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An Egyptian anti-Mubarak protester reacts during clashes with pro-Mubarak protesters outside the police academy in Cairo, Aug. 15, 2011. (Khalil Hamra/AP)
An Egyptian anti-Mubarak protester reacts during clashes with pro-Mubarak protesters outside the police academy in Cairo, Aug. 15, 2011. (Khalil Hamra/AP)

Rami khouri

Arab Spring or Revolution? Add to ...

A fascinating aspect of the wave of citizen revolts that are toppling, challenging or reforming regimes across the Arab world is that people are using different words to describe the phenomenon. The term that seems to have gained currency across the Western world is “Arab Spring.” I find this totally inappropriate, and have banished it from my own writing. I urge fellow journalists across the world to consider doing the same.

The most important reason for this is that this term is not used by those brave men and women who have been on the streets demonstrating and dying for the past seven months. Every time I run into a Tunisian, Egyptian, Libyan, Syrian, Bahraini or Yemeni, I ask them how they refer to their own political actions. Their answer is almost universal: “revolution” ( thawra, in Arabic). And when they refer to the collective activities of Arabs across the region, they often use the plural, “revolutions” ( thawrat).

They also use descriptor collective nouns such as Arab “uprising” ( intifada), Arab “awakening” ( sahwa) or Arab renaissance ( nahda), the latter mirroring the initial Arab awakening against Ottoman and European domination in the early years of the 20th century. I prefer the term “Arab citizen revolt,” which captures the common demand among Arab demonstrators to enjoy full citizenship rights with appropriate constitutional guarantees.

The words Arabs use to describe themselves are far stronger and more substantive than Arab “spring.” Inherent in the term “spring,” for sure, is the idea of awakening after winter’s slumber, but it also denotes a brief or limited transitional moment that soon gives way to the next season of summer. It mirrors Czechoslovakia’s brief “Prague Spring” liberalism of 1968, which the Russians quickly halted, and also the European revolutions of 1848. Tellingly, the “spring” metaphor was not applied to the revolutions that swept the Soviet Empire in the 1980s and early 1990s. When real change happens, the world tends to describe this as a “revolution,” not a “spring” – except, it seems, in the Arab world.

Perhaps I exaggerate, but I’m troubled by the unspoken connotations that accompany the word “spring,” which plays down the severity of the challenge to existing regimes and downgrades the intensity of the courage that ordinary men and women summon when they dare to take on their well-armed national security services.

“Spring” is a passive phenomenon, something that happens to people who have no power and no say in the process. The terms that Arabs use to describe themselves epitomize activism, empowerment and determination, denoting citizens who have the power to change their world and are going about that business with diligence and perseverance.

I suspect that the popularity of “Arab Spring” in the West mirrors some subtle Orientalism at work, lumping Arabs into a single mass of people who all think and behave the same way. It might also hide another troubling factor: Many quarters of many Western lands remain hesitant in fully acknowledging the implications of free and self-determinant Arabs who have the power to define their countries and shape their national policies.

For the past 150 years or so, the West has assumed it could shape and control most aspects of power and policy across the Arab world, whether due to imperial self-interest, energy issues or economic need. As Arab citizens now shed docility and threaten to take control of their own societies, many in the West aren’t sure how to deal with this possibility.

Perhaps they also don’t want to acknowledge the full reality of Arabs’ reconfiguring their power structures, because Western powers (including Russia) enthusiastically supported those old, failed authoritarian systems that are now being challenged and changed. An Arab “spring” conveniently removes the element of culpability and foreign complicity in the dark, bitter and endless “winter” that we endured for three generations of incompetent Arab police and family-mafia states.

Revolutionary, self-determinant, self-assertive Arabs frighten many people abroad. Softer Arabs who sway with the seasons and the winds may be more comforting. But if in their greatest moment of modern historical self-assertion and nationalist struggle, assorted Arab citizenries find that Western politicians and the media refer to them in the vocabulary of the wind and the tides, then we’re certain to continue feeling the impact of the great battle of colonialism versus nationalist resistance that still seems to define the Arab world’s relations with the West.

Language may be the easiest place to start reversing this troubling legacy. Dropping the term “Arab Spring” for something more accurate is a starting point.

Rami Khouri is editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star and director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.

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