The ‘public narrative of an “Arab Spring” excludes much of the world's population both from public attention and concern and from discussion of what meaningful political change might look like and how it can be supported by people in other places,’ argues Oliver Kearns.
How are conflicts in different parts of the African continent being related to each other by the press? How does the media square its talk of an 'Arab Spring' with the reality of large African-identifying populations being involved or caught in revolts against their governments?
A great way of illustrating the problem with the 'Arab Spring' narrative is available at  for some explanation). The first video focuses on 'Middle East and North Africa'. You can see protests happening in Tunisia for some time before seeming to spread east and west. By the time you get into February they've moved north into the Middle East and Eastern Europe. If you pause around 16-18 February, the protests look very much like a primarily Middle East-wide phenomena. Now look at the 'Global Protests & Uprisings' video. Right from the beginning the shortcomings of 'Arab Spring' are revealed. South Korea? More significantly, watch as once again protests seem to spread geographically from Tunisia. Throughout January a focus on the Middle East & North Africa seems justified. Head into February, however, and protests are appearing all over the place: Australia, Britain, Western Europe, Afghanistan and the United States. Now pause once again around 16-18 February. The protests seem to have spread right down the eastern coast of Africa. Although it's true to say by March that the majority of protests are at the northern tip of the continent, a narrative of an Arab Spring reserves little space for those protesting in Swaziland, Nigeria, Gabon, Mauritania or Western Sahara.
My point in highlighting this is not necessarily to argue that all protests happening across the world should be understood as developing as part of a homogeneous protest wave – each protest movement has its own particular dynamics and reasons for evolving the way it has. What I am arguing is that the public narrative of an Arab Spring excludes much of the world's population both from public attention and concern and from discussion of what meaningful political change might look like and how it can be supported by people in other places.
A key illustration of this bias in the current discourse over 'Arab revolutions' centres around Libya. According to a LexisNexis search, during February and March over 1,100 articles appeared in UK national newspapers with 'Libya' in the title. By contrast, just over twenty articles appeared with 'Ivory Coast' title. Just over a hundred articles mentioned Côte d’Ivoire in their opening lines; more than 3,000 did so for Libya. The front pages of today's UK national papers are dominated by discussion of whether the United States and Britain will arm those opposed to Gaddafi in what everyone is calling Libya's civil war. Hidden away in the middle of the papers are articles saying rebel forces in Côte d’Ivoire have seized three towns after heavy fighting in what the Guardian now calls a ‘nascent civil war’. More than 1,000 civilians have been killed in Côte d’Ivoire since the beginning of December. While the UN estimates around 390,000 people have fled Libya, it estimates up to 1 million Ivorians have fled fighting in the city of Abidjan alone, with around 116,000 people having crossed borders to get to countries including Liberia, Guinea and Mali.
There is now a lively debate both in the Western mainstream and leftist circles about the justification for foreign intervention in what is happening in Libya. There is no such debate on whether such use of force in Côte d’Ivoire would be justified, or on what could be done to stem the use of violence in that country.
But despite this vast imbalance in quantity of coverage, the events in Libya haven't been entirely separated from the rest of the African continent. What the narrative of the 'Arab Spring' has done is to very effectively stifle public discussion of violence or popular dissent in sub-Saharan African countries on their own terms. Some of those countries have however been mentioned in discussions of Libya. The way these countries have been mentioned is arguably important. Those who read about Libya are being given very particular images of what's happening across the rest of the African continent. An exploratory look at the way the press has linked Libya to other African countries reveals the consequences of the selective imagined geographies of the 'Arab Spring'.
CÔTE D’IVOIRE: RUMOURED MERCENARIES AND FORGOTTEN DISASTERS
Let's assume that people in the UK are bound for the most part to be much more interested in or aware of conflict in Libya than in Côte d’Ivoire. When those people then read articles about Libya that might mention Côte d’Ivoire, what sort of image of the latter are those people going to get? I calculate just over a dozen articles have been published in national newspapers which link Libya and Côte d’Ivoire. This is barely a fraction of total Libya-focused news coverage, so for the most part people reading about Libya are going to form no particular cognitive frame about Côte d’Ivoire at all. The first thing this does, arguably, is to increase the chances of Côte d’Ivoire being seen through apolitical lenses. The political force in vogue right now is the Arab Spring; if you aren't part of that force, your struggle has no political charge.
When articles on Libya have discussed Côte d’Ivoire, they've talked about the latter in three respects. The first is mercenaries. In late February The Times, The Guardian and The Sunday Times all ran articles on ‘widespread rumours’ that Gaddafi was using ‘African mercenaries’, with those mercenaries coming from countries including ‘Ivory Coast, Niger and Chad’. It's crucial to note here that these reports of mercenaries had at that point in time not progressed beyond accusations and rumour. Back on 7 March the emergencies director of Human Rights Watch, Peter Bouckaert,  – but talk of African mercenaries has only stoked anti-black African sentiment among the rebels, the consequences of which are now becoming horrifyingly clear, with Hawkins says, ‘doesn't quite fit into the “big frame” of the times’..
Unlike Côte d’Ivoire, however, the sub-Saharan African country of Zimbabwe has been allowed into this frame, in discussion of the Libyan civil war and the Arab Spring more generally. The reason for this, in the British press at least, is that Zimbabwe has a well-known leader – reported on, as Hawkins rightly notes, by the British media for years – whose 'tyrant' status fits a narrative both of popular uprisings in the face of dictatorial regimes and of posing a moral dilemma for a West who chooses to intervene to help one 'popular movement' at the expense of others (for better or worse). Lacking an attention-seeking tyrannical leader with a well-known historical relationship with the West, Côte d’Ivoire has nothing to help it ride the wave of attention given to 'popular uprisings'.
This poses questions not just for the mainstream media but for Western progressives who want to see themselves as standing in solidarity with these uprisings. If we focus our attention primarily on the affairs of countries where our own governments have shown an interest, even if we seek to criticise our governments' motivations and interests in those places, are we in fact adopting an imperialist mindset by ignoring those places that our media and leaders have, at least publicly, shown little interest in commenting on or involving themselves in?
Talk of an 'Arab Spring' carries with it the potential of essentialising and reifying 'Arab' and 'African' as fixed markers of identity. It also creates hierarchies of concern in our own minds that have no real justification if our aim is, [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.