IR Club first event of the year: The Arab Awakening, “Where Are We Now?” with Haizam Amirah


The IR Club started off its 2014/2015 Speaker Series with expert Haizam Amirah (@haizamamirah) looking into the aftermath of the “Arab Awakening”. A topic that is of significant interest to many at IE, so much so, that we had a full house and some. Everyone seemed eager, for one reason or another. Eager to learn, contribute, dispute, clarify, question. With an active audience, Haizam began by setting the stage: why had most Arabs been living under their potential for so long, what factors lead to this unprecedented awakening of the Arab world, and why now?

To answer these questions, he first highlighted three overarching societal deficits: freedomswomen empowerment (which, he argued, was a result of a patriarchal society propagated by the mothers themselves) and lastly the spread of knowledge through education. However, as we would come to witness in 2010, societies would no longer stand for these injustices. What Haizam, and many, identify as factor X: a young street vendor setting himself on fire in the middle of a market place in a small town of Tunisia, would soon come to ignite a fire that would consume an entire region. One that, according to Mr. Amirah, had three specific drivers:

  • Demographics, a young population, ⅔ of which was under 30 and whom felt totally disconnected from their aging authoritarian leaders.
  • Equally as important, the women within that youthful population. They had been marginalized for so many generations prior, and who were now seizing the opportunity to become literate, pursue higher educations, and join the workforce.
  • Thirdly, technology, although this one was contested, which for the first time allowed individuals to become producers of information rather than simple consumers.

Having framed the Arab awakening, Haizam went on to classify what ensued under the three broad outcomes that aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.

Reforms, in countries such as Morocco, that promised to modify various aspects of the current system so that the aforementioned societal deficits would be reduced and public discontent kept at bay… for now.
Repression sadly being the most common, has been extremely pervasive in many of those Arab nations. We were exposed to Egypt’s case by audience members’ first hand accounts of the extent to which the Muslim Brotherhood tried to ban, for one, the third driver: technology. Syria, of course, is another victim facing the same fate. One that has culminated into an atrocious civil war, ongoing for more than 3 years now. There, Haizam introduced the idea of petrodollars, fueled by the influence of the international governments in a region that holds a majority of the world’s energy source. He proposed that pluralism in Arab countries, which had previously been carefully suppressed under the rallying chant of Pan Arabism nationalism, was now coming to the surface accompanied by the insecurity of different factions learning to collaborate under a collective government. However petrodollars only see the insecurity, not the positive process towards democratization, and consequently prefer to support the party able to ensure oil access. Even if that means supporting the very government repressing it’s own citizens. Knowing that, these governments may even go to great lengths in order to make themselves appear to be the lesser of two evils: collaborating to surrender the chemical weapons they were previously accused of using, pitching themselves as a protector against terrorists groups such as DAISH (better known as ISIL), and so on. With that being said, some debate did arise around Haizam’s accusations that governments would stage such atrocities against their own people in order to gain international backing.

Revolution was the last outcome he mentioned, and contrary to popular belief, one of the least prevalent. Tunisia was one of the few countries that experienced a true upheaval of their political system (although in no way consolidated yet), creating the most advanced constitution in terms of freedoms allocated. This draws the question why them, why did democratization start to take root there… perhaps it is because they learned from the errors of their Egyptian neighbors, or maybe because their society stayed vigilant to any deviance, but most importantly Haizam points to their geopolitical irrelevance, which has revealed itself to be a blessing in disguised at a time when so many are meddling in the middle east’s affairs.

This is where we are now, some may think the prospects are grim, but one student eloquently stated that real freedom is not only in the streets but also in the minds, and although we have a long way to go until people liberate their government as well as their countries, it can be done.