The uprisings are not definitive in goals, are not determinate in their pace, are not inclusive in terms of participants and beneficiaries, and irreversible in their direction.
In December 2010, Tunisian vegetable seller Mohammed Bouazizi went to the provincial headquarters in his town Sidi Bouzid to file a complaint about the mistreatment he recently endured from a policewoman. The woman had confiscated his vegetable cart, fined him, and insulted him. The refusal of the local municipality officials to see him resulted in a powerful political statement that nobody could have predicted. Bouazizi poured fuel over his body and set himself on fire in front of the headquarters for officials and civilians to see. Bouazizi died less than a month later, commanding attention to a political revolution years in the making.
“Bouazizi was a catalyst,” said Honorary Ambassador Rajendra Abhyankar to an audience of USF students and professors at his discussion, “The Arab Spring: How Did It Get Here and Where Is It Going?” on Nov. 19. Abhyankar is an Indian diplomat who lived in the Middle East for 13 years. From 1998 to 2001, he was the Indian consul general in San Francisco.
By setting fire to himself, Bouazizi ignited global awareness about the current unrest in the Middle East that Abhyankar refers to as the “Arab Awakening,” which is known to many as the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring is a revolution of protests, wars, and demonstrations of Arab nationals dissatisfied with the government and socioeconomic status of their countries. The protests have resulted in the overthrow of rulers in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen. Uprisings have broken out in 20 Middle Eastern countries. Abhyankar explained that ‘awakening’ is a more descriptive term of the circumstances, which he says have been a “process” of events rather than one “spring” of uprisings.
While Bouazizi’s fatal and powerful political statement brought the Arab Spring to the forefront of international news in December 2010, Arab citizens of the Middle East countries have long been protesting for governmental change. According to Abhyankar, the protests are unorganized and driven by younger generations aiming to reform the military, the current social contract, the broken education system, and women’s rights.
Abhyankar pointed out that the armies in Middle Eastern countries are “a state within a state,” meaning it is the army that determines foreign and defense policies. The government uses the current social contract as a suppression tool to combat civilian opposition, he said. “Holders of power make available all the things they believe citizens should want and in return expect people to remain silent about politics.” This vicious cycle is only made worse by the broken education system, which Abhyankar said provides “no possibility for enterprise.”
With more than half of the Middle East population under 35, the desire to protest for reform is incredibly intense, however, Abhyankar pointed out that the goals of these uprisings are difficult to pinpoint. “The uprisings are not definitive in goals, are not determinate in their pace, are not inclusive in terms of participants and beneficiaries, and irreversible in their direction,” he said, summing up the uncertainty surrounding the direction of the uprisings. Although the nature of these protests is spontaneous and highly unorganized in terms of concise goals, they all call for complete government reformation. What this reformation will look like is the most unclear. Citizens are in favor of democracy with Islamic inspiration, but the question is whether or not Islam will be compatible with democracy. Supremacy of parliament, an independent judiciary, and a constitution under the widest consensus are the desired elements of democracy that the Arab people are fighting for.
“How do we get there?” was Abhyankar’s main question. He pointed to other government methods, such as those in Turkey, Iran, and Lebanon as models to look toward. Egypt, also, plays a crucial role in determining the fate of Middle Eastern governments. “Egypt represents two extremes: an elected president for the first time and a constitution panel that is 50% Islam” said Abhyankar. “Egypt is the most populous Middle East country and what happens there will influence what happens in other Middle East countries,” he said.
While the ideality behind the Arab awakening is to move these countries forward toward democracy and civilian controlled militaries, these protests have been the cause of much internal political instability, increased religious intolerance, and slow downs of economic growth. Having someone like Ambassador Rajendra Abhyankar come to USF and bring first hand insight into this crisis brought invaluable perspective to USF students. Caroline Earling, a junior international studies major, found the conversation “relevant” and said, “USF needs more speakers like this.” Hans Jacobs, a sophomore also majoring in international studies agreed. “It was interesting to hear what he had to say,” he said, adding that he was satisfied with the quality of information.
After the discussion, Abhyankar said he was content with students’ questions and ended by commenting on how interesting it was to have a discussion about countries in the midst of fighting for democracy in San Francisco, a city “known for democracy.”