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ERC Securing Europe, Fighting its enemies, 1815-1914


29 February 2016

Security and Expert Knowledge in Times of Revolution: the ‘Arab Spring’ Anno 2016

Five years have passed since the Arab world became embroiled in a sequence of uprisings and counter-revolutions. The high hopes of the ‘Arab Spring’ in early 2011 have since reverted to despair. Syria has descended into an abysmal war, increasingly drawing in regional and international participants. The brutality of Egypt’s and Bahrain’s dictatorial regimes only appears benign when compared to the head-lopping slave-keepers of ‘Islamic State’ in Iraq and Syria. Libya is torn apart by rivalling warlords and an offshoot of ‘Islamic State’, while the region’s poorest country, Yemen, is being reduced to rubble by an airstrike campaign under Saudi Arabian command. And Tunisia got a Noble Prize for Peace.

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Tahrir Square celebrates Mubarak’s resignation, 11 feb 2011


In the wake of the Arab Spring, many academic scholars and other experts offered to explain why they had missed its sudden arrival. F. Gregory Gause III, a long-time American scholar of Middle East affairs, for example, scolded himself for investing too much in the ‘myth of authoritarian stability’, and for having argued earlier “that the United States should not encourage democracy in the Arab world because Washington’s authoritarian Arab allies represented stable bets for the future.” The mea culpa by Human Rights Watch was similarly frank: “We failed to predict the Arab Spring […] because we were more focused on supply than demand when it came to human rights”. Meanwhile, The Economist said it had warned of ‘looming change’ in Egypt; but admitted to having been too ‘parsimonious’.

In a thought-provoking article, featured in Security Dialogue, Andrew R. Hom, a research associate at Glasgow University, examines the ‘academic aftermath’ of the Arab Spring. Hom explores the relationship between time, international politics and security. He tracks how initial responses to the Arab Spring that stressed uncertainty and unpredictability coupled with anxiety about security, were quickly followed by attempts to render these unprecedented events more familiar and intelligible, by pegging them onto a prior model of democratization. The restoration of comprehensibility was welcomed, as the region, which had hitherto “somehow missed its rendezvous with modernity”, finally appeared to catch up with humanity’s linear progression towards institutionalized liberal democracy.

While the frame of democratization helped avert the ‘spectre of catastrophe linked to unknown unknowns’, uncertainty remained about the paths that this ‘fourth wave’ of democratization would take in the Arab world. Historical analogies were examined to determine which revolution fitted the Arab Spring best: ‘1789, 1848, 1968 or/and 1989’? The uncertainties of these trajectories, however, had now become manageable risks and understandable threats. This opened up possibilities for intervention and soon didactic prescriptions on building institutions, conducting parliamentary politics and protecting human rights were offered to set the region on a course to security and stability.

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Aerial view of Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees in neighbouring Jordan

The prevailing optimism of early 2012 still held that the domino effect of the Arab Spring would topple one dictator after another. I recall attending a meeting of regional experts discussing various scenarios for Syria’s future at the time. All the scenarios operated on the assumption that Bashar al-Asad, then as much as now the President of Syria, would not be part of Syria’s future. Indeed, if any lesson could be drawn from the history of revolutions it is that anybody believing that the Arab Spring would produce stable and orderly outcomes quickly ‘was living in a dream world’.

Currently, we are back to the more familiar terrain of explaining why the Arab Spring has failed. Some highlight ‘the unsexy truth’ of the catastrophic failure of institutions. Others, like Juan Cole, professor of History at Michigan University, argue that ‘the failure of most Arab states to transition to democracy is unsurprising’. After all, since nominal per capita annual income in these countries is generally low, ‘the odds were always stacked against’ a transition to democracy. History continues to be a rich source for reflections on what is afflicting the Arab region. In the West memories may have faded, but the Middle East, we are told, ‘is still rocking from first world war pacts made 100 years ago.‘ Volker Perthes, director of the German Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, has also noted how historical analogies become popular whenever we are faced with high levels of uncertainty. As hopes are exchanged for gloom, comparisons with the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) provide grim prospects for the region.

In his aforementioned article Andrew Hom suggests that scholars should refuse to draw conclusions about events unfolding in ‘real time’ – as historians would normally do. But Hom also argues for an ‘open time’ that rejects ‘both overly sure and excessively anxious conclusions, which both end up reinforcing extant knowledge and modern security logics associated with Western intervention.’ This argument draws attention to two further characteristics of Western scholarship on the Middle East. The first is the tendency in Western security studies to view developments not in terms of insecurity in the region, but of security of the region for the West (e.g. refugees, terrorism). This kind of analysis may provide a rationale for interventions aimed to ‘restore’ Western security, but it largely obscures the region itself from view. Second, and closely related, is the persistent tendency to uphold a eurocentric/western-centric frame of reference for historical analysis. This perspective leads to interpretations of developments in the Arab world in terms of the extent to which they do or do not conform to the supposedly universal logic of historical development that, in the end, only reflects the parochial history of the West itself.

Migrant men help a fellow migrant man holding a boy as they are stuck between Macedonian riot police officers and migrants during a clash near the border train station of Idomeni, northern Greece, as they wait to be allowed by the Macedonian police to cross the border from Greece to Macedonia, Friday, Aug. 21, 2015. Macedonian special police forces have fired stun grenades to disperse thousands of migrants stuck on a no-man's land with Greece, a day after Macedonia declared a state of emergency on its borders to deal with a massive influx of migrants heading north to Europe. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic) (Darko Vojinovic)

Macedonian police stop migrants coming from Greece, 21 aug 2015

‘Eurocentrism is a hydra-headed monster and has many avatars’, as Immanuel Wallerstein put it, ‘it will not be easy to slaughter the dragon swiftly.’ Almost twenty years have passed since, but his words still ring true. In all likelihood, events like the Arab Spring, just like the end of the Cold War before it, are impossible to predict with any accuracy. Yet if we continue to apply approaches to the Arab world that prioritize Western security and represent the region as a sluggish student of Western history, the stage for the next failure of expert knowledge of the Arab world appears to be already set.