Old Definitions Fail to Capture Arab Spring Complexities by Bessma Momani

Structural arguments have been convenient frameworks for understanding many aspects of Middle East politics and history, but they don't work as interpretations for the Arab Spring. Neo-Ottomanism, neoliberalism, Zionism, neo-imperialism, neo-colonialism, Americanism, globalisation and Islamism - all of these words have been put forward as explanations and paradigms to explain the Arab Spring. Considering all of the opinions, debates and rebuttals, I must admit that, for the first time, I feel frustrated with academic analysis of this watershed moment. The Arab people have been denied agency. It is high time armchair academics stop trying to fit political history into familiar and convenient theoretical frameworks.

As a political analyst of the never-ending Arab Spring, I have attended numerous conferences and workshops with fellow academics, as well as policymakers and think tank analysts, all trying to understand why the Arab Spring happened when it did. It is natural for academics to want to tie the events of the Arab Spring together, but these grand, global ideas - and yes, those frameworks do exist and have at times been domineering in so many ways - cannot explain where we are today.

The Arab Spring was about people who said enough is enough. Incredible. Who knew individuals mattered? And yet some experts and critics in the West and leftist Arab intellectuals remain reluctant or maybe even unable to go beyond these grand theories and structural paradigms. It might sound like a wild idea to many academics, but this is a revolution and an uprising instigated by people. The collection of these individuals reminds me of an Arab proverb: "When you add a hair, to a hair, and to a hair, you make a beard.

Who did the Arab masses blame for their predicament? Not neo-Ottomanism, neoliberalism, Zionism, neoimperialism, neo-colonialism, Americanism, globalisation or Islamism. It was the very leaders who claim to be representing these people. Arab governments were rightly blamed for socio-economic problems, and they are the ones that are being held accountable today.

The most refreshing aspect of the Arab Spring is that the Arab individual has woken up and said "yes, those grand theories, those grand structures, they exist; they've been a part of my story, my history and my past". But today, it is that so-called leader in the presidential palace and the prime ministerial office that I am holding accountable. Many of the Arab people who rose up against their governments knew that they deserved better. No matter what we call the aftermath.

You can find a link to my article at:


About Bessma Momani

Bessma Momani

Bessma Momani is a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and the Brookings Institution, and an Associate Professor of political science at the University of Waterloo.

The Couchiching Institute on Public Affairs invites opinions and commentary about public affairs issues by various thought leaders, members, and individuals to be presented on our blog. Opinions expressed on the Couchiching Institute Blog are solely those of the writer and not of the Institute.

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