One of the most significant consequences of the term “Arab Spring” has been the evocation of a constructed timeline that placed the protests in the North Africa and the Middle East within a limited spectrum of time and space. The desire to enforce problematic nominal labels produces a narrative that shapes the way certain events are understood and discussed. The result is the acceptance of what is or is not considered legitimate dissent and the denial or reduction of historically embedded forces that continue to shape realities in the Middle East and North Africa.
Since last year, Noam Chomsky has argued that the so-called “Arab Spring” did not begin in Tunisia, but rather, it began in the Western Sahara. Chomsky slips into a dangerous framework that assumes the ongoing events in the region can be marked with a beginning, and an inevitable end that many have attempted to impose from Morocco to Yemen.
In several media appearances, Chomsky pointed to the October 2010 protests in Gdeim Izik as the beginning of the “Arab Spring.” Moroccan security forces brutally repressed the protests, resulting in the death of eleven people, and several hundred others were injured. If the “Arab Spring” refers to the recent wave of popular uprisings throughout the region, rooted in socioeconomic grievances and the opposition to authoritarianism, placing the Western Saharan struggle on this spectrum is dismissive of a long history.
The Western Saharan struggle, while also comprised of socioeconomic grievances and a desire for political freedoms, dates back to the mid-twentieth century and grew out of a colonial context, involving territorial disputes that have continued to last into today. It was entrenched in the Cold War politics that fueled many conflicts throughout the world. Moreover, placing the Western Saharan struggle at the forefront of the so-called “Arab Spring” dismisses the focal point of the conflict, which has for decades been a fight for self-determination. The matter of self-determination is an aspect of the struggle that cannot be categorized under the generalizations of what the “Arab Spring” narrative assumes: that the protests, uprisings, and movements in the Middle East and North Africa emerged from a vacuum and that they can all be labeled as a collective phenomenon with a common goal and shared outcomes.
What the use of the term “Arab Spring” does is allow for these sweeping generalizations that deny the presence and role of powerful actors and forces that heavily contributed to the sustenance of institutions being protested against today. Moreover, the term itself perpetuates an understanding of the region that does not necessarily deviate from the orientalist literature that views the region as a monolithic blob. That even when there are clear differences, such as the uprisings and protest movements that overthrew dictators in some countries, forced other regimes into reforming—these uprisings and protests movements that continue to develop in varying ways with varying demands exhibit pluralism and diversity that are lost in the term “Arab Spring.” It becomes a term that imposes a particular narrative unrepresentative of the realities on the ground. It also becomes a term that sustains the very forces being opposed in these uprisings and protest movements.
It was Michel Foucault who aptly debated Chomsky on a similar point regarding the use of terms constructed by the very forces of society being countered during their 1971 debate:
“You cannot prevent me from believing that these notions of human nature, of justice, of the realization of the essence of the human being, are all notions and concepts which have been formed within our civilization, within our type of knowledge and our form of philosophy, and that as a result form part of our class system; and that one cannot, however regrettable it may be, put forward these notions to describe or justify a fight which should—and shall in principal—overthrow the fundamentals of our society.”