By: Tzvi Aryeh Benoff  | 

Dear Tom: The False Arab Spring

You probably don’t know Tom Skilling.

He is the Chief Meteorologist for WGN-TV news and responds to weather-related questions in The Chicago Tribune. When asked to define the term “false spring,” he replied:

“False spring is a term used in botany rather than in meteorology. It refers to a period of weather in late winter or early spring sufficiently mild and sufficiently long to "trick" dormant vegetation into waking up early. False spring temperatures rarely affect native plants, but ornamentals are quite vulnerable.”

However, this term is not relegated to plants. It can also be used to describe the revolutionary winds that swept through the Middle East during the spring of 2011. Over a period of weeks, uprisings and revolutions were staged in several countries, leading political scientists to refer to the time period as the Arab Spring. Now, four years later, the Schneier Center for International Affairs hosted a Fire-Side Chat at which Dr. Selma Botman, recently appointed Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs and expert on modern Middle Eastern history, analyzed the contemporary outcomes of the Arab Spring. Botman began by describing the “framework” of the revolutions. She explained that the uprisings were “expressions of deep seated resentment.” Decades of repressive government and economic mismanagement continued to foment until the situation became “untenable.”

However, just as false springs are not used by predictive meteorologists, Botman noted that the years of oppression were insufficient grounds for historians and political thinkers to believe revolution was possible. After decades of living under the strong arm of dictators and army-like police, few thought that the Arabs were capable of breaking through the “fear mentality.” She explained that the catalyst for these revolutions lay in the youth and the advent of social media. Most of the initial protesters were middle class, college educated students. In a rare display of cooperation, these secular and religiously motivated people harnessed internet social media to further their cause. Unlike earlier generations, these educated citizens were “armed with information” that was not censored by the government and “understood the meaning and rights of citizenship – rights they yearned for.”

This desire for “rights of citizenship” also set the Arab Spring apart from other revolutions. Botman explained that most revolutions are fueled by demands for food and jobs. While those demands were certainly made in Egypt as well, the overwhelming voice of citizens in Egypt was a cry for “freedom dignity, and social justice.” Ultimately, this may have contributed to the short-term failure of the revolutions. Because independent political parties – one of the rights of citizenship - were not given time to mature, there was very little infrastructure to fill the void left by the ousted governments. As such, the normative catalysts for revolution began to spread – unemployment rose, streets became unsafe, and women were abused. Thus, countries with pre-existing democratic undercurrents like Tunisia fared better than those such as Yemen.

The Provost also conducted a question and answer session. Among the many topics of discussion, Botman developed her belief about the degree of American involvement in fostering democratic evolution in the Middle East. She stressed that while America should continue to provide aid and resources to such countries, the United States should never absolve those governments from addressing the needs of their people. One student commented that he particularly enjoyed how Botman “compared the drastically different nature of the contemporary revolutions to the Iranian revolution in the 1970’s.”

Botman concluded her presentation by analyzing whether the Arab Spring was a success. In the short term, it was quite obvious that the anticlimactic realities have left idealistic citizens “disappointed [with their] aspirations unsatisfied.” However, she believed that the impassioned cries of tens of thousands would serve as the catalyst for “long term change.” Thus, although the False Arab Spring may have blighted the “ornamental,” short term developments, the “native,” firmly rooted passions for justice, equality, and socio-economic growth will continue to grow and eventually bloom.