A Throwaway Theory on Why the Arab Spring is Fine for Arabs, but not for Americans

Posted on September 19, 2011


Here’s a throwaway theory. You can assault it in any way, and that I’ll walk away from without s much as a sigh if its proven wrong.

The most successful Arab spring “revolutions” of Tunisia and Egypt were dependent on Western public opinion, not the opinion of their respective countries. This isn’t to take away the enormous efforts of people in those countries, but if Wikileaks did have anything at all to do with the Arab Spring, it was bringing to light the corruption and brutality of those governments and how dependent they were on US diplomatic cover and aid–not to Arab audiences, which knew those facts quite well, but to Western audiences. Had Americans not been riveted to their cable tv sets and youtubes, its possible that Barack Obama may have had more lattitude in dealing with the Mubarak government. And ultimately, this was Obama’s decision, not that of SCAF or the Mubarak regime.

This was an image event for the benefit of the real power holders in the Arab world, the US and allied western governments. The images in that event grabbed the attention of liberal middle class Westerners, the foundation of the public sphere, because they recognized Arab versions of themselves. We’ll be debating the true constituency of the public squares for years to come, no doubt. But no one need be reminded about how many times we were told that the protests were being magically created through Facebook, Twitter and etcetera accounts, in countries where more than two thirds of the population has no access to such technologies. Nor, how often we have heard about the YOUNG people in the square, and their COLLEGE degrees. Indeed, the symbolic instigator of the Tunisian revolt–Mohammad Bouazzizi–was incorrectly described as a college student unable to find work, an apparent inaccuracy that has since become an indelible part of the Western narrative of the Arab spring. Thus, the minds that produce the opinions that matter saw junior versions of themselves, just like paste-book cutouts. There support was a form of self-flattery and affirmation of their control over the opinion making process, using it to create societies and governments that they imagined were closer to their own.

Contrast that to the Arab Spring type movement currently being ignored by the liberal mainstream, Occupy Wall Street. On the surface, it has many of the same features that the Egyptian and Tunisian movements had, but in this case, rather than a junior reflection for the West to narrate, we have a competing narrator seeking to rest away the mike. These aren’t the foundations of the liberal public sphere–these are their evil twins. Unemployed, too young, too loud and with agency–like little brothers and sisters that were left in charge by the parents when they went away. Ironically, movements within the public reference group that holds so much power to sway governments in the developing world, find themselves frustrated by a kind of rivalry for who will control the opinion-making process and with a “wouldn’t join any club that would have me for a member” recoil.

Just a theory.

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