Protests and the People

What did the Arab Spring teach us about popular protest? How little, even today, we understand the mechanics of political protest. This was my first impression after attending a seminar on “Protest and the people in Eurasia and West Asia” at the Maulana Azam Centre for Asian Studies, Calcutta.

Here’s the sorry tale of human understanding of the very human habit of political protest. The Arab world, not unlike communist-ruled Eastern Europe before, actually generated a corpus of political science literature about having reached a “Goldilocks equilibrium” that ensured the status quo of authoritarian regimes would simply remain forever. The combination of a well-oiled security apparatus, oil and gas money in some cases, and semi-decent living standards meant regimes were able to keep revolutions at bay.

Then, of course, the protests happened and regimes began to fall. The consequences of these revolts have proven even more impossible to predict. Who would have expected that Tunisia would be the sole shining star of the Arab Spring, that so many long-lived dictators from Hosni Mubarak to Muammar Gaddafi would disappear, that Syria would be home to a civil war without end, and that an Islamicist group more terroristic than Al Qaeda would arise?

But the Arab Spring has reminded us of a few things and put a new twist to protest understanding.

One, revolutions like bananas can come in bunches. The Arab Spring was remarkable in how it seemed to cascade across the region, scaring even China. But look back and it doesn’t seem so surprising: Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s, Eastern Europe in 1989, Africa in the 1990s, Central Asia and the Caucasus in the 2000s all saw a similar clustering effect.

The question is what were the mechanics that led to this cross-border transmission? Revolution is not a tea party, protests are not exportable commodities.

The Arab Spring thus had several degrees of separation. Tunisia and Egypt, we now know, were a natural bond because political protest movements in both countries has been in touch with each other for several years, passing on lessons from the many if smaller public protests both carried out against their respective government from 2000 onward.

Then the protests jumped to Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. There was no tangible bridge of the sort that linked Cairo to Tunis, the spread was partly an Al Jazeera effect, the creation of a pro-reform narrative across the Arab world that meant images of Tahrir Square were quickly embedded in nascent protest movements in far-off countries. By the time the protests got to Oman or Saudi Arabia they were many degrees of separation apart from the original Tunisian version – some were sectarian or class-driven, weak and irrelevant. But calculating the variables that led a revolution down one path of protest rather than another is an impossible task for political scientists today.

Then there is the impact of social media, an enormous force multiplier for protesters – but easily exaggerated. Cairo cut the country of the internet in an attempt to stop the protests, it had no impact. Syria flooded Facebook with fake pro-regime accounts. But they had no impact. “Twitter does not start revolution, it allows revolutions to get tweeted” – the real impact may have been generating that cross-border export. Revolution is for e-export.

Another debate, for another day, is how all of this has also meant that the counterattack by the state has also become cross-border, with governments sharing tactics and coordinating to stamp out rebellion.

Copyright © 2014 the Hindustan Times

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