western governments and media, “was not simply an arbitrary or even seasonal choice of nomenclature, but rather a US strategy of controlling their aims and goals”. He furtherly added: “The uprisings in the Arab world have been protesting the effects of neoliberalism which increased impoverishment of the poor and middle classes, and the disappearance of the social net that protected some of them in previous decades, censorship, and control of the media, the unpopular alliances with Israel by the regimes as well as US sponsorship and training of these repressive Arab dictatorships in most Arab countries, and lack of official solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, and the continued lack of accountability and representativity”. He also explained further that the Arab uprising sought to end specific nationalism that the rulers and dictators of the Arab world promoted, which separated Arabs from one another in their struggle for democracy and unity.
As noted by Professor Ibrahim N. Abusharif at the Northwestern University of Qatar, nomenclature promulgated by western media often mirror the indigenous terminologies. He explains that the word “Intifada” made its way into English lexical sources, “A term transliterated from the Arabic word for “Uprising” and widely used by the Western media reporting on the Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation”. There are reasons for this, the term “Intifada” lacks the appeal and the agreeable reverberations of “Spring”. Although “Intifada” was used early on in the Arabic speaking news outlets in the Arab world along with several other monikers such as “Arab Awakenings,” “Arab Revolutions”, or “Arab Uprising”. One might wonder why none of these terms were widely used in the Western media. Rami Khouri, a well-known Arab journalist, expressed his dislikes to the term “Arab Spring”. In an article in the Lebanese newspaper Daily Star entitled “Drop the Orientalist term ‘Arab Spring’”. Khouri calls on the Arab press to “Banish” the phrase “Arab Spring”. “This term is not used at all by those brave men and women who have been on the streets demonstrating and dying for seven months now. Every time, I run into a Tunisian, Egyptian, Libyan, Syrian, Bahraini or Yemeni, I ask them how they refer to their own political actions. Their answer is an almost universal, “Revolution” (or Thawra, in Arabic). And, when they refer to the collective activities of Arabs across the region, they often use the plural form as such is, “Revolutions (Thawrat).”
The naming convention chosen for such a significant event, such as the uprising which we are seeing throughout the Arab world and beyond can carry with it the influence of helping shape the public opinion, and consequently the direction of such event. For the current unrest, the authority of framing has very much spoken. “Spring” remained the most used metaphor, just in English, the translation of the word “Spring” in Arabic is “Rabii”, it carry the same notions of “rebirth,” “renewal,” and “ New beginning,” as its English counterpart, which remains a hope for bringing a much-needed democracy into the Arab world.
The positive echo embedded within the “Spring” descriptor had made it the choice of many movements around the world. Its political implications made impressions well beyond the Arab world. Had the name of the Arab unrest been “uprising,” “revolution,” or “Intifada”, it would be safe to assume that it wouldn’t have been adopted by other regions experiencing civil unrest. December 2010, Mohammed Bouazizi, a vendor of vegetables and fruits in Tunisia who set himself on fire after his cart was confiscated by a policewoman and officials at the provincial headquarters police department who refused to take his complaint seriously. Although Bouazizi’s act was not premediated, it was the catalyst that engulfed all of Tunisia, the rest of the Arab world, and incited both the social and the political change which we are currently seeing throughout the world. Even though the official Israeli response to the Arab spring movements was frosty and cautious at best, because of the Israeli’s concerns regarding the peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, and the shape of the new Arab governance, especially toward the new democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi. However, this frosty response did not stop the “Spring” fever from creeping into the Israeli’s civil society that has been protesting the high cost of housing on and off beginning the summer of 2011. The protests in Israel were often linked to the “Arab spring”. An article in the Huffington Post by Joel Rubin, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and currently Adjunct Faculty at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz School of Public Policy and Management in Washington DC entitled the “Israel’s Arab Spring?” wrote “Like the uprisings taking place across the Arab world, Israelis are protesting their country’s internal conditions, not external threats. And just as is the case for each Arab country, Israel-watchers are now wondering if Israel’s government will fall”. Beside the streets protests, a 57 year-old Israeli protester, Moshe Silman, set himself on fire during a July 15, 2012 rally in Tel Aviv, the New York Times and many other news organizations could not resist, but pointing out the similarity to the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, the vegetables’ and fruits’ vendor who was the catalyst behind the Arab spring uprisings that changed the geopolitics of the entire north African and middle eastern countries.