What makes a narrative? Interrogating the story of the ‘Arab Spring’

Omar Al-Ghazzi is one of the seven 2013 Milton Wolf Emerging Scholar Fellows, an accomplished group of doctoral and advanced MA candidates selected to attend the 2013 Milton Wolf Seminar.  Their posts highlight the critical themes and on-going debates raised during the 2013 Seminar discussions.

The 2013 Milton Wolf Seminar featured lectures and discussions on the role of narrative in international relations and global communication processes. Narratives in this context are the stories – with their plots, characters and anticipated conclusions– that political actors and the media propagate to communicate and voice positions about political events and conflicts. They are closely linked to the events that they seek to describe. In fact, the kind of narrative produced about a certain event determines whether, for example, it is understood to be a war, a coup, a revolution, a riot, or a protest movement; and thus, is one of the main factors that shape its outcome. Inspired by the proceedings of the Milton Wolf Seminar, in this essay, I will focus on the dramatic events, referred to as the Arab Spring or uprisings and the ways that different political actors sought to strategically construct a coherent narrative out of the complex and ongoing events in the Middle East and North Africa. I emphasize the complexity that lies behind the simplicity of narratives. Basically, I seek to interrogate the who, why, when, where and what of the “Arab Spring” narrative construction and diffusion.

The Arab uprisings that began in late 2010 in Tunisia and spread across Arab countries in 2011 are a formidable example of the power that narrative construction wields in today’s global political and media environments. Tunisia was a central player in the Arab Spring narrative and the main setting of the original story. Mohammad Bouazizi, a fresh produce vendor in the town of Sidi Bouzid set himself on fire in a public square after a policewoman publicly humiliated him and confiscated his wares. His act of self-sacrifice is said to have triggered protests across Tunisia, eventually resulting in the ousting of Zine El-Abedine Ben Ali, the country’s dictator of 24 years, and inspiring people across Arab countries to mobilize via social media and call for the downfall of their own dictatorial regimes in order to usher in democratic systems.

Since the initial story developed, many criticized its simplicity. Most commentators focused their criticisms on the alleged democratic conclusion of the story, pointing out that the ending is unrealistic and overly optimistic. Others were most provoked by claims of a causal relation between social media use and the uprisings. At a more fundamental level, some in the Middle East have begun to believe in a whole new narrative, based on a conspiracy theory, that the “Arab Spring” was a staged play directed and executed by the United States and other Western powers to destabilize the region and instigate civil wars between secularists and Islamists or Sunnis and Shi’as. It is also remarkable how Arab governments from Syria to Egypt and the Gulf adopted the US narrative of the “war on terror” in their fight against Islamist opponents.

Of course, the original Arab Spring narrative, in addition to the other alternative narratives, is inherently simplistic as stories and narratives are meant to simplify complex events. In the political arena, they are created in order to influence the outcome of political events. Accordingly, rather than arguing whether a narrative is true or not, it is more fruitful and interesting to ask: who is the storyteller and what are the goals of the narrator in propagating a certain narrative? Considering that there are always competing narratives, another important question is which story achieves hegemony over others and is adhered to by most actors. Within this context, and in focusing on the issue of the “Arab Spring,” I suggest that it is important to interrogate and trace the creation of its narratives by simply asking the five “w” questions, used to deconstruct any story.

Where? There is more to the “where” question than simple geography. To begin with, the origin point (i.e. if it begins in a rural a town or a capital city, a public square or a mosque) of an uprising’s narrative has significant implications.  Locales and spaces are also imagined and mediated. The “Arab Spring” narrative was useful to protestors across Arab countries precisely because it collapsed spatial differences. The narrative was a political opportunity because it allowed the organization of protests in many different spaces at the same time. The split screens on pan-Arab news networks carrying simultaneous live coverage of protests from multiple Arab cities made it almost inconsequential if the footage was from Ta’izz in Yemen or Suez in Egypt. The mediated space was that of the “Arab Spring;” and that is what mattered. The same applies to online sources. News sites offered interactive maps of the Arab world that enabled readers to access news of different Arab protests seemingly as part of a single news story; and Facebook pages simultaneously followed and commented on various Arab uprisings.

Who? This is a key question about narrative creation and diffusion because it underscores the agency of political actors and institutions. In the case of the Arab uprisings, it is insufficient to just focus on the way that Western powers used the Arab Spring narrative to further their interests. Arab activists also gained from enmeshing their goals within Arab Spring narrative, portraying their struggles as a link in a historic chain of events bound for success. Opposition activists and politicians from countries as different as Egypt and Bahrain strategically flattened the complex differences between their political and economic contexts in their pursuit of political change. Here it is also important to ask further questions about these activists. Are they inside or outside the country in question? Are they part of organized political parties? Are they largely middle class? The answers to these questions are crucial to explaining the different outcomes of the various Arab uprisings.

For their part, Western governments were selective about which protest movements they considered part of the Arab Spring. Bahrain, a gas-rich Western ally, was not really part of the Arab Spring. On the other hand, Libya, ruled by the erratic Al-Qadhafi, fit the script perfectly. The governments of Europe and the US allegedly felt so concerned about the Libyan people and so outraged by Al-Qadhafi’s position that they intervened militarily to help topple his regime. In the case of Tunisia, only weeks after the protests began did Europe and the US communicate a coherent policy. Even as late as January 9, 2011, five days before Ben Ali fled the country, French Culture Minister Frédéric Mitterrand stated that “to say unequivocally that Tunisia is a dictatorship strikes me as completely exaggerated.” Days before the fall of the Tunisian regime, French Defense Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie suggested sending French security forces to help Tunisian authorities quell the protests. Thus, only after it became clear the protestors had the upper hand in Tunisia did France and other Western powers voice support for the opposition movement. As for Syria, a war over narrative continues to accompany the armed struggle on the ground. Western governments have not been enthusiastic in their propagation of any single narrative about what is going on—leaving it to regional countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey to shape its uprising’s story.

Why? As I stressed in the previous section, political actors create, shape, and propagate narratives. Needless to say, they are motivated by their political interests. In other words, realist considerations guide the ways that narratives are created and pursued in the international arena. As mentioned, Western powers aggressively pursued their interests in Libya because its geopolitical situation and oil wealth made the risk of involvement worth taking. In contrast, Syria’s central location in the Middle East and its impact on other countries, in addition to its complex sectarian politics and its opposition’s weakness, served the caution that Western powers showed towards the country.

What? Of course, what happens on the ground shapes and changes any narrative. Accordingly, political actors on the ground have a big impact in shaping a narrative; and actors who use violence have the power to change a narrative, even if they are a minority. In Syria, for instance, the narrative of a peaceful and popular uprising that most of the opposition initially believed in and sacrificed for buckled under the weight of the Assad regime’s violence. Similarly, the indiscriminate violence and religious fundamentalism of some armed rebel groups has eclipsed the actions and beliefs of other rebel groups and protest movements. As for the view from the West, Egypt is a clear example of how the narrative that many Western journalists and academics constructed about the multiple protests that took place since January 25, 2011 was repeatedly out of sync with the political mood in the country.

When? The chronology of events is also key to understanding how the Arab Spring narrative unfolded. The success of Tunisia inspired Egypt. Egypt, as the biggest and most influential Arab country, inspired Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and Syria. The success of Libyan rebels, backed by NATO forces, in the liquidation of Al-Qadhafi encouraged some Syrian groups to militarize their uprising. In turn, the messy situation in Syria perhaps halted the domino effect of protests from spreading to countries like Jordan and Algeria, as people became aware of how high the cost of political change can be. This analysis also applies to outside actors. Russia’s resentment of the way Western powers dealt with Libya must have solidified its resistance to any form of joint international criticism of the Syrian regime.

In conclusion, this essay has sought to emphasize that although narratives are important, and are indeed key factors that contribute to the actual outcome of events, they are also by no means sufficient in explaining the unfolding of events. Their construction and diffusion depends on multiple considerations and interests. I have also suggested that to understand narrative, it is important to take into account both constructivist arguments, which emphasize the power of discourse in shaping events, and realist considerations related to the capacity of political actors to influence events. Finally, it is also good to remember that it takes time for a single narrative to be institutionalized into “history.” Almost three years since the spark of the Arab uprisings was lit, their legacy is still in the making!

About the Author

Omar Al-Ghazzi is a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication. His research focuses on Arab memory, collective action, and political identity formations. His work has appeared in Popular Communication, International Journal of Communication, and Media, Culture and Society. A former Fulbright fellow, Omar comes from a journalism and media analysis professional background and has previously worked for the BBC and Al-Hayat Arabic daily.

About the Milton Wolf Seminar

Co-hosted by the Center for Global Communication Studies at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, the American Austrian Foundation, and the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, the annual Milton Wolf Seminar  tackles contemporary issues at the nexus of diplomacy and journalism – both broadly defined.  The 2013 Seminar, “Diplomatic Maneuvers and Journalistic Coverage in a Time of Reset, Pivot and Rebalance” explored the critical role of diplomats and journalists in shaping the outcomes of what we call global geopolitical pivots. Pivots in this case refer to emergent geopolitical shifts around which multiple stakeholders – from major powers, to multilateral organizations, to bloggers working in isolation – seek to provide input on the most appropriate outcomes. Examples of contemporary global pivots considered at the 2013 Seminar included: the ultimate resolution of the Arab Spring countries, the shifts in geopolitical approaches to Syria, calls for regime change in Iran, and the intense Western attention to reform movements and government change in Burma (Myanmar). A diverse range of academics, policy makers, and diplomats participated in the two days of presentations and discussions.  A full list of panelists is available here.

For more information about past and upcoming Milton Wolf Seminars and future Emerging Scholar initiatives, please contact: Amelia Arsenault.




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