History and the ‘Arab Spring’

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Media coverage of the tide of public demonstrations and political transformations since December 2010, which we have come to know collectively as the “Arab Spring,” has tended to coalesce around two predominant narratives: the unprecedented nature of these events and the fact that so few experts and analysts saw them coming. This course will explore the significance, as well as the limitations, of this prevailing media interpretation of current events in the Middle East by embedding the so-called Arab Spring within its broader historical context. Despite the import of social media—a decidedly new and dynamic phenomenon—in propelling the Arab revolutions, is the Arab Spring really as new or unprecedented as it initially appeared to us? Can certain apt lessons of history help us explain why the Arab Spring occurred when and where it did? What is the relationship between past conceptions of revolution, mass politics, and anti-authoritarian protest in the Arab world and those that are current today? Finally, what have been the implications of similar such discourses of Arab “awakening” across modern Middle Eastern history? This course has two main objectives. First, we will pay close attention to how the Arab Spring has unfolded in time in order to ask broader questions about how and why (and for whom) certain major media stories of our day constitute consequential historical events. To this end, we will read some theory about revolutions and historical “eventness” from outside the Middle East field. Second, we will isolate several of the most salient themes of the Arab Spring—the role of mass media; mass politics, public protest, and the “Arab street”; the politics of gender; authoritarianism; the generational divide and youth movements; the transformation of public space; violence; neo-liberalism and economic inequality; the question of foreign intervention and neo-imperialism—and consider the extent to which situating these themes in the broader historical context of the 20th-century Middle East can illuminate our contemporary political moment.