Friday, 2 March 2012

The Arab Spring did not take place

This is an extract from my chapter in 'Mirage in the Desert? Reporting the Arab Spring' (Ed. Mair and Keeble)'

Trojan War taking place?
On 21 November 1935, a former diplomat and soldier Jean Giraudoux opened his new play at the Theatre de l’Athenee in Paris. Called La guerre de Troie n'aura pas lieu (The Trojan War Will Not Take Place), it imagined and created an eve of conflict debate in which the heroes and heroines of the Trojan War argued to avert the coming catastrophe.
It was typical of its era, surreal and absurd at one and the same time. And it worked on a number of levels. 
At its simplest, it was a critique of the politics and diplomacy that had failed to avert the Great War and were failing to contain a resurgent, militant Germany.
At another level, it was a play about fate and inevitability. The ‘Trojan War’ did take place, at least within the minds of the audience and the confines of the mythological universe Giraudoux was drawing on and reflecting on stage. Arguments to avert it were futile. Strong reasoning, compelling alternatives could not turn aside what was inevitable.
It works on yet another level, too. The Trojan War isn’t just any old story about any old war. It might not be as well known today as it was in 1935, but it is one of the defining stories of our culture. The Trojan War, in myth and in reality, one of the defining wars. And as Giraudoux’s audience watched, they were witnessing characters on stage who they ‘knew’ in most cases better than they ‘knew’ the real people around them. Hector and Helen and Priam and Ulysses and the rest. They ‘knew’ them because of the narrative that defined them; a narrative that the characters themselves, paradoxically, created. They weren’t just locked into an inevitable narrative, they were that inevitable narrative. They couldn’t exist without it; it couldn’t exist without them. Irony was folded inside irony. If Hector’s arguments to avoid war had been allowed to prevail, he couldn’t exist as the Hector we ‘know’ because the story he exists within, ‘The Trojan War’, wouldn’t exist.  
Watching Giraudoux’s play, the audience were like time travellers watching our grandparents debate whether or not they should marry.
Existential irony
It was to this existential irony that, nearly sixty years on, the postmodernist writer and academic Jean Baudrillard referred in his 1991 collection of essays, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, essays originally published in Liberation and the Guardian in the winter and spring of 1991. As ‘The Gulf War’ was about to take place, was taking place, and had taken place. Or rather, as Baudrillard argued, as the events that coalition politicians, military and media portrayed as ‘The Gulf War’, was about to take place, was taking place, and had taken place.
Baudrillard turned Giraudoux’s ironies on their head. In his account of a war not taking place, it was the audience that was unwittingly caught in the inevitability authored for them, not the characters on stage.
He didn’t argue that nothing happened or that there was no military action, violence and death in Iraq in the first months of 1991. There self-evidently was. His argument was with what we thought it was. And the violence and deaths were not ‘The Gulf War’, except in the minds of coalition politicians, military and media. And audiences.
Baudrillard’s argument was not as complex as his detractors portray it. For ‘The Gulf War’ to have taken place, there would have to have been real combat between coalition and Iraqi forces. There was no such combat. No war.
Sure, the coalition was bombing and firing missiles from 30,000 feet. And inviting audiences to whoop at the images from the warhead nose-cams. It cycled and re-cycled images of civilians and conscripts consigned to hell. It was all to establish a narrative called ‘The Gulf War’. A narrative we ‘knew’. A narrative nourished by Cent Com and the media in Doha. 
Baudrillard argued this was not ‘The Gulf War’. Coalition and Iraqi forces didn’t actually meet in combat. Each did its belligerent stuff, but each did it as if they were in different universes. Coalition troops were so distant from true combat that fewer died in the ‘war’ than would have died back home in gang-fights, as crime victims or in road accidents. For his part, Saddam didn’t sacrifice troops and civilians to fight ‘The Gulf War’. The 100,000 dead were the price he had to pay to stay in power:
“the final decoy that Saddam will have sacrificed, the blood money paid in forfeit according to a calculated equivalence, in order to conserve his power. ”
And conserve his power he did – for a further twelve years. The ‘victors’ didn’t win and the ‘vanquished’ didn’t lose. Spring 1991 in Iraq may have been an “atrocity”. A bloody series of appalling atrocities – but ‘The Gulf War’ did not take place.
Baudrillard’s essays may appear to be a semioticist’s whimsy – worse, a French semioticist’s whimsy – or a vaguely interesting academic diversion. Rather like Giraudoux’s play may seem, in the end, no more than an intellectually challenging night in the theatre.
Except that … what things are and how we portray them matters hugely to us journalists. And to our audiences.
'Supernarrative' - an ugly trick
We journalists – especially editors in newspaper and broadcasting newsrooms – find ourselves working an ugly trick every day on our audiences. On the one hand, we’re about telling them something new, something salient. Something significant that they don’t already know. Something they didn’t know they don’t know and didn’t know they need or want to know. Dealing in truth, something close to education. On the other, we have to engage them – with tantalising headlines, with facts and observations that sit at the extreme edge of truth. And with stories. Stories that, by virtue of being well written or well told alone, engage their attention and turn it to matters they never knew they needed to know something about. Dealing in impact.
The tool we know that has the most impact of all is the ‘super narrative’. The huge, over-arching narrative that binds other, minor narratives together. That gives them meaning above what they are in themselves, offering the audience what Aristotle called ἀναγνώρισις – ‘recognition’. The means to recognise and empathise with people culturally, emotionally and socially distant from ourselves. The means to link disparate events. To recollect them at a later date. We often give these super narratives snappy, instantly recognisable, memorable titles. Titles we can use in a blazing strap or an over-the shoulder identifier in a TV news bulletin.
‘The Moors Murders’; ‘The Fall of Communism’; ‘Showdown in the Desert’; ‘The Credit Crunch’. 
And, paradoxically, the more that those of us living in digitally hyper-charged cultures are able to know – via the web, social media, 24/7 TV channels – the more we need these super narratives. To tell us: ‘hey … this matters – and here’s why’ or ‘hey… it’s that thing again, the one you were interested in last time’ or. Or even to tell us; ‘hey … you might not think you know anything about this, but it’s a lot like this other thing’. At the same time, those technologies that have increased the quantity of what we can know has decreased what we ‘know’ in common. That, in turn, means that journalism’s super narratives have had to become more reductive, more detached from reality, more resembling what Baudrillard called ‘hyper-reality’. They become illusions. Just like ‘The Gulf War’. They become misleading and unpredictable, too. It’s harder and harder for those of us who create these super narratives to know or predict all that the references will excite in our audiences. What references, precisely, the word ‘Arab’ will generate in the minds of those in the audience. Yet we persist in it.    
It’s easy to see how and why we journalists reached for the super narrative that we called ‘The Arab Spring’. We knew that something was happening and sensed that it was out of the ordinary. People were on the move, politically on the move. For the most part, it was the Arabic speaking countries we were most interested in. And by the time we realised we needed to name it, it was early spring. And spring carries overtones of new life. New growth. Re-birth after a long, dark winter. It was ideal.
Stockholm in the sand
We assumed, probably quite rightly, that few in our audiences would be hugely engaged by a tragic row over property rights in a country most thought of only as a holiday destination. Or in yet another Sunni/Shiite religious squabble in a country that was almost never in the news and to which most people couldn’t point on the map. Or in an elite in the Arab world’s only democracy as it debated the merits and demerits of its confessional constitution.
Create a super-narrative, a hyper-reality called ‘The Arab Spring’ and you might have a chance. Any expression of popular discontent in any Arabic speaking monarchy or despotism was a signifier of ‘The Arab Spring’. It felt real. It felt energetic. It was full of movement. And terrific TV pictures.
But ‘The Arab Spring’ did not take place.
Think back to the event that in most of us in the western media identify as the beginning. December 17, 2010 when Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street trader in Sidi Bouzid, set himself on fire, protesting at the arbitrary exercise of power by the police and local government officials. A petty abuse of authority that prevented him exercising his property rights, his right to trade, his right to earn a living. The police had continually harassed him. Confiscated his  goods, even the barrow from which he sold fruit and vegetables. Officials kept revoking his trading permits, seeking ever bigger bribes. Basboosa, as he was known to family and friends, suffered 90% burns. Within hours of his self-immolation, there were local, then regional then national street protests. He died on 4 January, 2011 and by the end of the same month, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had gone. The revolution had begun.
And that might have been that. The Tunisian January.
Except, Egypt seemed to follow where Tunisia had led. Like Tunisia, it was an Arabic-speaking pseudo-democracy. There were self-immolations. Growing  street protests. And no less a figure than Mohammed el-Baradei, international diplomat and the man who the opposition wanted to challenge President Mubarak, warned that change was “inevitable” in his native, estranged Egypt following revolution in Tunisia.
Egypt was big. Egypt mattered in a away that Tunisia didn’t, so it was time for the super narrative. Finally, the story went,  the Arab world was emerging from its despotism to join the only true political faith; western liberalism. Populations will rise spontaneously, thirsting for freedom and justice. Like Giraudoux, we placed characters we ‘knew’ – the masses in Arabic speaking countries – inside a super narrative that we ‘knew’ – all nations’ remorseless progression to democracy.
And that super narrative, the ‘hyper-reality’ if you like, drove what we looked for and reported. What we headlined. And, just as importantly, what we didn’t. ‘The Arab Spring’ was a ‘domino’ story, we decided. 
One Arabic despotism after another would fall to western ideas of liberal democracy. The people would, at last, build Stockholm in the sand, celebrating plurality, embracing the rule of law.
And before long, we became familiar with the modalities. There would be a ‘Day of Rage’, linked often to Friday prayers – so we made sure the cameras were there. Articulate young men and women would find the TV cameras, or the cameras would find them, and they would speak in polished Harvard English about freedom and democracy and law and the burning desire for justice. And we would show how Facebook and Twitter and SMS were their communication tools of choice.
And because we knew these were Muslims – and we ‘knew’ that story too – we looked for the hidden hand of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the machinations of Islamic fundamentalists elsewhere. We speculated on whether ‘The Arab Spring’ would weaken or strengthen al Qaeda.
Just as Baudrillard argued, the pictures and themes and interviews we selected were all images of the hyper reality we called ‘The Arab Spring’. We collected and shared them as if to confirm to ourselves that what must be taking place really was taking place.  
There was much we overlooked, much that was inconsistent with our super  narrative that declared this was ‘The Arab Spring’ . At the mundane level, the millions in every country who did not become involved in the popular uprisings, either out of fear, lack of interest, distance or because they sustained in themselves a weary cynicism that nothing was changing, nothing would change. We overlooked the images of daily trade and schooling and bureaucracy and traffic and and and … anything that was happening just as before, untouched by our super narrative.
At the symbolic level, we overlooked the near total absence of Arab nationalism in ‘The Arab Spring’. We overlooked the presence of non-Arab actors; the Berbers in Morocco – non-Arabs – Kurds in Iraq. Jews in Tunisia and even Coptic Christians in Egypt.
And we overlooked the role of tribalism, personal fear, vengeance, familial loathing. ‘The Arab Spring’ was a political movement. We could not include non-political dynamics. 
That’s not to say we ignored the complexities. We didn’t. But, with few exceptions, we were oblivious to the obvious. That the causes and characteristics of each uprising were different from any other – and that once we’d listed them all, they became meaningless as signifiers. They were not unique features that identified ‘The Arab Spring’ and only ‘The Arab Spring’.
That list of causes and characteristics – in one constellation or another – would have defined and explained any and every political movement and popular rising throughout history. Here it was poverty and cronyism, there the frustrations of an educated, ambitious middle class. Here there was benevolent monarchy, there cruel dynastic autocracy, there a personal fiefdom of a tribal strong man. Here there was sectarian division, there generational animosities. In some places it was all or most of the causes, in others one or two.
One of the few journalists who ‘got’ this essential truth was the BBC Newsnight Economics Editor Paul Mason. When he tried to account for “what’s going on”, he eschewed the super narrative ‘The Arab Spring’. He found, instead, twenty deep factors that applied as much to the banlieues of Paris and the suburbs of Dublin as it did to any Arabic speaking autocracy. Mason spoke instead about a:
“protest meme … sweeping the world … [that doesn’t] - seek a total overturn [but seeks] a moderation of excesses”.
But those of use who preferred to stick with our super narrative had much to draw on from the lines our narrative’s characters wrote for themselves. Take the ubiquitous slogan, chanted and scrawled on the walls of public buildings: 
الشعب يريد إسقاط النظام‎ (ash-shaʻb yurīd isqāṭ an-nizām). ‘The people want to end the regime’. 
We heard it first in Tunis. And then in Tahrir Square in Egypt. And in Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, Beirut and Jordan. It validated our narrative, provided the motivation for our super narrative. Gave us an explanation for thinking the way we did. ‘Ash-shaʻb yurīd isqāṭ an-nizām’ had the virtue of sounding like the historical inevitability we ‘knew’ was being played out on the Arab street. We ‘knew’ it had only ever been a matter of time before the Arabs succumbed to the inevitable history of liberal democracy and threw off the despots. This was how history progressed. We turned ‘historical’ inevitability into narrative inevitability and ‘ash-shaʻb yurīd isqāṭ an-nizām’ proved we were right.
Phew. It was ‘The Arab Spring’. 
Yet this slogan, though ubiquitous, meant different things to different people in  different places. In imperfectly democratic Lebanon, it was little to do with despotism or poverty. It was a call for the end of its confessional constitution – a constitution that placed religious and sectarian differences at the heart of the state. Differences that kept the country weak, permanently in thrall to its despotic neighbour, Syria, and a permanent threat to its powerful, polyphiloeisbiazetic southern neighbour, Israel.
In Tunisia, it demanded an end to cronyism, corruption and economic suffocation. In Egypt, it was the susurration of a discontented middle-class – professionals, small businessmen, a bourgeoisie frustrated at the limitations an ageing military ruler placed on their political aspirations.  
While in the Palestinian territories, where the alienation of Hamas and Fatah continued to guarantee the impossibility of a two-state settlement in the region – the slogan was tweaked to الشعب يريد انهاء الانقسام – ‘the people want to end the division’.
Endorsing the super narrative
Arab academics and western students of the Arab world seemed to endorse our choice of super narrative, too. Much as Mohammed el-Baradei had done. We were seeing “a people [moving] as a whole, into spontaneous protests” wrote one. Young Arabs “will no longer tolerate … the contempt and disrespect their governments have shown them” said another, adding that they do not just mean their own “corrupt governments; they also mean the old regime that has prevailed for decades in the entire Arab world, from the Atlantic to the Gulf”. It was a “youthquake”. There was “social cohesion and unity in the project” most agreed. It was ‘The Arab Spring’.
Except it did not take place.
The Tunisian revolution that followed the demonstrations surprised us – none more so than President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who scuttled away from power in the dead of night. The demonstrations in Tahrir Square were a surprise too and it’s just about possible to forgive our read across from Tunisia to Egypt when President Mubarak was forced to step aside. Except, there will be autumn elections in one, Tunisia, while the army still clings on to power in the other, Egypt.
Much as we wanted, expected and predicted that “The Arab Spring” would follow our super narrative, we now find it did no such thing. Arabic speaking populations have not emerged into the broad, sunlit uplands of western, liberal democracy. The old regimes have made the least possible concessions to respond to political demands. Or have thrown handfuls of petrodollars at those demanding social reform – better healthcare, education, reduced poverty. The political and economic dispensation in Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman and Saudi Arabia has shifted not one millimetre.
The civil war in Libya followed a different course, as did the cycle of demonstration and repression in Syria – and in both cases, events slid over into new super narrative – ‘The Libyan Civil War” and “The Syrian Repression”. They were no longer ‘The Arab Spring” and most in our audiences no longer make that association.
For the rest, though, if you were to go out into the streets of Britain a year on from Basboosa’s suicidal protest and ask our readers, listeners and viewers,  ‘what happened in The Arab Spring?’ you’d almost certainly have reflected back to you the super narrative we created for them.
The people speak, spontaneous protests – hurrah. Democracy, justice, freedom – hurrah. An end to repression and corruption – hurrah. Arab dictators forced to listen to their people. The Arab world finally following in the west’s historical footsteps. Hurrah.
Except, ‘The Arab Spring’ did not take place.
There was irony here, too. Just as much as in The Trojan War Will Not Take Place … except that this time it was us, the creators of our hyper-reality who couldn’t see outside our super narrative and were defined by it. Unlike Giraudoux’s characters, the real people of those Arabic speaking states – those on the streets and those in power alike – were able to shape events and were not delimited and defined by our account of those events.
‘The Arab Spring’ did not take place.
Definable shapes
None of this would matter if it weren’t for the simple truth that this model, this creation of super narratives wasn’t increasingly the one we follow, especially in the way we report World News. Believing that we can’t explain and our audiences can’t understand the world without us rendering it subject to a hyper-reality.
It has always been the case, of course, that journalism has had an existential need to create narrative entities outside events themselves. To place on top of reality a story or stories, narrative entities without which it could not exist. There is too much information in the world, too much of the world.
As long ago as 1922, the magazine publisher and author Walter Lippman wrote in Public Opinion that journalism is a limited, reductive activity. It cannot report all of reality and to exist it has to be the product of a “standardized routine” that selects and presents. A routine that makes use of “watchers stationed at certain places” – journalists, reporters – to spot a “manifestation”. Not reality. Not a complex truth. But a “manifestation”, an event that “signalises” that there is a reality, that that there is a truth. And to be news:
“The course of events must assume a certain definable shape, and until it is in a phase where some aspect is an accomplished fact, news does not separate itself from the ocean of possible truth.”
Ninety years on, that “ocean of possible truth” is many times squared greater than anything Lippmann had in mind. The journey from “manifestation: to “definable shape” has to be very much quicker, too, in a world of 24/7 live and continuous news and the instantaneous web. And it is cross cultural and trans global.
Where it was once about merely recognising those “definable” shapes – a news sense, a nose for news – now it is about creating them. Creating those super narratives. Like ‘The Arab Spring’.
And every so often, as Baudrillard argues we did with ‘The Gulf War’ and as we clearly have with ‘The Arab Spring’, we get it so wrong we create an illusion. 
We have to think harder, much harder than we do about how and why we create these super narratives. Something we now do almost instantaneously with events themselves and as a matter of routine. We need to think harder about the kind of super narratives we create, too.
‘The Arab Spring’ bulged with western liberal political assumptions and associations. It was  a narrative certainty. But those certainties were built on ideas which, to those who don’t share the western view of mankind’s inevitable ‘progress’, look like, feel like and are intellectual imperialism.
‘The Arab Spring’ did not take place. Our inevitabilities were not realised and may never be realised. And, in an inversion of Giraudoux’s irony, it is we – the western authors and western audience – who are locked into an inevitable narrative.   
Since 1914, we’ve stroked ourselves with the idea that journalism is the first draft of history. Since 1943, we have conceded it is merely a “rough” draft. But for all its roughness, journalism’s super narratives tend to survive the revisions of time, in part at least and most usually in their titles. Expect to read the winter and spring of 2011 described as ‘The Arab Spring’ in decades to come.
But ‘The Arab Spring’ did not take place. Proof, if any were needed, of Hemingway’s maxim: “The first draft of anything is shit”. 

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