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Rethinking the idea of an ‘Arab Awakening’

The term is relative and its continued use is worth questioning, argues Saeed Rahnema.

By: /
2 July, 2015
Demonstrators take part in a protest marking the first anniversary of Egypt’s uprising at Tahrir square in Cairo January 25, 2012. REUTERS/ Mohamed Abd El-Ghany
Saeed Rahnema
By: Saeed Rahnema
Retired professor of political science and public policy, and the founding director of the School of Public Policy and Administration at York University.

Following the amazing upheavals in much of the Arab world that came to be known as Arab Spring, some media and scholars began using the term ‘Arab Awakening.’ Many still do. I have had problems digesting this title, what it implies and the narrative it reinforces.

The immediate thing that comes to mind is that it implies over 400 million people in 22 countries had been politically dormant and are now ‘awakening.’ I am not a scholar of Arab history and am not an Arab myself, but I have sufficient knowledge of the region to know that a large number of Arab intellectuals — Muslims, Christians, Jews and non-religious — have over a century been struggling for rights and justice in opposition to the colonial/imperial dominance, as well as the local despots/dictators and obscurantist religious leaders.

Almost 100 years ago in 1916, Arabs revolted in Hejaz against the Ottoman Empire, with the aid of the British. So did Egyptian, Iraqi and Syrian nationalists with the promise of independence, only to be betrayed by the British and French colonialists who divided Arab territories between themselves.

It is ironic that Arab historian George Antonius also used the same title, “Arab Awakening,” for his 1930s book explaining the past history of Arab nationalism. The title was not much out of place at that time.

Since then there has been so many instances of revolts, resistance movements, and periodic uprisings and continuous suppressions. The great general strike and the revolt of 1936-39 in Palestine against British colonial policies, and the continued resistance against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the long and bloody Algerian war of independence of 1954-62, and numerous other nationalist movements, labour movements, feminist and socialist movements in major Arab countries do not speak to a peoples’ dormancy.

All these movements for freedom and justice in Arab regions have taken place in most difficult conditions and were repeatedly suppressed brutally by the colonial and imperial powers and later by local dictators.

This is not to deny the present serious social, cultural, and economic shortcomings and problems in the region, themselves partly the products of the triad of neo-liberal imperialism, undemocratic political systems, and fundamentalist religious influences. Arab Human Development Reports, led by a group of independent Arab scholars, have boldly pointed to these major shortcomings and weaknesses.

The shift of centres of power among Arab countries, from culturally and politically rich countries of Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, to the tiny ultra-conservative oil reach Sheikhdoms of the Arabian peninsula, has no doubt aggravated the social and political situation in the Arab world.

However, as we saw during the short-lived “Arab Spring,” despite all odds, and despite destruction of Iraq, Syria and Libya, Arab civil societies to different degrees are very much awake, even though they face humongous constraints.

It should also be noted that awakening is relative and the term can be used for many other parts of the world. One can ask are people of Europe and North America, despite all the freedoms and liberties they enjoy, fully awake?

If so, why, in most of these countries, conservative governments following neoliberal policies which favour a tiny minority and cause suffering for the majority are still “elected” by this same majority?

And why is this majority oblivious of the impact of aggressive foreign policies of their governments and the sufferings imposed on far away countries?

May be we should hope for the European and North American awakening!

An earlier version of this article was first published on

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