Does language matter when writing about the Arab uprisings? In a piece first published on Arabs Think, Mona Chalabi challenges the use of the verb, ‘fall’, in analyses of the revolutions. “Hosni Mubarak didn’t lose power because of gravity,” she writes, “and Ben Ali certainly wasn’t force to flee Tunisia because of a lack of good balance.”
This is the first piece published as part of the MEC blog’s partnership with Arabs Think, an initiative launched by students specialised in the broader Middle East and Arab world. The site aims to provide comprehensive analyses and synopses of issues covering the recent developments and evolutions relating to the uprisings in the region.
By Mona Chalabi
Like any spring, the so-called Arab one has had a rise and a fall. Written analyses of every variety from magazine articles, to a burgeoning academic literature on the subject have made reference to the fall of regimes, the fall of leaders, of political parties. What is more, this language of a fallen something, is every bit as prevalent in the diverse oral accounts that are being recited from coffee shops to conferences.
It is however incorrect. Hosni Mubarak didn’t lose power because of gravity and Ben Ali certainly wasn’t forced to flee Tunisia because of a lack of good balance. These leaders didn’t fall. They were pushed. Why does this matter? Isn’t it just another harmless means of political description, no more inaccurate or offensive than iron ladies or political mudslinging? The imagery of falling is however distinct from these because it robs Arabs of agency at precisely a time when they are desperately in need of it. Syria is showing that tipping points can be hard to find and that in the meantime, regime change can be a long, drawn-out blood bath. Prognosticating has already begun over the national and regional sectarian repercussions of the crisis in Syria. Consequently, the need for a thoroughly recast form of Arab Nationalism, built on a new sense of empowerment is more urgent than ever. The verb ‘to fall’ is however an intransitive one, meaning that you can’t ‘fall’ a leader in the same way you can ‘topple’ or ‘oust’ one.
One can understand why the idea of falling has gained such currency. Take for example Syria’s (admittedly opaque) tipping point mentioned above. It is often only when the risk of a ‘fall’ becomes great enough that even a regime’s supporters don’t want to be on the wrong side of a fall, because doing so would be on the wrong side of history. History has no doubt played a role in the construction of this language. The unexpected overthrow of political systems that seemed solid, albeit hollow, does have something in common with the fall of the Berlin Wall.
But the idea of a fall conjures up a bricks-and-mortar image that is dangerously misleading at a time when the state building to be done consists of constructing corruption-free, efficient and reliable political institutions. As many post-Saddam Iraqis will themselves tell you, trust is anything but a solid matter. Yet Iraqis still use the term ‘al soqoot’ (meaning the fall) to make a grim, euphemistic reference to the rupture between the country’s black past and its grey present. Iraq holds painful lessons about sectarianism, intra-sectarianism and the splintering of identities that the idea of a solid fall fails to capture. True, Saddam’s forced removal from office bares little resemblance to that of Ben Ali, Mubarak or Gaddafi or Saleh but it nevertheless shows that even when an entire political party is removed from office, endemic corruption can stay behind. When political systems ‘fall’ they do not always break, a fact easy to miss when political figureheads are gone. Mubarakism could survive without Mubarak if the economic strength of a centralised and abusive military regime remains in his absence.
Crucially, the idea of a fall fails to capture the economic dimension of the causes and consequences of the Arab uprisings. It therefore neglects the crucial economic redistribution and reconstruction needed in states where long-term unemployment ranges between 10 and 25%, where jobs are particularly elusive for women and the youth. Perhaps more strikingly, even for the most educated in the Arab world, unemployment is high. Economic systems, like political ones, can become weak, can fail and can be reformed. But they cannot fall.
Many Arabs will soon begin (or have already begun) to feel powerless after a moment of empowerment. To describe that moment of empowerment as a ‘fall’ is a serious injustice to those who helped bring it about. Mistaken terminology around the Arab revolutions is not in scarce supply, as the phrase ‘Arab awakening’ demonstrates. To ascribe the inaction of Arabs to ‘sleep’ is a serious insult to their ability to intellectually rationalise their political lives. Moreover, to claim Arabs have woken up is to gravely underestimate the fear inspired by brutal regimes that forced them to appear dormant. Challenges which are as monumental as those that stand before Arab countries that have risen up can not be met if the major successes of their civil societies are undermined by false analogies.
These terms are not just media buzz words, nor are they hype exclusively in English. As the Iraqi case shows, they are integrated into language and serve as important cultural and historical artifacts, signposts by which an entire nation defines what is and is not possible. It is crucial to get these terms right if future governments are to feel accountable if they commit the same crimes as past governments who were pushed. Otherwise tomorrow’s leaders continue business as usual fearing only the forces of nature that caused their predecessors to apparently ‘fall’ yesterday.
What goes down must sometimes come up. By using the term ‘fallen’ regime rather than, for instance, ‘ousted’ or ‘deposed’ regime, it isn’t clear how it came down nor indeed the chances it might come up again.
Mona Chalabi is a political and security risk consultant at INCAS Consulting. Prior to joining INCAS, Mona worked as a Monitoring and Evaluation Consultant at the International Organisation for Migration’s Iraq office, as a Research Analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit and, more recently, as a Researcher evaluating levels of corruption in Iraq and other MENA countries for Transparency International. Mona can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @MonaChalabi.