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The Arab Spring Didn’t Happen For the Reasons You Think It Did



By Mohamed Zaied

October 1, 2014

The fundamental factors that sparked the Arab uprisings are neither political nor economic. One needs to move beyond the economic and political bubbles and dive deeper to discover what lies beneath the waters, which causes such bubbles to surface.

Ever since Arabs were recognized as a distinctive social group, it is both believed and witnessed that the Bedouin philosophy of life has been dominating the scene of their societal nature; this fact doesn’t inevitably translate into being peasants, but rather nomads. Indeed, there is a big difference between the former and the latter since the most paramount factor for the former is the land: territory. The latter’s most important elements in life, however, are three but absolutely pivotal aspects: pride, dignity, and honour.

These Three adjectives do not depend on any specific land, but streams from within the social behaviour of a given communalistic cohort (Bedouins). Even though there have been relentless efforts to bring out the Bedouins from their classical way of life towards a much more modernized/westernized atmosphere, the Arab region remains heavily Bedouin because such comportment has never been considered a default but instead as a sign of pure originality.

Apart from that, calls for western democracy and pluralism, which have been intensively emphasized since the Arab social upheaval sparked its first blaze, the fact of the matter is that such promotions of political thought are least welcome among the majority, and rarely mix well with their asceticism towards life. Western democracy was opportunistically presented and tenaciously beautified by a small-slice of westernized, Arab, political elite, which is not the reflection of the Arab masses. One needs to analytically explore the social structure of societies in order to accurately implement the suitable political system for those societies. This has intentionally been overlooked during the transition of Arab politics.

Having said that, the immediate motivations of the Arab revolt and its forcefully hidden origins can be easily deduced and fully comprehended. In Tunisia, Mohamed Bouazizi did not set himself on fire because of the wreck of his vegetable caravan, which used to represent his daily bread provider, nor due to the poor political and economic situation which he had always lived under. Rather, the explanation is this: Being economically deprived, needy or hungry, politically excluded, marginalized or even persecuted are bearable aspects for Bedouins (Arabs) as they have always been living under extreme drought and scarce natural, political and economic conditions. But what is not at all tolerable is when an Arab hubris is hurt or degraded: This is called pride.

Qaddafi remained in power for more than four decades. During his governance, Libya went through one of the most devastating economic and political sanctions ever recorded in the history of this region. When a kilo of banana costs roughly three Euros in a country where the wage average was 120 Euros (not to mention the lack of the most basic products such as infant dairy products and clothing), one wonders why there was no rebellion in this part of the Arab World earlier on. Notwithstanding, Arabs in Libya had endured and resisted these unbearable circumstances believing that their fight with outsiders was for the sake of their dignity.

Yet, since Qaddafi’s decision of subservience to the desire of the west by eventually handing over the state nuclear program, people in Libya started doubting his real and dignified principles. Seeing Iraq’s invasion, Qaddafi shifted the national goals and favored his personal ones (throne and power). Thus, from a Bedouin point of view, ever since his decision to obey the west in 2003, what they used to hold true in Qaddafi; aggrandizement, respect, and ambition, flipped to be deprecation and degradation, ungraciousness and mockery, disappointment and revenge. In fact, since 2003 it was very common to walk down the streets and overhear or even participate in conversations and criticism of Qaddafi’s policies and political views. For many Libyans, the symbolism of Qaddafi’s dismantling of his nuclear program was absolutely despicable, and his national betrayal unforgivable. Yet, the uprising that happened in 2012 was not just the outcome of the above-mentioned; but as a drop of blood is spilled and wasted in Bedouin societies such as Libya, those responsible will start the countdown of not only their political and economic loss, but also their very existence, in other words, their lives: This is called dignity.

It Is Worth briefly outlining the fact that Islam for Bedouins means more than a way of life; it means a complete source of authenticity, honour and blind willingness to be exterminated for it to survive, flourish and be safely untouched (exactly as the honour of women, family, clan, or tribe which have existed and been inherited for hundreds of years). Ever since the assassination of King Faisal and the mysterious death of Jamal Abdel Nasser, neither Saudi Arabia nor Egypt has been able to give birth to a charismatic and nationalist leader. Not only is there a lack of national heroes, but also a sense of religious hypocrisy within the political elite, who are supposed to represent the ideal example of ethics as well as national and religious patriotism.

When one is a silent Satan, ignoring the humiliation of his brothers (ethnically as well as religiously when it comes to Arabs in Palestine), the violation of his proclaimed sacrosanct religious destination (Aqsa Mosque), and wrongdoing by doing nothing regarding the interference of neighbouring states, then Arabs everywhere are inclined to jump on the revolutionary train: This is called honour.

In Conclusion, money and political freedom may be wanted, but pride, dignity, and honor are undisputed, non-negotiable, and eternally indispensible from the nature of the Bedouin persona. It is thus totally misleading to read the uprisings from a western capitalist perspective. It will soon be clear that the Arab Spring occurred as a result of intangible values rather than palpable metal and papers (money), or as a motive for seeking presidential palaces, which the Bedouin views as nothing more than big golden jails. 

It is perhaps true that Bedouins may have changed their shelters, clothes, and might even have diversified their way of life, but make no mistake, the Arabian camels still sail all the way from the Atlantic to the Gulf; the Arabian horse still skims above the rocky lands of the Arab homeland under the Arabian hawk which has always scanned the Arabian skies. And the Bedouin has not at all disappeared; they may have just taken another name: the Arabs.

Mohamed is Arab-Libyan and a Doctoral Candidate in International Relations at the Geneva School of Diplomacy. He served with the opposition forces during the Libyan revolution.