Middle EastPolitics

The ‘Arab Spring’ as a neoliberal frame’

By Thursday 4 October 2012 No Comments

During the past one and a half years I have given many lectures on the ‘Arab Spring’. Invariably, I ask my audience whether they can remember what their image of Tunisia or Egypt used to be before the uprisings of 2011. Usually, after some hesitance, a few people are able to recollect: ‘touristy, stable, beaches’ (Tunisia) and ‘used to be dangerous, snorkeling, stable’ (Egypt).

I ask this question in order to point out that most of us used to be oblivious to the fact that Tunisia and Egypt were dictatorial police states, decisively supported by the west. Neither western political leaders nor mass media had taken a critical position towards Egypt or Tunisia.

It is very difficult to find a reference to these countries as dictatorships or human rights abusers in mainstream media before 2011. Also, only in February 2011 we suddenly found out that 40% of Egyptians has to get by with $2 a day or less. For example, the first-ever article on poverty in Egypt on CNN’s news website was on February 1, 2011.

Moreover, the increasingly popular idea of the ‘Turkish example’ illustrates that there is an obstinate and selective amnesia as regards to the political and economic background of the Arab uprisings.

” It is very difficult to find a reference to these countries as dictatorships or human rights abusers in mainstream media before 2011. Also, only in February 2011 we suddenly found out that 40% of Egyptians has to get by with $2 a day or less. For example, the first-ever article on poverty in Egypt on CNN’s news website was on February 1, 2011. ”

The growth mantra
In 2010 the International Monetary Fund (IMF) published a report on the Egyptian economy. As in earlier reports there was much praise for Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt. The IMF concluded that the country’s economy had been ‘resilient’ to the global economic meltdown of 2008.

This resiliency was due to the ‘sustained and wide-ranging reforms since 2004’ which had ‘bolstered the economy’s durability and provided breathing space for appropriate policy responses’. These ‘appropriate policy responses’ were in fact privatizations, tax cuts for ‘investors’ and more cutbacks on the scant Egyptian social services.

In its report the IMF only wastes one sentence on rising food prices in Egypt. These are described as ‘idiosyncratic’ and ‘not demand-induced’. The high unemployment rate is similarly referred to in only one sentence; neither the exact scale nor the underlying causes are mentioned.

On the contrary, the IMF proposes an extension of the very policies that have drastically reduced living standards for most Egyptians during the past thirty years: ‘tax reforms’ (meaning tax cuts for multinationals and the wealthy) and ‘reducing fiscal vulnerabilities’ (meaning more cutbacks on social services) are some of the many regressive measures suggested by the IMF in order to let the Egyptian economy grow further.

The Organization for Economic Development and Coordination (OECD) was likewise full of praise for ‘top performer’ Egypt because of its ‘fiscal and monetary discipline’ and economic growth. Mubarak lowered import tariffs, granted ‘preferential agreements’ for western multinationals and reduced corporate taxes to a flat rate of 20%. These measures were warmly commended by the OECD because they stimulate the ‘investment climate for foreign capital’.

As is usually the case in deregulated neoliberal third-world economies, foreign capital ‘investments’ are mainly done via short-term profit seeking activities such as speculative financial transactions or private equity firms benefiting from privatized Egyptian sectors.

The consequences of the economic policies they advocate – increasingly precarious conditions for the majority of the population – are irrelevant for organizations like the IMF and the OECD. The only gauge is deregulation and economic growth.

Because these policies create enormous wealth for the select few, the idea that wealth will eventually ‘trickle down’ is a convenient moral cover. The growth mantra thus remains persistent. Notwithstanding the overwhelming historical record that shows the opposite; wealth has always trickled upward in third world economies that have embraced neoliberal policies.

Human rights
The atrocious state of human rights under the dictatorial regime of Mubarak has been well documented for years on end by, among others, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. This given, however, remained largely unmentioned in western public discourse.

Thus, Fareed Zakaria, an influential political commentator, wrote in his 2008 book The Post-American World that the Middle East had remained very ‘stable’ despite the American invasion of Iraq:

‘(…) where is the actual evidence of regional instability? Most Middle Eastern countries—Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, for example—are booming’.

Yet while Zakaria was praising its ‘stability’ and ‘booming economy’, Egypt had been in great upheaval for three decades due to rising food prices, increasing poverty and lack of human rights.

On 6 April 2008 there was another mass strike in Mahalla el Kubra, the center of the Egyptian textile industry. Faithful to tradition the workers of Mahalla protested not only for their own benefits but also for more democracy and against rising food prices. Support demonstrations erupted in the rest of the country.

The Egyptian government responded fiercely and crushed the strike by extremely violent means. It is therefore no coincidence that the ‘social media’ youth who took the initiative on Tahrir Square in January 2011 call themselves the ‘April 6 Movement’.

Fareed Zakaria did not even bother to look into the neoliberal poverty trap or human rights violations in Egypt, or in any of the other ‘stable’ Arab countries for that matter. As for most pundits within the narrow spectrum of public discourse, his only benchmark is geopolitical loyalty and economic growth.

The Egyptian economy did indeed grow under Mubarak, especially during the past decade. It is, however, virtually never questioned what economic growth exactly constitutes. How is it measured? And to what extent is economic growth in itself an indication of welfare for the population?

Economic growth is measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth. GDP growth or even GDP per capita does not say anything about income equality. Nevertheless, mass media and public discourse have uncritically been embracing the neoliberal ‘GDP fetish’.

More poignant indicators of economic welfare – such as wealth gaps, unemployment, labor rights and the amount of people living below the poverty line – are rarely discussed in mainstream discourse when it comes to allied dictatorships in the Middle East.

Framing refers to words or images that are chosen in order to emphasize earmarks that fit within an intended narrative. Political discourse and mass media are pre-eminently domains in which framing is utilized. For example, the term ‘flexible job market’ installs a positive frame to the dismantling of labor rights.

When after the fall of Tunisian dictator Ben Ali Egypt’s Tahrir Square filled up with demonstrators, the wave of Arab protests was quickly framed: ‘Arab Spring’ and ‘Arab Awakening’ have become the dominant terms in public discourse.

In January 2011, George Washington University’s Marc Lynch was the first to coin the term Arab Spring. This terminology, which obviously refers to earlier upheavals in history, has several subtle yet far-reaching effects for the shaping of public opinion.

The English word ‘spring’ stems from an old Indo-European word that means ‘inception’ or ‘new beginning’. In other words, it implies novelty and non-affectability.
Moreover, a spring is a season of nature. It comes from above and heralds a period of birth. Thus, the application of a meteorological metaphor implicitly strips the Arab people of their agency.

Accordingly, the subliminal effect of the phrase ‘Arab Spring’ is an erasure of the history of rising food prices, decreasing human rights and precarious living conditions. It underplays the background of strikes and protests that paved the way to the uprising of 2011.

Thus, by applying the frame ‘Arab Spring’ the discourse on the uprisings is neoliberalized so to speak; one of the main dogmas of neoliberal ideology is an omnipotent ‘free market’ where ‘disruptive elements’ such as solidarity and labor organization should be absent.

Similarly, ‘Arab Awakening’ is a frame that fits within an ahistorical narrative. Since one can only awaken from a sleep or a coma, apparently the populations of Tunisia and Egypt were hitherto in a state of lethargy as regards to struggling for democracy and human rights. The neo-orientalist question of whether ‘they’ (Arabs) are ready for democracy is thus implicitly perpetuated.

‘The Turkish example’
The idea that Turkey is a model for the Middle East has been in vogue ever since Prime Minister Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002. The ‘Arab Spring’ has given even more impetus to the ‘Turkish model’. The main thrust of this idea is that the AKP has not only been able to reconcile Islam and democracy but also sustain economic growth.

Yet again several crucial questions remain absent. In what manner is the Turkish economy growing? Does this growth translate into prosperity for the population? And how is the state of human rights evolving in Turkey?

Turkey’s economic growth under the AKP government has indeed been significant. Taken on average, though, it is little more than economic growth in earlier decades. Between 2002, when the AKP came into power, and 2011 Turkey’s annual GDP growth rate has been 5,2%. Between 1990 and 2000 average annual growth was 4,3%. And between 1980 and 1990 average growth was 4,6%.

Moreover, current economic growth in Turkey is to a large extent based on imports, fueled by an artificially overvalued Turkish Lira. Although this is rarely mentioned in most commentaries on the ‘booming Turkey’, the Turkish trade deficit has consequently reached a record high of 105 billion dollars in 2011. Also, the savings to GDP ratio, an indication of the extent of wealth creation for the population, has reached record low levels.

After Turkey joined the neoliberal Washington Consensus in the early 1980s official unemployment had been structurally high, around 8 percent. Under the AKP government, which is little different from previous governments as far as neoliberal economic policies go, official unemployment has increased to about 11 percent.

Similar to Egypt, more than half of Turkey’s population is 30 years or younger, of which many are educated, tech-savy and jobless; official youth unemployment is more than 25 percent. Bear in mind that these official statistics, as worrying as they are, do not reflect real unemployment, which is even much higher.

The amount of Turkish people living below the official poverty line is around 18 percent. But this number would be more than 50 percent if a realistic poverty line of $ 4,3 per day would be taken as a measurement.

Basic labor rights have reached new nadirs. Accordingly, the United Nations’ (UN) International Labor Organisation (ILO) has put Turkey on a black list along with countries like Belarus, Djibouti and Ethiopia.

Other democratically relevant criteria also indicate that Turkey is going backward. Because of the AKP’s neoliberal policies as well as the growing patriarchal-religious climate women’s labor participation has dramatically decreased. Similar regressions apply to female access to education. Consequently, Turkey currently ranks only 122 out of 134 countries on the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index.

Moreover, Turkey is world leader in persecuting journalists and intellectuals. Draconian laws are used to muzzle dissent. Turkey is now jailing more ‘terror suspects’, including 600 children and students, than anywhere else in the world.

In short, Turkey is certainly a model for the Middle-East if we consider an authoritarian government, suppression of basic rights and a neoliberal economic agenda to be good things.

Turkey, however, differs from the ‘Arab Spring’ on one crucial point. Unlike for example Egypt or Tunisia, Turkey indeed has a relatively fair electoral process. The AKP has decisively won three consecutive national elections despite the fact that their neoliberal economic policies are similar to those undertaken by previous governments.

This success is due to the AKP being a successful populist protest party. The abysmal economic and human rights record of the previous ‘secular’ regimes is still fresh in the memory of Turkey’s electorate. The AKP is thus able to channel popular discomfort towards the ‘corrupt secular elites’ and their ostensible intellectual supporters. Meanwhile, the AKP has been implementing the very social and economic policies against which it rhetorically agitates.

Despite the elaborate reporting in mainstream media there is a big information deficit on the ‘Arab Spring’. The neoliberal frame of this reporting facilitates geopolitical interests. For instance, public opinion was always well aware that the Syrian and Iranian regimes violate human rights and democratic principles.

However, allied dictatorships that have opened up for western neoliberal penetration – such as Bahrain, Jordan and hitherto Egypt – are hardly put up to the same measurement.

Furthermore, this neoliberal frame keeps public discourse from specifying the history and political economy behind the uprisings of 2011. The term ‘Arab Spring’ subliminally trivializes both the underlying history and the agency of the Arab people.

Considering the long history of struggle and the fact that the population has taken command of its own fate a more realistic term would be ‘Arab Revolution’. Not incidentally, this is also how the Egyptian and Tunisian people refer to the uprisings of 2011: Zawra (Revolution).

The one thing that strikes me most during the lectures and debates I do is the huge demand for factual yet  discerning clarification. This demand is insufficiently met by public discourse and mass media.

When I point out that Libya was quickly attacked while Bahrain, host of the American Fifth Fleet, was in contrast helped to suppress its ‘Spring’ on Diamond Square, my audience gets very curious.

I have literally caused hundreds of astonished gazes by showing a 2009 promotional film in which OECD president Angel-Gurria and CEO’s of several western multinationals are praising Egypt into the heavens. When I show a graph of the alarmingly decreasing labor participation of women in ‘booming’ Turkey a wave of questions erupts.

I refer to dictatorships that are allied to ‘us’, such as the ones in Jordan and Bahrain, as dictatorships. Moreover, I always speak of the ‘so-called Arab Spring’ and explain why.

Perhaps it is a hopeless task to try to compete against the frames of mass media and public discourse. Nevertheless, the gigantic want of information that I sense among the general public is pregnant: reframing the ‘Arab Spring’ is badly needed.

Zihni Ozdil,
Lecturer and PhD candidate
Erasmus University – School of History, Culture and Communication

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