Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Sunday, March 6, 2011

What Do We Call What is Happening in the Middle East/North Africa?

Many different terms and labels have been used to describe the current events in the Middle East and North Africa, but which ones are most appropriate?

We at CWCP have been using "uprisings," which is a decent term to describe the events in a general way. After all, we are witnessing people "rising up," showing defiance, against established authorities, typically national governments and affiliated institutions. But the problem is that this term does not capture some of the variation in events and processes across all of the cases. Not all acts of defiance in the region have taken the same form or resulted in the same outcomes.

For instance, in Saudi Arabia and Oman, we observe mostly peaceful protests and demonstrations–at least so far. However, keep an eye on Saudi Arabia, which seems very reluctant to provide much of an opening for the protests to sustain themselves for any length of time. Indeed, in an ominous warning to protesters, Saudi Arabia announced on Saturday that its security forces will enforce existing bans on marches, sit-ins, and demonstrations.

Meantime, in Libya, we see a much more violent chain of events. What started as peaceful protests quickly morphed into an armed rebellion. Indeed, it is just about at the point now that we can say, without much hesitation, that we are seeing a civil war in Libya. Two organized groups are fighting for political authority and all of its attendant benefits. On one side is a increasingly organized opposition, with arms, fighters, political figures and military officers, and a nascent administrative body (the National Transitional Council) located in Benghazi. And on the other side is Gaddafi and his loyal forces, who are defending Tripoli and trying to take back cities that the opposition has seized over the last few weeks.

Now as for Egypt and Tunisia, cases that clearly differ from the ones discussed above, another, unique term seems appropriate. Asef Bayat (Sociology and Middle East Studies Prof at U of I) astutely argues that Egypt and Tunisia are in the midst of "refo-lutions." What does this mean? As we know, protesters in both countries successfully drove sitting leaders from power and dismantled a host of state institutions (the ruling parties, various legislative bodies, ministries, etc.). But, Bayat claims, because these successes happened so quickly, the opposition had little time to organize its own formal bodies and organs that can exercise political power over their countries. As a result, the opposition now must rely on the remaining state institutions (such as the military) to carry out all of the political and economic reforms on their behalf. Remarkably, a part of this effort includes institutionalizing the processes, instruments, and ideas of democracy. Hence, Bayat writes: "Here again lies a key anomaly of these revolutions–they enjoy enormous social power, but lack administrative authority; they garner remarkable hegemony, but do not actually rule. Thus, the incumbent regimes continue to stand; there are no new states or governing bodies, nor novel means and modes of governance that altogether embody the will of the revolution."

Should more political turmoil emerge in the coming days, weeks, and months ahead, there will be a tendency to place labels on these situations. Which is fine, and it makes sense to do so. But we have to make sure that the words and phrases we use to describe these events bear a close resemblance to reality on the ground.

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