COMMENTARY: Spring Once Again

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews/29 July) — Of all the names being given to the current unrest in the Middle East, one of the most interesting is the “Arab Spring.”  It is a phrase that evokes optimism and youth—quite fitting, given the importance of young citizens in the uprisings.  However, to the reader familiar with the history of the former Eastern Bloc, the phrase evokes a host of complex associations.

The “Arab Spring” was actually named after an event known as the Prague Spring, a short era in which the people of Czechoslovakia were given some encouraging liberal reforms.  Unfortunately, this angered the Soviet Union, which led an invasion force into the country in order to force the Czech government to roll back its reforms.  This attack triggered widespread and often dramatic protests, perhaps the most famous being the public self-immolation of Jan Palach and other Czech students in 1969.

The main question here is why the Arab uprisings seem to have inherited the same term.  Are there reasons to draw parallels between present headlines and the events in Czechoslovakia?

In a word, yes.  Both drew heavily on the youth and intelligentsia for support, and strove for civil liberties.  Both involved the public self-immolation of a young man—teenaged student Jan Palach in the 1960’s, and Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi earlier this year.  Palach’s death protested the end of the Prague Spring, while Bouazizi’s touched off the Arab Spring.  In addition, both have, obviously, received a great deal of international attention.

However, there are clear and significant divergences between the two events.  The Prague Spring, technically speaking, was not a revolution.  As was stated earlier, the term actually refers to government-sponsored reforms, which were eventually crushed by a larger power that even left an occupying force to make sure the Prague Spring would not happen again.  The Arab Spring, on the other hand, is much closer to a revolution from below, mounted precisely against a lack of reform from above.  Also, there has been no USSR-like power backed by its allies getting ready to stamp out the uprising.  Quite the opposite: the international powers seem to be voicing support for the revolutions against Middle East dictatorships, to the extent of mounting international intervention in Libya.  In other words, the Arab Spring is by no means the Prague Spring transplanted.

In addition, the question of exactly how “Arab” the Arab Spring is—or should be—is a matter of debate.  Some of the countries involved contain substantial non-Arab minorities. Arab identity, furthermore, is not homogenous or unproblematic, either.  For example, the Coptic Christians of Egypt are mainly Arab speakers, but many members of this minority fear increased discrimination and even persecution in the wake of present unrest.  Libyan efforts are often driven by clan-based strife.

Readers may quite rightly ask why it is important to debate the appropriateness of a name for a historical event.  Why does it matter what we call something?  What difference does a name make?

The answer is that such names are important because the idea of an event cannot be divorced from the decisions people make about it.  For example, the terms “People Power” or “EDSA Revolution” are deeply ingrained in the political memory of many Filipinos, and it is this memory that helped convince some of the participants of the second EDSA Revolution to take to the streets.  Many of the 2001 demonstrators wanted to recapture some of the 1986 magic.  The leaders who emerged from EDSA II were able to capitalize on this in the succeeding years, at least in the short term.

What sorts of issues, then, might come up in adopting the term “Arab Spring” for the current uprising and citizens’ movements in the Middle East?

Like the Prague Spring, is the Arab Spring meant to end in failure and defeat?  Also, who is it meant to benefit?  Only Arabs?  If so, which Arabs?  What about other people in these countries?  What will be the role of minorities and migrants?  This last question is of special interest to Filipinos, given the high proportion of overseas Filipino workers who work in the Middle East, and the small but significant number of young Filipino Muslims who go to that region to study.

These questions are not only relevant to the people who are directly experiencing the uprisings, but also for those outside the Middle East who are deciding how to react.  Should we ask our leaders to support the Arab Spring?  If so, what kind of support should we give?  What do the uprisings mean for those who want to work or do business in the region?  Many of these people will not be basing their choices on first-hand knowledge.  They will instead be reacting to images, articles, and, of course, names and the meanings attached to them.

If the Arab Spring is doomed anyway, there is little point in supporting it.  If it is primarily or exclusively an Arab movement, people from other communities should probably beware. Also, there might be little likelihood of unrest spreading to “non-Arab” parts of the world.  These are just some of the possible conclusions we might draw, for good or ill.

At this point, there are no easy answers to where the Arab Spring is going.  In fact, there are not even any easy, true answers to what the Arab Spring actually is.  As we wait in hope, let us be aware of the power of catchphrases.  Though they might not have the power to encapsulate complex realities, they can certainly influence the way in which we handle them.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Jamina Vesta Jugo is currently taking up an MA in Political Science [Major in Global Politics] at the Ateneo de Manila University.)