Arab Spring, Nobel Winter?

According to the Stockholm based International Peace Research Institute the “Arab Spring” is the focus of speculation over the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel Committee’s awarding of the prize to the “Arab Spring” would, “be consistent with their effort to give attention to high-profile and extremely important, potentially breakthrough developments by movements and by people,” according to Bates Gill, director of the Institute, quoted in a recent article by CBS news. Speculations aside, those who drool for the often controversial Nobel Peace Prize announcements will have to wait until October 7.

In the meantime we might begin to examine the rumors and raise questions of the purpose of the Nobel Peace Prize which has been awarded, to much criticism since Norwegian Prime Minister Thorbjoern Jagland took over as the head of the Norwegian Nobel Committee in 2009, for purposes of preempting peace as with the criticized receipt of Barak Obama in 2009. Obama, who incidentally increased US troop presence in Afghanistan, began unmanned drone attacks in Pakistan, failed to secure the closure of Guantanamo Bay, refused to acknowledge the litany of serious charges of willing disregard for international law lobbied against members of the former administration, and most recently authorized the targeted assassination of US citizen, and suspected Al-Qaeda Imam, Anwar Al-Awlaki, in retrospect may not have been a deserving recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. The logic of preempting peace through the prize appears to have failed in this case. But this should not, in principle, tarnish the force of the Nobel Prize.

Liu Xiaobo’s 2010 receipt of the prize in absentia, the third recipient to be thus awarded since the origins of the Peace Prize 110 years ago, may be a strongly challenged thing in the mind of Hu Jintao and China’s elite but for much of the international community it seemed to patch some of the holes in the prize’s reputation. It was awarded to someone with a long history of campaigning for human rights and an end to tyranny, for democratic reform, and a history of abuse at the hands of his government.

If we look at the last two year’s recipients we see a prize awarded in hopes of what might be (Barak Obama) and a prize awarded for what has been (Liu Xiaobo). This has lead apparently to discussions on awarding a prize for what is. We seal the future, the past, and now the present. The logic of the Nobel Peace Prize committee, according to Kristian Berg Harpviken, the director of the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, “is that they really want to speak to current affairs. There is an eagerness to not only award a prize that has had an impact in the present but also to use the prize to impact the present.”

Jan Egeland, a former Norwegain deputy foreign minister, was quoted saying, “My strong sense is that this (Nobel) committee and its leader want to reflect the biggest international issues as defined by a wide definition of peace.” From a social and linguistic point of view, it is a matter of definitions that present concern. The award of the prize to a representative of the “Arab Spring,” runs the risk of inadvertently putting an end to any serious discussion of: what was the “Arab Spring,” and; what words should we use to refer to whatever it was. It conveys an internationally legitimized form and meaning to the myriad events before they have been fully placed in social and historical context, it would seem.

If it goes to the “Arab Spring,” who will be chosen as the symbol of a movement that has swept across the lives of millions of people and, this number could be contested, some eight or nine countries? Harpviken addresses this difficulty, “It’s particularly hard in the context of these protests where there hasn’t always been an identifiable leadership.

Harpviken’s top picks are Egyptian activists Israa Abdel Fattah (Facebook Girl), Ahmed Maher and Harket Shabab 6 April [The April 6 Youth Movement], a pro-democracy Facebook group they co-founded in 2008. The April 6 Youth Movement was originally founded to support the striking workers of El-Mahalla El-Kubra but from there it went on to represent a platform for dissent against the oppressive Mubarak regime. Consequently they played an guiding role in mobilizing resistance on the internet and on the streets, borrowing their tactics, and their insignia-the clenched fist- from the Serbian student movement Otpor which was instrumental in ousting Slobadan Milošević. While the April 6 Youth Movement clearly represents a powerful force for non-violent mobilization, resistance and peace, if it is selected as the representative of “The Arab Spring” it would further entrench what appears to be a growing narrative of Egyptian ownership.

Harpviken’s second choice is Wael Ghonim. Wael, an Egyptian born, Dubai based, marketing executive for Google, played a considerable role in online mobilization through his Facebook page which logged some 400,000 Egyptian followers. A powerful domestic force, he achieved international status and appeared to inject a surge of energy into the Egyptian movement following his emotionally charged interview after being freed from his 12 days of secret detention by Mubarak forces. It would seem that this nomination would run the same risk of placing ownership of a regional movement in the hands of the Egyptian people.

His third pick is Tunisian blogger Lina Ben Mhenni who stood out as an early force in criticizing the regime in December. Like the other nominations, Mhenni capitalized on the social networking and mobilization potentials of Facebook, with her profile name Tunisian Girl. While people might enquire why not award the prize to Mohamed Bouazizi, after all it was his self-immolation that catalyzed the revolution in Tunisia, the Nobel Prize cannot be awarded posthumously. But questions about other deserving candidates may linger.

While the nomination of a Tunisian activist may place the prize in a slightly more accurate time line, as to whence the transnational pro-democracy movement began, it continues the problem of assigning ownership to a single individual and country. This is a convenient choice for categorizing and understanding the complexities of such phenomena and perhaps a necessary categorization for the prize but it opens the door to a number of concerns over the evolution of the narrative of indigenous resistance to domination. Naming the Nobel Prize in honor of the “Arab Spring” and awarding it to a single individual or organization, deserving as they may be, while it admittedly implies an honor for the accomplishments of many interconnected sites of resistance it would also begin to solidify a certain international narrative for what has taken place, and what is taking place.

The concern is that the narrative of these episodes of resistance may be sidelined to parochial conceptualizations and analyses. While there is not enough space to expand on a discussion of the Nobel Peace Prize tout court I would point out one critical analysis of this discourse on the “Arab Spring” and the prize selection and awarding process.

Awarding the prize to a single force within a greater regional conflict, a greater regional testimony to the changing dynamic of an internationally exploitative structure, may damage the potential for a critical re-articulation of international power. The episodes that have taken place across the region, and connected with episodes of protest that have been waged from Madison, Wisconsin to Athens, Greece are intrinsically linked to a central issue of domination and resistance. While what has taken place in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Libya, and what individuals and organizations in neighboring countries are hoping to accomplish is more than the ouster of a particular dictator. It calls for the reexamination of the international system, a reexamination of shallow political and economic peace. It calls for a critical assessment of human security.

According to CBS, The Nobel Committee “sees the Nobel Peace Prize as a catalyst for change, encouraging efforts to make the world more peaceful, democratic and respectful of human rights.” However, if the inherently international character of these episodes are categorized as the successes of a single country, organization, or individual, the much deeper potential changes for social and political transformations may be sidelined to the discussions of regional particularities.

Far from arguing against awarding the Peace Prize in honor of the “Arab Spring,” I simply want to offer this conceptual dilemma: will the framing of the events that have swept across many countries conform to a dominant discourse, be placed into a partial picture, ignoring structural failures of the entire international system. What has taken place in the “Arab Spring” is a tremendous opportunity but if treated superficially the ‘catalyst for change’ and the respect for human rights will be transformed into a catalyst for soundbites and rumors.

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