Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Thinking about Arab Spring

It seems clear that "Arab Spring" is an example of the contagion of an idea, reminiscent of the spread of revolutionary ideas in Europe in 1848. It appears that there is a spirit of the times in a large area with hundreds of millions of people. Clearly people in one city saw demonstrations occurring in other cities with which they could relate and began their own demonstrations; people in one country saw uprisings in other countries with which they could relate and began their own uprisings.

It seems also seems that countries in which the movement have been successful share socio-economic commonalities. They have populations with high proportions of young people, more educated than earlier generations, who have faced limited opportunities for economic success, and who have felt that their governments were unrepresentative, unresponsive to the demands of youths, and dependent on coercion for continuing in power.

Arab Countries
Source: Theodora.com
We have been describing this year's political contagion as "Arab Spring" and it is true that many of the countries in which demonstrations, uprisings and insurgencies have been taking place are countries in which people speak Arabic. I had a debate on this blog in 2009 as to whether Arab nations were culturally uniform. Based on my limited experience in Egypt, Jordan and Morocco and my reading I felt that there were important differences among these countries, and I continue to feel so. Still, language is an important aspect of culture, an important index of similarity among peoples and countries, of the feelings of commonality among countries and peoples.

Source: Freelanguage.org

As the map above shows, not all countries in which Arabic is spoken have Arabic as the only official language. Indeed, there are minorities in many Arab countries that speak other languages and there are differences in the Arabic spoken in different Arab countries.

It is not surprising therefore that the course of politics has been quite different this year in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Lebanon, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and other Arab countries. Obviously the Palestinian peoples are facing very different problems than the Sudanese, the people of the Maghreb or the peoples of the oil-rich Gulf states.

Religion is also an important aspect of culture and the countries most involved in the Arab Spring movements have been Islamic. As the map below shows, there are significant differences in the fraction of peoples in different "Muslim countries" that profess the Muslim religion. Comparing this map with that of the Arab speaking world, it is clear that while 22 Arab countries are all Islamic, not all of the 54 Islamic nations are Arab. Indeed, There seems to be a significant contest for influence in the Islamic world among Arab Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Turkic Turkey, and Persian Iran. Moreover, as experience in Iraq has shown with considerable violence, there are peoples who profess different Muslim faiths who can not only differ in culture but who have killed each other over those cultural differences.

Source: Islamproject.org

Geography also counts, in the sense that natural resources, climate, neighboring countries, access to foreign markets, etc. all influence culture and have repercussions on the likelihood of violence and insurrection.

So too does history, and the history of the Arab countries is very long and very different. Egypt has been a regional cultural leader for thousands of years, influenced (in my opinion) by its Pharaonic, Greek and Roman past as well as by its Arab and Muslim roots; Syria has an equally deep past, but one with different aspects than that of Egypt. The Arab countries have different experiences in the 20th century in part related to the differences between British, French and Italian colonial policies, not to mention differences in the earlier experience with the Ottoman Empire. History leaves its mark on culture and thus on the response to the contagion of Arab Spring as well as on the underlying economic and political conditions that form the conditions that foster or discourage contagion.

I have spent decades working in Latin America. I began the experience with the assumption that the Latin American countries, especially the Ibero-American and Spanish-American countries were rather homogeneous. I emerged from those decades with the realization that countries "south of the border" are very different one from another. Indeed even countries very close to each other (Costa Rica and Nicaragua, Colombia and Ecuador) can be very different one from another. I think the same is likely to be true of the Arab countries and of the Islamic countries.

No comments: