Lecture Explores Past and Future Arab Spring

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Four years after the beginning of the protests throughout the Arab World, many are struggling to understand the effects of this phenomenon.“These kinds of waves where some unprecedented rupture from the historical narrative of the past really only occur once a generation if we’re lucky,” said Sean Yom at his lecture The Arab Spring, Four Years Later: Hope or Despair?

Yom is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Temple University. He has written several articles about the Arab Spring, and is in the process of finishing his first book. The Islamic Studies program at Swarthmore sponsored Yom’s visit.

The Arab Spring has continued to be an emotional subject for many people. “Today there is much bloodshed and feelings of fear, sadness, frustration, rage, and above all, uncertainty,” said Coordinator of Islamic Studies Khaled Al-Masri, who introduced Yom. Al-Marsi then raised the question, “Where should we go now?”

Yom began his lecture by showing a graph analyzing social media posts for terms with a positive connotation. Although there had been a large spike in hopeful rhetoric in 2010, the frequency of these positive phrases has been steadily declining since 2011. “A new phrase took a hold in Western Media–the so-called Arab Winter, which follows the Arab Spring,” said Yom.

Yom then acknowledged that most news outlets have become cynical about the impact of these protests, believing that the region isn’t ready for democratization. “It’s clear that for most people in the media, what began as a celebratory movement is now being seen as an inexorable tragedy,” said Yom.

Before directly engaging with these claims, Yom offered clarification of several key terms. He defined the Arab Spring as “the regional wave of contentious politics in the Arab World that, beginning in December 2010, generated an unprecedented and near-simultaneous mobilization of violent and nonviolent resistance of state authority across the region.”

Yom then argued that the protests had begun as “patriotic, not nationalistic.” Most of the protesters had focused on internal forces, not outward enemies or regional issues, which distinguished them from previous protests within the Middle East. These protests were also unique for relying on modern forms of information technology like Twitter and Facebook. The youth in these countries primarily drove these movements.

“It’s very difficult to predict, much less explain, these things in retrospect,” said Yom. He acknowledged that, as of right now, political scientists could only offer tentative theories about the simultaneous timing of these protests. He cited some popular contributing factors like the high proportion of young people in the Arab world, economic hardships, and the presence of social networks.

However, Yom believes these explanations fail to address the full complexity of the situation. “The answer about whether or not we should be hopeful or despairing about where the region is going depends on what we expect from regional waves of transformation like the Arab Spring, which generate many different outcomes across many different countries,” said Yom.

Acknowledging that democratization was one of the key potential outcomes of the Arab Spring, Yom stated the evidence was mixed. While Tunisia experienced successful democratization, the current political states of Libya and Syria are more pessimistic examples. All of these protests indicate that there will be more pushback against authoritarian regimes coming in the future.

In further analysis of the success and failures of protests in individual countries, Yom identified foreign military intervention as a key variable. “If there was foreign intervention against the regime in the first year of protest, then we have regime failure.” Pro-regime intervention, on the other hand, appeared to preserve government structure.

Yom concluded by acknowledging that the Arab Spring didn’t lead to a wave of democracy throughout the Middle East. Still, he remained adamant that there were reasons to be hopeful.

“The idea that there are large groups of people who would have the gall to mobilize spontaneously because they didn’t like their government, we take that idea for granted. But it’s been an extraordinary psychological shift in activists. They’re realizing change is possible, and they at least know where boundary of possibilities lie.”

Photo courtesy of The Huffington Post.

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