a proposal to retire the term ‘arab spring’

1. It’s a misnomer that excludes (further).

First word, Arab: there are more ethnicities than Arab in North Africa. Hold up, I’ll say that again. North Africa is not made up of Arabs alone. Tuaregs, various Amazigh communities, Nubian communities and many others, all live in North Africa. Some were there before the Arabs. Saying “Arab Spring” manages to disappear all of these people from the record and perpetuate their marginalisation. In Egypt for example, Nubian communities lost their homelands to the building of the Aswan Dams and creation of Lake Nasser. Their lands, history and homes were buried under water. To this day they are fighting the Egyptian government to return to the areas surrounding the dam, while the government intends to sell off the fertile land to foreign and Egyptian investors (Read more about the Nubian fight here, here and here).
When you say “Arab Spring” you unsee all of these people, like they have been unseen so many times before.

2. It covers up and simplifies what were very specific and different movements.

One easy thing that you might think the revolutions to have been about is “democracy”. Yes, the protests led to the ousting of presidents. But what were the issues? In Tunisia, hunger, joblessness, dignity. A number of young people including Bouazizi who burnt himself, had previously committed suicide in protests beginning in 2010 in Tunisia.

If we start to question where the issues, hunger, joblessness and dignity come from we will not stop only at a lack of “democracy” which often only means a lack of electoralisation. Keeping the focus only on “democracy” enables the gaze to not be on other issues such as imperialism (selectively upholding dictatorships) and capitalism.

3. It makes it seem like the revolution, protests and other actions appeared out of nowhere.

Although Egypt’s Tahrir Square revolution was special in itself, it was preceded by several other actions in previous years that cumulatively enabled Tahrir Square to happen. As already mentioned, protest actions had been taking place in Tunisia for some time as well before Bouazizi’s self-immolation.

4. It is not the people’s name.


In a talk at Wellesley College in 2013, Madeleine Albright commented on how she and someone else (presumably a media person) came up with this name/identifier. “We were sitting there thinking, what are we going to call this thing,” she said. Naming the revolutions in North Africa ‘The Arab Spring’ perpetuates the trend of foreigners naming us and our movements and ignoring our own names.

What did the protesters call themselves, how did they name themselves? In “Something Torn and New” Ngũgĩ  wa Thiong’o talks about the power of naming. It appropriates, it owns, it shows who has power, it marks out their territory, whether physical or discursive, it defines what is to be remembered and how. Scholar, Mohamed-Salah Omri commenting on similar attempts to call Tunisia’s revolution the ‘Jasmine Revolution’ after Tunisia’s national flower, says that this renaming was an effort to rein people’s power back in by reverting to ‘images designed for public consumption or exotic comfort.’

Next time you say “Arab Spring” think about whose power you’re amplifying.

(think about it too when you say Lake Victoria, Victoria Falls, Mau Mau, Table Mountain, Lake Albert, Lake Edward…. but that’s a discussion for a different day. I won’t even mention “sub Saharan Africa” because I know you already stopped saying that…)

Yes “Arab Spring” is easier to say. Yes this will require you to figure out a different way of identifying these movements. Yes maybe people around you will give you quizzical looks.

Welcome to decolonising language and minds. #Start2018Right

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