North Africa, West Asia

On 'Arab Awakening'

What's in a name? A critical look at our choice of page title some years after the so called Arab Spring.

Saeed Rahnema
29 June 2015

Algerian women fighters in the war of independence. Image: Wikimedia commons. Public Domain.

Following the amazing upheavals in much of the Arab world that came to be known as Arab Spring, openDemocracy created a new section under the title “Arab Awakening”.

I have had misgivings about this title since an article I had written on Israel’s dual policies towards West Bank and Gaza appeared in this section. I continue to have problems digesting this title and what it implies.  

The immediate thing that comes to mind is that over 400 million people in 22 countries had been politically dormant and are now ‘awakening’. I am not a scholar of Arab history and am not an Arab myself, but I have sufficient knowledge of the region to know that a large number of Arab intellectuals—Muslims, Christians, Jews and the non-religious—have over a century been struggling for rights and justice in opposition to colonial/imperial dominance as well as to local despots/dictators and obscurantist religious leaders.

Almost one hundred years ago in 1916, Arabs revolted in Hejaz against the Ottoman Empire, with the aid of the British. So did Egyptian, Iraqi and Syrian nationalists with the promise of independence, only to be betrayed by the British and French colonialists who divided Arab territories between themselves.

It is ironic that the Arab historian, George Antonius, also used the same title “Arab Awakening” for his 1930s book on the history of Arab nationalism. The title was not much out of place at that time.

Since then there have been many instances of revolts, resistance movements, periodic uprisings and continuous suppressions. The great general strike and revolt of 1936-39 in Palestine against British colonial policies and the continued resistance against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the long and bloody Algerian war of independence of 1954-62, and numerous other nationalist movements, labour movements, feminist and socialist movements in major Arab countries do not speak to a peoples’ dormancy.

All these movements for freedom and justice in Arab countries took place in the most difficult of conditions and were repeatedly brutally suppressed, first by colonial and imperial powers and later by local dictators.

This is not to deny the present serious social, cultural, and economic shortcomings and problems in the region—themselves partly the products of the triad of neo-liberal imperialism, undemocratic political systems, and fundamentalist religious influences. Arab Human Development Reports, led by a group of independent Arab scholars, have boldly and repeatedly pointed out these major shortcomings and weaknesses.

The shift of centers of power among Arab countries, from the culturally and politically rich countries of Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, to the tiny ultra-conservative oil-rich Sheikhdoms of the Arabian peninsula, has no doubt aggravated the social and political situation in the Arab world.

However, as we saw during the short-lived “Arab Spring”, despite all odds, and despite the destruction of Iraq, Syria and Libya, Arab civil societies to different degrees are very much awake, even though they face humongous constraints.

It should also be noted that awakening is relative and the term can be used for many other parts of the world. One can ask are people of Europe and North America, despite all the freedoms and liberties they enjoy, fully awake?

If so, why in most of these countries are conservative governments, who follow neo-liberal policies favouring a tiny minority and causing suffering for the majority, still “elected” by this same majority?

And why are they oblivious to the impact of the aggressive foreign policies of their governments, and the suffering imposed by them on far away countries? Maybe we should hope for the European and North American awakening! 

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