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#6: The Arab Spring: Welcome to the Explanation Olympics

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Our Top Ten Blog Posts by Readership in 2011

Originally published on March 3, 2011

Is it possible to 'technocrat-ize' a revolution that is still roaring? The Arab Spring has been a spectacular surprise that so-called experts around the world failed to foresee, yet the same experts are now rushing to impose their favorite frameworks/paradigms on it. I call it the Explanation Olympics. There are experts who are tremendously certain the Arab Spring is all about social media. Others are quite sure it is all about the price of food. Still others say: it is the youth bulge, stupid. A New York Times columnist has just thrown a whole bunch of other explanations into the mix, some of them a trifle baffling.  (See: 'This is just the start' by Tom Friedman).

I suspect that the Explanation Olympics are only just beginning. They will soon move from the media to global conferences, and on to the pages of books so fat they can knock a grown man out. And the winner will not be clear for a long time, if a winner can ever be declared in competitions of this variety.

One can only hope that because we are witnessing a display of citizen agency on an epic scale, the Explanation Olympics will include what the brave souls leading the revolution, and paying the price for the effort, are actually saying. They are often asked: Why are you doing this? A word that keeps dropping from their lips is 'dignity'. They are fighting for 'dignity'. Now, it is quite likely that 'dignity' is a word with a rich layer of cultural meaning in the Arab world. I don't know what that is; so, let's treat is for what it is --- an English word.  According to the Oxford Dictionary of English, 'dignity' means: "the state or quality of being worthy of honour and respect". That means that you have citizens of sundry non-demoracies (I am being polite!) saying their political communities have to treat them as worthy of honor and respect. They are not simply saying it, they are insisting. And they are ferociously determined.

What makes the insistence on 'dignity' so striking is that it makes the story of the Arab Spring a human story, a universal human story. I point that out because as an African living in the West I am often surprised by how many so-called experts in development expect Africans, or Arabs or the Chinese (the list goes on) not to care about their civil and political rights or liberal constitutional democracy. We are told to wait until economic conditions mature.  Irritated, I would usually paraphrase Jeremy Bentham's riposte: Do you think there are people somewhere on this planet who just love, simply love, being oppressed? It is not a surprise, then, that when Charlie Rose of America's PBS station was interviewing the Algerian retired UN chief, Lakhdar Ibrahim, earlier this week and asked him what he thought was going on, Ibrahim replied; we Arabs are the same as everybody else! And I thought: I wonder why he felt compelled to point that out...

Therefore, as the unstoppable Explanation Olympics rage, I do hope there will be a space in there somewhere for the simple truth that inside all human beings there is a deathless yearning. As President Barack Obama once said (in Cairo, appropriately, in June 2009):

I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from people; the freedom to live as you choose.

Or, in the elegant language of the Arab Spring: Dignity.


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Submitted by Henriette on
Sina – this is an excellent blog. Thank you. I absolutely agree with you on both accounts: that dignity is the key concept to understanding the upheaval in the ME, and on the almost bizarre overload of technical "explanations" for the developments in North Africa and beyond. It seems there is a sad desire to fit complex human and societal dynamics into neat technocratic boxes build along lines of institutional mandates and expertise. This desire to simplify the world in technocratic categories is in my view all too often nothing but a sign of helplessness in the face of human complexity.

Submitted by Dani on
Excellent analysis.

Submitted by Karen on
Sina, This is a tour de force and welcome reality check. Thanks,

Submitted by Darius on
The governments of the region believed that they could use social protection and cheap food as a substitute for political reform. In this respect, we in the Bank proved to be very "client-focussed"!

Submitted by James on
I think, "a trifle baffling" might be the nicest way anyone has put it, when it comes to Tommy Friedman. That aside, your article is enlightening. Thank you.

Submitted by s masty on
Brilliant, moving and funny too! And the Explanation Olympics are as intellectually corrupt as the ordinary Olympics are financially corrupt. Happily the Arabs are running this show, not the wind-bags. Thank you, Sina!

Submitted by diana on
The 24 hour news cycle has put a premium on being fast rather than right (or at least informed). While the criticism of these superficial analyses is warranted, the flood of such analysis is a reaction to the real pressures many purveyors of knowledge confront in a very competitive information environment. If you're not first or at least very quick, you're seen to be less credible than those who are. If you lack credibility, even if it's for the wrong reasons, you don't attract money to do the work you really do well. It's a vicious and destructive circle. The really unfortunate thing is that important policy decisions will be made based on these quick analyses. We will all suffer as a result....

Submitted by Mary Myers on
Hi Sina, I love the 'explanation Olympics' thing. That really sums it up. Thanks.

Submitted by Anonymous on
Glad to see that you, too, have now entered the "Explanation Olympics" with your explanation of what it is all about.

Submitted by John on
Sina, Great blog. Having grown up in Brazil I agree with you that Northern media often have a hard time understanding the political dynamics of political movements in developing countries. It may take years for us to truly understand what were the fundamental forces at work which led to the democratic uprisings in the Middle East.

Submitted by Facundo on
Thank you for this post. A very timely post indeed. You make an impeccable point, and help refresh our minds with the tru reasons behind what we are observing from the distance: dignity (not twitter!). Thanks.

Submitted by Tin Aquino on
How ironic and unfair is it that theorizing about movements seeking to lend greater voice to a silenced majority are often tyrannical in themselves? While the exercise of theorizing from the outside is valuable on its own, it is perhaps only proper that the perspective from _within_ the uprising be just as irrevocable a component as, say, parallelisms from uprisings past. This actually reminds me of the relatively recent ethnographic wave in migration studies, which was in part brought about by criticisms of elite capture on earlier approaches. Perhaps an ethnographic study for the Arab Spring and other similar movements is a little too ambitious as of yet but these are the instances that warrant and deserve it the most. On a final note, "Explanation Olympics" is a funny way to put it! Spot on, too!

Submitted by Rikke Ingrid Jensen on
Well said! Now I'm only missing the FB 'like' button so that I can share you blog with friends and colleagues.

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