The Arab Spring has been described and associated with such a wide variety of symbolic designations that at times, the term chosen to describe the series of protests that have swept across the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region may indicate a person’s political position on the wide and highly polarized spectrum. The term ‘Arab Spring’ has even been criticized by some who support the pro-democracy (or anti-regime) protests, citing this description as being Orientalist and therefore inappropriate.
The ‘Arab Spring’ – which started in December 2010 – has become something of a brand for the region, and has both motivated and catalyzed many popular protest movements around the world. International media generally refers to it as a unified concept, largely citing its contagious aspects as well as the key links between the countries involved. The series of events have been called a “revolution,” “revolt,” “upheaval,” “uprising,” “awakening,” “spring,” (of course), “conspiracy,” “rioting,” “terrorist,” “hell” etc. “Arab,” “Islamic,” and “foreign” are also terms intermittently used in conjunction with the previous descriptions.
We now know that the Arab Spring will not be an easy ride for the countries that it has affected, though it cannot be denied that the region has been marked by a paradigm shift. People have denounced the long-accepted principle that unelected officials and family dynasties can cling to power for decades without consequence. People have also broken the long-standing barriers of fear regarding corruption and intimidation, and are adjusting to the ideological diversity of their societies (though many still have much to learn on this front). For these reasons, I tend to be optimistic about the Arab Spring despite much rhetoric about it becoming an Arab “Winter.”
Having lived through the global financial crisis that has affected people of all walks of life, I view the Arab Spring as being related to these events that shook the world economy in 2007. Surprised that a relation may exist between these two events, both vast and far-reaching, but seemingly distinct? It may appear a tad philosophical, but the answer lies with Nassim Taleb.
Nassim Taleb is a renowned Lebanese-American statistician, best-selling author and former Wall Street trader. His books Fooled by Randomness (2001) and Black Swan (2007) brought him to fame, with the latter described by The Sunday Times as “one of the twelve most influential books since World War II”. In his books, Taleb lays the foundations for his theories about uncertainty, randomness and Black Swan events. Black Swan theory describes unpredicted major-impact events that effectively appear sensible in hindsight.
His theory is based on a financial context, with many experts describing him as the person who forecasted the financial meltdown of 2007. But he describes the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s as one of these Black Swan moments, which are characterized by definition as being rare, high-impact and paradoxically unpredictable at the time of their occurrence.
In the terms of the financial crisis, speculators assumed there is only one way for the markets to go; asset values would rise indefinitely with no limit to the amount of debt people could incur. But it has become clear afterward that the reality on the ground was different what was written on their balance sheets and portfolios bottom lines. The impact of the debt crisis was colossal and wide spread that no expert envisaged at the time, with many talking about the failure of capitalism as a result. This global crash has really shattered the image and ultimate authority of the dictators of the finance sector (i.e. investment banks and hedge funds).
The Arab spring proved as difficult to predict as the financial meltdown showing economists, intelligence agencies, policy makers and analysts clueless about their own business, simply because they have never considered a Black Swan moment for the region. The Arab Spring was triggered by what could initially have been interpreted as an isolated event, spread surprisingly fast over a vast region, and led to major and unexpected developments. In the same way norms of the banking system that held for generations collapsed with stunning speed and magnitude, the image and privilege of Arab dictators were shattered by popular revolts in a movement that took the world by surprise.
A Black Swan moment was never even considered in the experts’ minds because many Arab dictators held a seemingly unshakable iron grip on power and ruled undeterred for up to four decades, all while preparing their sons to someday take the reins after them, unshaken by popular and economic conditions in their country. So the public witnessed only their moukhabarat running the show, as well as the brutal backstage of the regime if you were unlucky enough to pay them a visit. Years of tradition made this construction of power a social norm, a backbone of society so persevering it was often assumed (and reasonable at the time) to be unshakable; in the same way most would assume black swans don’t exist, simply because we were only accustomed to white swans.
And this is exactly what Nassim Taleb focuses on, exactly on the things we don’t know rather than the things we think we do. A small exception to a rule in the future can have the ability to trigger large-scale change and dismantle norms, theories and paradigms that have been accepted for years.
The colossal impact of the Arab Spring across the region was beyond anyone’s realm of expectations – either idealistic or highly calculated. In the world of risk management, this event appeared highly unlikely; the probability of such events spreading across a region so vast were not on the minds of political forecasters, in the same way so many bankers did not fathom their long-standing stability could be shattered so suddenly.
In hindsight, the Arab Spring may now appear to have been predictable. How could we have assumed that despite torture, censorship, abuse, brutality, corruption, unemployment and poverty, regimes would remain sustainable? Whatever your opinion of the Arab Spring, and whatever term you choose to designate it, what started in December 2010 has proven itself a Black Swan moment of the Middle East and North Africa, one that is far from over, and whose impact will perhaps take years to fully assess.