Sara Fregonese on the 2011 Arab Protests
October 20, 2011 4 Comments
A very interesting commentary from Sara Fregonese on recent events in the Arab world and North Africa. Sara is organising a workshop on “City/State/Resistance: Spaces of protest in the Middle East and Mediterranean” on the 1 December 2011, and has a paper entitled “Beyond the Weak State: Hybrid Sovereignties in Beirut” forthcoming in the journal in 2012.
Beyond the Domino: Transnational (In)Security and the 2011 Protests
Domino theory is back in fashion. Once part of the Cold War geopolitical dictionary, ‘dominos’ were invoked to describe both the spread of communism from Russia and China and its fall in Eastern Europe after 1989, and in more recent years, Moscow’s post-soviet security circles have been concerned with dominos of Islamic fundamentalism spreading in Central Asia (O’Sullivan, 1996). With the War on Terror and the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, however, a less threatening, almost desirable variation on the domino theory has been invoked by the Bush administration, envisaging a “democratic domino effect” (Reynolds 2003) spreading from Iraq across a ‘new’ Middle East. For almost a year now, the metaphor of the ‘domino effect’ has been used by media pundits and analysts observing the spread of popular protests against repressive regimes in the Middle East and North Africa. In the early days of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, mainstream media employed metaphors of contagion to question whether the “domino effect” (Piven 2011, BBC 2011) of the unrest will “infect” the Arab world (Spector 2011), a claim often dismissed from within the Middle East as a Western way of making sense of events which does not take into consideration contextual differences (Hurriyet 2011).
I want to question the domino analysis of the Arab events, firstly by highlighting a number of critical, even subversive uses of the domino, notably by political cartoonists, then by recontextualising the 2011 events within different geohistories of protest including those of transnational uprisings and repression. The need for a transnational recontextualisation becomes all the more pressing in the light of the recent global spread of the ‘Indignants’ and ‘Occupy’ movements and the need to understand these phenomena. Numerous transversal threads complicate the linear geometry of the domino stepping beyond the Arab region, into trans-Mediterranean spaces of protest, where the relationship between state and resistance comes increasingly under pressure. These threads expose the limitations - but most importantly the neo-colonial claims - of those understandings of change in the Arab countries, that consider them as nothing more than pieces of dominos falling along a pre-determined democratising path.
Patrick O’Sullivan (1996) described domino theory as “the notion of a contagious epidemic process in the incidence of political violence”, and had before then critiqued it as a simplistic view of geopolitical change: it views states as empty containers, conceives only one trigger of change, sees geographical contiguity as a determinant factor, and sweeps away any contextual uniqueness of place and identity (O’Sullivan, 1982). These critiques notwithstanding, the domino metaphor has appealed to many commentators of the Arab Spring. More interestingly, it has also appealed to political cartoonists in their attempts to “probe, to ridicule and to subvert the contemporary geopolitical condition” (Dodds, 2007: 174).
One example is Brazilian cartoonist Carlos Latuff’s vignette of the Egyptian protests. Latuff depicts a row of riot police as dominos falling before a protester waving an Egyptian flag in the name of freedom. Here, Latuff sees the whole apparatus of policing and repression crumbling under the weight of popular claims for social justice and freedom. It is an intra-state domino, rather than a fall of contiguous nation states. His vision is also hopeful one of popular resistance toppling a regime that can respond to such demands only with violence, riot shields and tear gas.
Carlos Latuff’s domino. Courtesy of Carlos Latouff. Source: http://twitpic.com/3tti4v
Another example is British cartoonist Ingram Pinn’s vignette which appeared in the Financial Times on 19 February. It portrays Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi in a compromising position with ‘Ruby Heart-stealer’, the Moroccan dancer he has been accused of paying for sex while she was underage, and for which now he faces charges. Such scandals constitute the main factors of his unpopularity in Italy, a country recently downgraded by the rating agencies and which experienced clashes between the police and demonstrators in Rome last week. In the cartoon, the two are threatened by the falling dominos of Arab regimes, with Italy’s ex-colony Libya overwhelming Italy. On the one hand, Pinn conveys a more classic view of the domino effect, spreading from one epicentre to contiguous states, treated as equivalent pieces. On the other hand, the cartoon offers a chance for discussing the transnational implications of the Middle Eastern events. Italy and Lybia had recently mended their postcolonial relationship with several meetings in Rome between Berlusconi, Gaddafi, and scores of young Italian women hoping to be recruited among the Colonel’s personal guards (Hooper 2009). A flirtatious special bond resulted in the last years, leading to several immigration and border patrolling agreements in their Mediterranean common border. However, the special bond vanished with the Arab Spring reaching Lybia, not least because it was from its bases on Italian territory, Decimumannu and Sigonella in Sardinia and Sicily, that NATO launched its operations in Italy’s former colony. Quite differently from the times of the special bond, the Italian government used fear-mongering tones in handling the incoming refugees from post-revolution Tunisia and Lybia, highlighting “all of the EU’s contradictions in dealing with its Mediterranean neighbours” (Bialasiewicz, 2011). Italian Foreign Minister Frattini referred to an anomalous wave (Frattini, 2011) of immigrants arriving to Italy from the southern Mediterranean, a view that is reinforced by academic geopolitics: Italian geopolitical review Limes published a special issue on Arab revolutions titled Il grande Tsunami (the great tsunami).
These transversal connections fuzz the domino pieces, and displace the material and cultural boundaries between the southern and northern banks of the Mediterranean.
Reflecting on the current wave of protests in a larger space/time frame reveals different geographies at work beyond a simple cascade of dominos. Take the early 2000s. Western mainstream media interpreted Lebanon’s 2005 ‘Cedar Revolution’ as part of the same winds of change sweeping Georgia (‘Rose Revolution’), Ukraine (‘Orange Revolution’), election-time Iraq (‘Purple revolution’) and Palestine (bringing Hamas to power). In 2005, following the murder of former PM Rafiq al-Hariri, hundreds of thousands of protesters filled Beirut’s central squares. They demanded the unthinkable and obtained it: the withdrawal of Syrian troops present in Lebanon since 1976. While nowadays he endorses protests in Egypt and Bahrein (but not in Syria and Iran, of course), Hezbollah’s leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah argued at the time in favour of appreciation of the local context, dismissing theories of a democratic domino effect: “Lebanon is an exceptional case. Lebanon is not Somalia nor Ukraine nor Georgia. If some people believe that they can topple Lebanon’s government, security, stability and strategic choices through some demonstrations, slogans and media, they are wrong” (2005).
Revolutions came and went within and outside the Arab region, and still interact with current events. Yulia Timoshenko, head of the Ukrainian anti-government coalition during the Orange Revolution, in March called for Tunisians and Egyptians to focus on strengthening civil society and leadership after the revolution euphoria, in order not to allow anti-democratic forces to regain power. Despite the regional uprisings today, disillusionment is widespread in Lebanon, where “the fount of enthusiasm and hope for domestic political change that burst forth in the spring of 2005 has nearly dried up” (Hazboun, 2010), as well as in Egypt, where the revolutionary wave has cleared the way for instability and sectarianism.
Juxtaposing the ‘Arab Spring’ with Mediterranean histories of dictatorship, revolution, and democratisation, reveals other connections and imaginaries beyond the Arab domino. Discussing politics after Hosni Mubarak’s resignation, a geography undergraduate pointed out to me that the most obvious comparison of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt was not with 1989 or the fall of the Berlin Wall as many media commentators have observed. Rather, it was the ‘Carnation Revolution’ that in his country, Portugal, swept away the regime of Antonio Salazar and Marcelo Caetano in 1974, unmaking one of the last dictatorships in Europe. In this light, the Mediterranean appears as a ‘revolutionary sea’ which since 1922 has seen the rise and fall of dictators including Italy’s Mussolini (1922-1945), Portugal’s Salazar (1933-1974), Spain’s Franco (1939-1975), and Greece’s Colonels Pattakos, Papadopolous and Makarezos (1967-1974). As these new democracies joined the EEC, real and imagined boundaries in the Mediterranean changed, shifting the “‘shadow line’ of alterity and (sub)alterity” from southern Europe “towards the [Arab] South” (Minca and Giaccaria, 2010: 8).
The line separating ‘democratic’ and ‘modern’ Europe from the authoritarian Arab Mediterranean now seems to be blurring again. According to the Democracy Index report by the Economist Intelligence Unit (2010), there has been a regression from democracy in Mediterranean Europe with Italy retreating from full democracy to “flawed democracy”, together with Greece and France, Israel, Cyprus, Croatia, and Montenegro. The deterioration of media freedom is sharp in France and Italy, together with Turkey Albania Montenegro, Egypt and Palestinian Territories. The human rights reputation of Italy became all the more controversial because of its joint patrols with Libya to reject illegal immigrants, which are then enclosed in detention centres in the Libyan desert (Fortress Europe, 2009; Human Rights Watch, 2009). The anti-government sentiment In Italy grew over a number of (occasionally violent) demonstrations and social movement creation (Popolo Viola, Girotondi, Cinque Stelle) along the past three years, over government spending cuts especially in education. However, on February 13th 2011, two days after Mubarak’s fall, it was in the name of women’s rights that the protest echoed in big cities in Italy and around the world. It called for Silvio Berlusconi’s resignation and for the reinstatement of women’s dignity, in the light of the PM’s sexual scandals and objectification of women. Practices of misogynistic degradation in Italian everyday life and the media – a big part of which is owned by the Berlusconi family – are common (http://www.ilcorpodelledonne.net/), but have been reinforced on the official level, for example by strengthening restrictions on abortion and emergency contraception, and by the Prime Minister’s downplaying rape episodes in inner cities by commenting on women’s attractiveness and clothing choices.
Italy is not an ‘early foyer’ of revolutionary contagion in the Northern Mediterranean though. Uprisings south of the Mediterranean have been paralleled by civil unrest in Europe for some time. France, Greece, and Spain have also witnessed widespread protests in recent years (often violent, and often met with violence from state authorities) against public cuts and austerity measures, and for human and gender rights. In October 2005, teenagers hiding from police in a power station in suburban Paris were accidentally electrocuted. This led to widespread protests and riots in the banlieues, which revealed overlapping histories and geographies of material and perceived injustice (Dikeç, 2007). In December 2008, the fatal shooting of teenager Alexis Grigoropolous by Athens police triggered civil protests and unrest across Greece that are still ongoing and have worsened in the light of austerity measures to correct its sovereign debt. Common references developed along 2011, and even earlier in the various sites of the present upheaval, on both banks of the Mediterranean, blurring the line between the ‘Arab’ protest for freedom and the ‘European’ one for social justice. Beyond the Mediterranean, in the UK, anti-cuts protesters vowed to transform Trafalgar Square into Tahrir (Taylor 2011), and so did the Indignados occupying Puerta del Sol in Madrid.
If the geographies and technologies of protest are transnational, so are those of repression. The protesters’ demands are often met by the heavy and bloodstained hand of state violence, and this is not typical of the ‘Arab spring’ on its way to democracy. 2011 has shown a clear “grammar of urban operations” (Hills 2004) by armies and police that is by no means the sole prerogative of Arab regimes. Quite the opposite, state tactics and technologies are shared between the West and its Middle Eastern ‘friendly dictators’, often recalling metropolis/colony relationships. In February 2011, the French government considered sending police to Tunisia and approved the transfer of police equipment to its former colony (Daily News Egypt, 2011). The networks sustaining the arms industry and trade include, in the case of the protests, European sales of crowd control weapons and other military equipment to Libya, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Algeria, and especially huge sales of arms from Italy to Libya, through Italy-based companies such as Selex Sistemi Integrati, Agusta Westland and Oto Melara (Defense News, 2011; The Guardian Datablog, 2011). Transnational networks of recruitment and repression have been all to apparent, with the acquisition of mercenaries from Pakistan and sub-Saharan Africa to reinforce the Bahraini and Libyan armies. The entry of Saudi armed forces into Bahrain last Summer to repress protests should also raise major questions about state sovereignty and territory.
Conclusion. Beyond the domino
Representations of the ‘Arab Spring’ as a series of dominos sweep away more complex connections between events involving countries on both sides of the Mediterranean. These include commonalities of language (indignation), urban practices (encampments, tents, marches), and aims (socio-political justice: “‘aysh, hurriya, adala al ijtimaiyya! – bread, freedom, social justice!” was among the slogans of the Egyptian revolutionaries) that deserve further exploration. Complicating the domino from multiple viewpoints allows us to understand the ‘Arab Spring’ not a sequence of ‘pieces’, bounded containers falling one after the other within a circumscribed region, but as unexplored networks that span the blurry borders of protest and repression across the Mediterranean into Europe.
There is one most important reason why these unexplored transnational threads need to be teased out. The frequent portrayal of the Middle Eastern protests – at least initially – as an Arab ‘renaissance’, ‘awakening’, a ‘1989-moment’ on their way to freedom, recalls an Orientalist and imperialist attitude that “folds space into time” (Agnew 1998), relegating some places to the backward stages of the morality play of democracy.
Instead, I want to point to those transnational threads of mobilisation, and their rubbing up against transnational state-led repression. These transnational geographies of (in)security and resistance of the present upheavals deserve to be exposed in order to keep blurring the real and imagined boundaries between an authoritarian Arab and a democratic European Mediterranean that is still taken for granted.
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