Tunisia’s revolution anniversary: Who coined “Arab Spring”?

December 17, 2011

When Tunisians succeeded to topple the oppressive regime that ruled them for two decades with an iron fist, the world applauded.

The media, mainly in France, the country that occupied the North African country between 1881 and 1956 and had a strong love-hate relationship with its people, termed it the Jasmine Revolution, in reference to the jasmine, its much admired flower.

The American media, not used to the great jasmine smell, opted initially to refer to the unprecedented movement in the Arab world as the Facebook Revolution.

Both were myths that neither reflected the reality on the ground nor paid the due tribute to the people behind it.

In March, two months after the success of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, the term “Arab Spring” became the word used in the media.

Tunisians were bewildered as their movement both started and culminated in deep winter, months ahead of the spring season.

But in the peculiar world of the media, weather considerations never were the real stars of a successful show. They were merely the supporting cast to impressive catch words with a pre-loaded meaning.

Spring, with its pleasant connotation and its clear reference to historic dramatic changes in Europe was a good attribute. Adding Arab to it since the events were this time unfolding in Arab countries gave the media the much-coveted expression.

“The Oxford English Dictionary” has a long historical etymology for the use of Spring. It lists the “Polish Spring” of both 1956 and 1982, the “Seoul Spring” of 1979 in Korea, the “Prague Spring of 1968, Russia’s second half of 1904 as a “spring” of liberalism”.

It also has a series of German uses that translated “Volkerfruhling” as a “People’s Spring” and the French “Printemps des Peuples,” to describe revolutionary European events from 1848.

In the media sphere, George Packer, writing for the “New York Times Magazine” on March 2, 2003, used in his article “Dreaming of Democracy” the term in reference to the war in Iraq as not something that might inspire the type of a movement that could be an “Arab Spring.”

Charles Krauthammer, a syndicated columnist, wrote in 2005 that the “Arab Spring of 2005 will be noted by history as a turning point for the Arab world.”

The term was probably used as a play on Prague Spring.

On January 6, 2011, eight days before Ben Ali fled Tunisia, Marc Lynch from Foreign Policy wrote an article on “Obama’s ‘Arab Spring.”

On January 14, an editorial in the Christian Science Monitor, asked on the day Ben Ali was ousted: “Arab spring? Or Arab winter? That choice is now before the autocratic rulers in the Middle East and North Africa as they nervously watch a popular uprising oust a repressive leader in one of the smallest – but most stable – countries of the region, Tunisia.”

The British daily The Times on February 19, 2011, one month after the success of the revolution in Tunisia and as Egypt was going through its own revolution, wrote that “the Arab Spring, the great awakening, 2011’s equivalent of the fall of communism in 1989, is spreading across North Africa and the Middle East like water pouring from a broken dam.”

However, notwithstanding the romantic image of the spring rebirth and other pleasant connotations, Arab intellectuals are not comfortable with the expression “Arab Spring.”

Writing in the Lebanese Daily Star on August 17, Rami G. Khouri said that he found “the term that seems to have gained much currency across the Western world totally inappropriate.”

“The most important reason for this is that this term is not used at all by those brave men and women who have been on the streets demonstrating and dying for seven months now. Every time I run into a Tunisian, Egyptian, Libyan, Syrian or Yemeni, I ask them how they refer to their own political actions. Their answer is an almost universal, ‘Revolution’ or thawra, in Arabic.”

“Inherent in the term ‘spring’ for sure is the idea of an awakening after the winter slumber. However, it also denotes a brief or limited transitional moment that soon gives way to the next season of summer. It mirrors Czechoslovakia’s brief “Prague Spring” liberalism of 1968, which the Russians quickly halted, and also the European revolutions of 1848 a century earlier,” he wrote.

“Tellingly, the “spring” metaphor was not applied to the revolutions that swept the Soviet Empire in the 1980s and early 1990s. When real change happens, the world tends to describe this as a revolution, not a spring – except, it seems, in the Arab world.”




About the author

Born August 3, 1960 in Monastir, Tunisia
Media career:
  • ABC News (Tunisia)
  • Bahrain Tribune
  • Gulf News
  • Bahrain Television News
Teaching career:
  • Monastir (Tunisia)
  • University of Bahrain
  • MA  Mass Communications, University of Leicester
  • BA  in English & US literature and studies, University of Tunis

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