Fallen analogies

Why a widespread analogy is harmful to fragile post-Arab Spring states and civil societies.

Mona Chalabi
17 August 2012
Egyptian state TV announces that ousted President Mubarak gets life sentence for killing protesters - Demotix/Mahmoud Abou Zied. All rights reserved

Egyptian state TV announces that ousted President Mubarak gets life sentence for killing protesters - Demotix/Mahmoud Abou Zied. All rights reserved.

Like any spring, the so-called Arab one has had a rise and a fall. Written and oral narratives from magazine articles to conferences have made reference to the fall of regimes, the fall of leaders, of political parties. They are incorrect. Hosni Mubarak didn't lose power because of gravity and Ben Ali certainly wasn't forced to flee Tunisia because he lost his balance. The leaders didn't fall. They were pushed. Why does this matter? Isn't it just another harmless means of political description, no more inaccurate or offensive than 'iron ladies' or 'political mudslinging'?

It isn't. The imagery of falling is distinct from these because it robs Arabs of agency at a time when they are desperately in need of it. Syria is showing that tipping points can be hard to find and that in the meantime, regime change can be a long, drawn-out blood bath. Prognosticating has already begun over the sectarian repercussions, both national and regional, of the Syrian crisis. Consequently, the need for a revolutionised form of pan-Arabism built on a new sense of empowerment is more urgent than ever. The verb 'to fall' is however an intransitive one, meaning that you can’t ‘fall’ a leader in the same way that you can 'topple' or 'oust' one.

One can understand why the idea of falling has gained such currency. Take for example, Syria’s (admittedly opaque) potential tipping point, mentioned above. It is often only when the risk of a heavy 'fall' becomes so big that even a regime’s supporters don’t want to be on the wrong side of a fall, i.e. on the wrong side of history. History has without doubt played a role in the construction of this language. The unexpected overthrow of political systems that seemed solid, albeit hollow, does have something in common with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

But the idea of a fall conjures up a bricks and mortar image that is dangerously misleading at a time when states need to be built, by constructing corruption-free, efficient and reliable political institutions. As many post-Saddam Iraqis wil tell you, trust is anything but a solid matter. Yet Iraqis still use the term 'al soqoot' ('the fall') to make a grim, euphemistic reference to the rupture between the country's black past and its grey present. True, Saddam’s forced removal from office bares little resemblance to that of Ben Ali, Mubarak, Gaddafi or Saleh, but it nevertheless shows that even when an entire political party is removed from office, endemic corruption can subsist and even prosper. Iraq also holds painful lessons about sectarianism, intra-sectarianism and the splintering of Iraqi identities that the idea of a 'material' fall fails to capture.

Crucially, the idea of falling fails to capture the economic dimension of the causes and consequences of the Arab uprisings. It therefore neglects the crucial economic redistribution and reconstruction needed in states where long-term unemployment ranges between 10 and 25%, and where jobs are particularly elusive for women and the youth. Perhaps more strikingly, unemployment is high even for the most educated in the Middle East-North Africa region. Economic systems, like political ones, can become weak, fail and be reformed. But they do not fall. 

Many Arabs will soon begin (or have already begun) to feel powerless after a period of empowerment. To describe that window of empowerment as a 'fall' is a serious injustice to those who helped to spark it. Challenges as monumental as those that stand on the path of the 'awakened' Arab countries cannot be met if the major successes of their civil societies are undermined by false analogies.

These terms are not just media buzz words, nor are they hype exclusively in English. As the Iraqi case shows, they are integrated into language and serve as important cultural and historical artefacts, signposts by which an entire nation defines what is and what is not possible. It is crucial to get these terms right if future governments are to be held accountable against the actions of past, 'fallen' ones. Otherwise, tomorrow’s leaders will perpetuate business as usual, fearing only the forces of nature that caused their predecessors to apparently 'fall' yesterday.

What goes down must sometimes come up. By using the term 'fallen' regime rather than, for instance, 'ousted or deposed' regime, it isn’t clear how it came down nor indeed - the chances it might come up again.

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