mandag 3. oktober 2011

The "Arab Spring" - an overview

Denne bloggen har ligge i dvale noen veker, mens undervisning og andre arbeidsoppgåver har fått førsteprioritet. Men ting skjer fortsatt i området. I første omgang tar vi her ei oppsummering av "våren", halde som innleiing på Paulo Freire-seminaret ved UiB i førre veke. Noe har vi drøfta før, men her meir oppdatert og samla.

What released the series of events we call the "Arab Spring"? It was probably best seen as a combination of two variables: There is a common factor, which is demonstrations for democracy, sharing ideas, dominated by youth, but also by middle class. This is seen throughout the Middle East, there was demonstrations in every Arab country and the general protest movement even spilled over into Israel and other neighbouring countries. Thsis is what call “the facebook generation”.

Another variable is the local context, which is different for each country. Here national politics, local economics etc. play in. The local factor determines whether the common struggle for democracy broke out into revolt and regime change or not.

A summary of the situation today may be:

- The democracy movement remained confined to the original youth and middle class segment in countries such as Morocco, Algeria, Jordan, Oman, and Sudan. All had demonstationss, some like Morocco for a long time, and wrought concessions from the governmentt, but they did not lead to revolts, and the rulers of all these countries seem not to need have concern for their future.

- The movement broke out of its original framework and latched on to wider movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and finally Syria, which for a long time looked like it would fall into the first category. As we know, it has led to regime change in the first three countries, Tunisia, Egypt and Libya; it led to defeat and repression in Bahrain, while the last two, Yemen and Syria are undecided, the most likely bet is that there will be a change of some sort in Yemen, while it is to early to tell the result in Syria.

We do not have time for the details of each country and why it failed or succeeded, but we can use Yemen as an instructive example of how complex the movement for change can be. The protests consist of at least the following elements:

       - Youth, the facebook people, at the university who has staged a continuous protest rally there for more than six months now.
       - Tribes in the north who revolted because they wanted more resources to the far north.
       - Secessionists or autonomists from the south, mostly socialist in orientation, who want to break the old South Yemen free if possible.
       - Two different factions of the dominant Hashid tribe, who used to support the regime, but now each want to place their own leader at the top.
       - Allied to them, a fairly moderate Islamist party who used to be in government
       - Jihadist groups who have taken control of some towns in the far south.
Currently all of them, except the jihadists who fight on their own, are more or less united against the president, but each of them have contradictory aims for what they want. The youth want democracy, the tribes want to have a tribal president, the regionalists want a weak state and money for themselves.

So that is the local element. What about the common factors, what released the wave throughout the region?

- One was political, several of the leaders were old and wanted to put their sons as heirs, institute a “dynastic republic”. The revolts tried to shortcut that process before it was too late. This was the case in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and partly Tunisia; Syria is the only country where such dynastic change has already succeeded.

- Another was economic and social. The global finance crisis caused greater unemployment, particularly among those employed by a state that had less money either to pay wages or to hire people. That meant that educated people who before expected to find jobs in the state, now faced unemployment, and those already employed did not get wages or wages they were no longer able to survive on. There were always many poor, but now there were new poor, which led to frustration among educated youth.

Another common factor was the youth activists.

Since this is a seminar about education, it must be noted the importance of the education of these youths. There is clearly quite varied quality of education in the Middle East, where rote learning still dominates, and also because teachers have not for years had living wages (e.g. Egypt) and have had to get a second or third job that cuts into their teaching jobs, but there is still now a class of more educated youth spreading and venting frustration.

Equally obvious is the importance of spreading Internet use over the last years. Internet cafes are everywhere, but maybe the most important tools were not exactly Facebook or Twitter, but more lower tech tools like SMS and cell phones. There is an explosion of these, many of these people now have access to cell phones and have learned to make use of their potential

And of course, the spread of ideas through pan-Arab media. Al-Jazeera set the trend for many pan-Arabic TV stations which has followed them in opening up for discussion and debates, unknown before. Even national TV stations had to follow up. There are new newspapers, critical local papers like Masri al-Yawm and Shuruq in Egypt are allowed, and found audience not so much among the poor, but certainly among the educated. These grew in the last five or six years.

Social problems are also present in most Arab countries. We can see this in Egypt in particular, with a history of worker’s demonstration over the last few years. The Spring did not come out of nowhere, there had been factory occupation and clashes over last years, and the Kifaya movement a few years back organized large demonstration, but did not catch on like it did this spring

What about Islam? It is not important for all, not at forefront of the democracy debate, but for many there is no contradiction between more democracy and more Islamic government. The role of so-called moderate Islamism, the Muslim Brotherhood is crucial. Many of their leaders are old and conservative in their tactics, but many of their youth had worked with the Kifaya and had partly the same intellectual background as the secular students that had been working for democracy, and forced the older generation to participate. That helped tip the balance, since MB controlled huge numbers of people and could make a large demo into a massive one. More conservative Islamists, the salafis, did not support the revolution originally, because they were in principle opposed to revolts against the ruler, but they joined later and have become politicallly active. So there are important changes in the Islamist landscape.

Is it a youth revolution? Yes and no. They are a common factor, certainly, but in the hot-spot countries, the revolts needed a larger audience to actually topple the regimes. What now happens to the youth in those three countries where they have won, is an open question. There are follow-up demonstrations, continued unrest, calls for “do not hijack our revolt”. It remains to be seen how far they will be successful, and indeed how much of the old system will survive into the new order.

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