Pizza and Politics with Danielle Higgins
By Arianna Traballano ‘24 | February 24, 2021
Danielle Higgins, a doctoral candidate currently teaching Comparative Politics and Middle East Politics here at Saint Anselm College, spent the evening discussing her research with students at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics. She covered both misconceptions regarding the Arab Spring as well as what we can learn from them today.
The main focus of the discussion was how the Arab Spring was considered a failure, and whether or not this is an accurate assessment of the situation. Higgins began by noting that no one expected the Arab Spring to occur – most experts at the time, and even today, concurred that given the politics of the area and the tenacity of the reigning regimes, a popular uprising was not possible. She then explained that many scholars claim it failed because there were few successfully overthrown regimes, and only one democracy emerged.
Higgins continued on to note that while it is true that democracy did not gain a foothold in the region, it was because the majority of the protestors were not specifically fighting for Democracy. Rather, they had two key demands: to increase the standard of living, and decrease government corruption. She then displayed data which showed that while these demands had not been met in any of the countries, they had not deteriorated egregiously in the majority of them either, leaving the region stagnant.
Next, Higgins discussed three indicators she argues experts then missed that heralded the arrival of the Arab Spring, and how they are continually relevant today. The first is that the Arab Spring did not occur completely out of the blue – smaller scale protests had already been breaking out around the region for several years. Secondly, “everyday resistance” — low level daily resistance — occurred on a much greater scale than open organized rebellion. The final indicator was while Western media focused mainly on the push for democracy in the area, greater discontent with standard of living, which was not focused on by scholars, was growing. Higgins also noted that all three of these factors can be seen in the area today.
After discussing particulars, she then listed specific examples of unrest prior to the Arab Spring that were indicators of a greater regional mindset, such as The Green Movement in Iran in 2010 and the 2008 workers strikes in Egypt.
Having looked at particular incidents, Higgins then pointed to a recent study, which found that most Arab and African countries define democracy differently. Whereas in the west, we tend to think of democracy in terms of free and fair elections and equal representation for all, in the Middle East, they view it primarily as simply narrowing the income gap between the wealthy upper class and the destitute lower class. She then continues on to note that this definition is also applicable today, as neither the standard of living or the wage gap have changed, before pointing out that our differing views of what democracy is are part of what has led us to dismiss the Arab Spring as unsuccessful.
Finally, Higgins opened the floor to a discussion with the students, answering questions primarily around whether or not a second Arab Spring is imminent and why newer institutions were unable to gain a major foothold in the area. She concluded with the statement that as outsiders, we should pay closer attention to what the people themselves want, rather than view the situation through the removed lens of scholars.