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The Arab Spring-A triumph for Globalization?

Prior to the Arab Spring Libya, Egypt and Tunisia (the focus of my recent research) were all actively engaged with IFIs in an attempt to open their economies and integrate with global markets; all received complimentary reports from the IMF in this regard in 2010 and maintained growth as the UK entered recession. In light of this and the praise from the IFIs, 2011 saw the fall of all three regimes in the wake of mass social unrest, and in Libya civil war. Many of the issues which were protested against were the same in the three nations and can be attributed to being effects of economic globalisation.

Foremost amongst this is the profiteering that was rampant in all three countries by the political elites and Egyptian military, as a result of economic reforms and in particular privatisation. The extravagance of Gaddafi, Ben Ali, Mubarak and their families featured heavily in the protests. All accrued vast personal fortunes and bridged the divide between politics and business.

The next shared injustice was the illiberal political landscapes; made worse by the liberal image the regimes promoted abroad. All three were repressive: lacking meaningful democracy, free media and speech, with brutal secret police institutions, and endemic corruption compromising social justice.

As these dictators profiteered from privatisation and IFI backed liberalisation policies, their people suffered from an absence of personal freedom and development. The IMF/WB continued to work with the regimes despite their well-documented human rights violations and unsavoury constitutions. There is an inherent hypocrisy here within the hegemonic values of the globalisation that one could argue was a factor in galvanising pan-Arab revolt and that has undermined globalisation as a force for development in the Middle East.

Reminiscent of colonialism, it could be argued that those dictators traded a degree of autonomy for their own survival. By joining the neo-liberal bandwagon the West reaped the benefits of the financial flows and new markets whilst the pay-off for those authoritarians was personal wealth and diminishing criticism from overseas; the losers were the domestic populations. In this analysis, advanced capitalist countries have been complicit in the suffering of those populations through the processes of globalisation.

Food price rises as a result of global speculation has also been cited as a contributing factor to causing the Arab Spring. The commodities market has taken the pricing of essential goods out of local market control and is undoubtedly the product of globalisation.

Many have seen the Arab Spring as a triumph of globalisation based upon the role of social media (See Lisa Anderson in Foreign Affairs 2011) and the mobilisation of the diaspora, the seeming interconnectedness of the uprisings and the protestors demand for democratisation. There is evidence that suggests these dominant interpretations are unsound and that globalisations influence has been overplayed.

Internet access rates in Tunisia (24.1%), Libya (5%) and Egypt (24.3%) (opennnet.net) simply do not sustain the popular media construct of a Facebook revolution. Testimony from organisers of the Tunisian revolution tells an interesting story alluded to in this interesting interview). They explain that the technical side of the revolution was exploited and exaggerated to bring in coverage. It has always been my belief that rather than being facilitated by Facebook, the social media revolutions are a media construct: an interesting spin on more violence in the Middle East, in the context of Western populations otherwise disinterested.

Harder to ignore is the influence of the diaspora in conjunction with 24 hour news media. It was noticeable that characteristics of globalisation, communications networks and migration, circumvented the efforts of the dictators to close down information leaving the country. Daily updates through the diaspora were being broadcast as a polemic to the state generated propaganda: the reliability of the diaspora reports are hard to verify and clearly they carried a biased agenda designed to help their loved ones. The extent to which these reports inaccurately shaped public consensus in the West, particularly in regards to Libya, would be an interesting area of research. Simultaneous uprisings in North Africa is not a unique phenomenon. Anderson (2012:1) relates: In Tunisia, protesters escalated calls for the restoration of the countrys suspended constitution. Meanwhile, Egyptians rose in revolt as strikes across the country brought daily life to a halt and toppled the government. In Libya, provincial leaders worked feverishly to strengthen their newly independent republic. It was 1919. Her article offers a compelling dismissal of the impact of globalisation as a mechanism of a unified Arab revolt.

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Globalisation has led to an overriding suspicion, not without justification, that it is the projection of hegemonic systems and values in the form of neoimperialism. This resentment is borne of both the insipid cultural homogenisation but also of the conflict between the overarching norms of secularisation/human rights and Islam.

Statistics demonstrate that economic globalisation has benefited Libya, Egypt and Tunisia with significant and sustained growth. However, globally replicated issues of uneven development and wealth distribution

were evident; these are exacerbated by the opportunist corruption of the political elites (arguably another global problem: Oligarchy in Russia, Haliburton in USA). These products of globalisation, along with food price rises and the economic crisis, undoubtedly contributed to causing the revolts. It has been suggested that the social media revolution is a media construct and there is a growing consensus that the facilitating role has been inflated. Given that globalisation appears to be to blame for protestors hardships, and worked with the regimes they opposed-why is the Arab Spring still seen a victory for globalisation in the West?

Much of the hype and media interest, other than on the technological aspects, focused upon the protesters calls for democratisation. The hegemonic Western belief in the sanctity of democracy gave rise to popular use of descriptors such as The Arab Awakening (as if both the use of the Internet and democracy represented the Arab consciousness stepping out of darkness).

What is less clear at this time is whether democratisation or Islamification will be the dominant product of the Arab Spring; although the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Judging by the Islamist attitude to globalisation and its incompatibility with the teachings of Islam, plus its contribution to the discontentthe world may have seen the beginnings of the first wholesale regional rejection of globalisation. Another observation I have made has been the media construction of the Arab Spring in the West has underplayed the facilitating role of Islam in the Middle East: a network and organisational tool that predates any definition of globalisation. Fridays have become synonymous with protest, arranged in mosques, across the Arab World: not such an exciting media story for the West but perhaps one that will have an enduring impact upon the Arab psyche.

The two narratives are equally well served by differing interpretations of the events of the last two years. For advocates of globalisation, the overthrowing of authoritarianism represents the enlightenment instigated by neoliberal economic reforms and a desire to have a more equitable access to it through greater personal freedoms. For Islamists, the failure of the capitalist, globalist and neoliberal agenda represents the end of an un-Islamic system: a decline in American influence and an embodiment of the rise of Islam.

Through extensive readings in an effort to engage an occidental perspective, I have recently encountered a perceptual shift in my own thinking and a contradiction between my interpretation and the media representation of the Arab Spring. As such, I view the underlying influence of globalisation in the Arab Spring in global economic factors, not in new mechanisms of resistance, or a paradigm shift in Arab norms. Constitutional settlements in Libya, Egypt and throughout the nations of the Arab Spring will go a long way to deciding how globalisation has affected the Middle East; and in time, perhaps, how the Middle East has affected globalisation.