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Published on May 10th, 2012 | by Usman Butt
Image © [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="567" caption="© European Parliament"][/caption]   “The Arab spring has failed women in their struggle for equality” claimed Amal Al-Malki a Qatari author in an interview with Al Jazeera. Amal went on to claim that the continuing Arab spring only further exposed women’s second class citizenship within society. Amal is not the only one to have judged the Arab spring, a quick search on Amazon reveals a plethora of books on the subject. These include Toby Manhire :‘The Arab spring: rebellion, revolution, and a new world order’, John R. Bradley: ‘After the Arab spring: how Islamists hijacked the Middle East revolts’ and Hamid Dabashi: ‘The Arab spring: The end of post colonialism’. What is intriguing about the above quote and the list of book titles named is that they are all doing the same thing, they are judging an ongoing process. The Arab spring is over a year old and counting; we still don’t know what will happen in Tunisia and Egypt, both countries which have ousted their dictators. The Syrian crisis seems to be getting worse as the threat of sectarian war hangs in the air. The demands of the various protesters differ but the overall trend seems to be towards more representative and accountable governments. What shapes these new governments take is far from certain and even the exact demands of the protestors are also not entirely clear. In places like Egypt and Tunisia there seems to be a form of social, cultural and political dialogue going on. In Syria and Bahrain the regimes remain. Demonstrators in these two countries are still trying to find a way to oust the regimes. In other words, the broad movement called the Arab spring is at various stages and takes on different forms in each country. Despite this some experts, political commentators and pundits have decided on what the Arab spring is and whether or not it has succeeded. The question is why? It seems we live in a world where we can no longer wait for an event to finish before we decide on the meaning and results of the event. It is important to note that as little as two years ago, anyone sitting in a politics of the Middle East class at university or reading a book about Arab politics would come across theories by so-called experts on the Middle East which would talk about ‘Arab exceptionalism’. This is a theory that stated that ‘Arab culture’ and democracy were incompatible and that the ‘Arab people’ simply did not understand democratic secular ideas. This idea of Arab exceptionalism was wide spread amongst political scientists, Middle East experts and pundits. This idea of ‘Arab culture and society’ did not emerge out of neutral observations by these experts of Arab countries. But was the product of earlier western depictions and misrepresentations of Arab societies. In other words, they did not form these ideas about the politics of the Arab world by traveling to the Arab world and observing. What many Middle East experts did was to take already existing ideas and preconceptions about the Arab world, from earlier western scholars and thinkers and re-apply them to the modern setting almost unquestionably. The problem with relying on these early western scholars is that they ‘produced knowledge’ on the Arabs on the back of western colonialism and intervention into the region. Many of these scholars were heavily involved in the colonial project, which means their work is far from neutral and in many cases deliberately misrepresented the nature of the Arab world. Because most political commentators and Middle East experts did this, they failed completely to predict the Arab Spring. It is true that the Arab spring took us all by surprise but it was an even greater shock to those whose job it is to understand and predict the Arab world. Because of this Arab spring theories such has ‘Arab exceptionalism’ have been dismissed by many in the field. However the dismissal of this theory does not mean that the method that led us to this theory has been dismissed. In other words, although one theory has come under scrutiny the source where it came from (The early Western scholars) are still being used only this time to try and predict the outcome of the Arab spring. In a sense this is understandable as the Arab spring is new, dangerous and ventures into the unknown. That is bad news for regional specialists as unpredictable situations mean that they cannot predict what is going to happen, which could put them out of a job. In order to protect their reputations and intellectual integrity they now try to make bold predictions on the outcome of the Arab spring. This is however in vain because as already stated the Arab spring is on-going and is unpredictable. “The East is a Career” as British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once proclaimed but for some I fear this may no longer be the case.

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Why are political commentators so quick to judge the success or failure of the Arab spring?

© European Parliament

 

“The Arab spring has failed women in their struggle for equality” claimed Amal Al-Malki a Qatari author in an interview with Al Jazeera. Amal went on to claim that the continuing Arab spring only further exposed women’s second class citizenship within society. Amal is not the only one to have judged the Arab spring, a quick search on Amazon reveals a plethora of books on the subject. These include Toby Manhire :‘The Arab spring: rebellion, revolution, and a new world order’, John R. Bradley: ‘After the Arab spring: how Islamists hijacked the Middle East revolts’ and Hamid Dabashi: ‘The Arab spring: The end of post colonialism’. What is intriguing about the above quote and the list of book titles named is that they are all doing the same thing, they are judging an ongoing process.

The Arab spring is over a year old and counting; we still don’t know what will happen in Tunisia and Egypt, both countries which have ousted their dictators. The Syrian crisis seems to be getting worse as the threat of sectarian war hangs in the air. The demands of the various protesters differ but the overall trend seems to be towards more representative and accountable governments. What shapes these new governments take is far from certain and even the exact demands of the protestors are also not entirely clear. In places like Egypt and Tunisia there seems to be a form of social, cultural and political dialogue going on. In Syria and Bahrain the regimes remain. Demonstrators in these two countries are still trying to find a way to oust the regimes. In other words, the broad movement called the Arab spring is at various stages and takes on different forms in each country.

Despite this some experts, political commentators and pundits have decided on what the Arab spring is and whether or not it has succeeded. The question is why? It seems we live in a world where we can no longer wait for an event to finish before we decide on the meaning and results of the event. It is important to note that as little as two years ago, anyone sitting in a politics of the Middle East class at university or reading a book about Arab politics would come across theories by so-called experts on the Middle East which would talk about ‘Arab exceptionalism’. This is a theory that stated that ‘Arab culture’ and democracy were incompatible and that the ‘Arab people’ simply did not understand democratic secular ideas.

This idea of Arab exceptionalism was wide spread amongst political scientists, Middle East experts and pundits. This idea of ‘Arab culture and society’ did not emerge out of neutral observations by these experts of Arab countries. But was the product of earlier western depictions and misrepresentations of Arab societies. In other words, they did not form these ideas about the politics of the Arab world by traveling to the Arab world and observing. What many Middle East experts did was to take already existing ideas and preconceptions about the Arab world, from earlier western scholars and thinkers and re-apply them to the modern setting almost unquestionably. The problem with relying on these early western scholars is that they ‘produced knowledge’ on the Arabs on the back of western colonialism and intervention into the region. Many of these scholars were heavily involved in the colonial project, which means their work is far from neutral and in many cases deliberately misrepresented the nature of the Arab world.

Because most political commentators and Middle East experts did this, they failed completely to predict the Arab Spring. It is true that the Arab spring took us all by surprise but it was an even greater shock to those whose job it is to understand and predict the Arab world. Because of this Arab spring theories such has ‘Arab exceptionalism’ have been dismissed by many in the field. However the dismissal of this theory does not mean that the method that led us to this theory has been dismissed. In other words, although one theory has come under scrutiny the source where it came from (The early Western scholars) are still being used only this time to try and predict the outcome of the Arab spring.

In a sense this is understandable as the Arab spring is new, dangerous and ventures into the unknown. That is bad news for regional specialists as unpredictable situations mean that they cannot predict what is going to happen, which could put them out of a job. In order to protect their reputations and intellectual integrity they now try to make bold predictions on the outcome of the Arab spring. This is however in vain because as already stated the Arab spring is on-going and is unpredictable. “The East is a Career” as British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once proclaimed but for some I fear this may no longer be the case.

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About the Author

Usman Butt

Usman graduated in 2012 with an MA in Palestine Studies from the University Of Exeter. Before that he read Arabic Language and International Relations at the University of Westminster. Amongst his proudest achievements include winning a muffin for public speaking, winning a Lego set at age 5 and helping Palestinian refugees learn English. Usually writes about genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, Israel/Palestinian politics, Iranian/Syrian/Lebanese politics, the Arab Spring, philosophy, religion, British politics, Foreign Policy, history and social issues. He enjoys writing as he sees it as an outlet to express his opinions about the public discourse on these issues. He believes writing is a good way of keeping productive and teaching yourself new things.



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