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Tunisia and Egypt


Motivated by the aspiration and desire for social justice, suffocating unemployment, lack of political space, autocratic corrupt government and a lack of change, Arabs in Egypt and Tunisia took to the street in 2011 to eject veteran statesmen and the obsequious cronies from their helms of power, and removed the quasi-feudal structures forming the moral fiber of their regimes (Pace & Cavatorta, 2012). The regimes collapsed, and the two dictatorial leaders, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, were ousted from office, and with the former being put into trial by the popular will of the people. In this respect, it is apparent that if the global system were solely pegged on a realist perspective, where transformation in a country hinges on the egoist states and other functional policies, because the work of desperation by Tunisian amateurs in 2010 would not have taken place at all, or would not have turned into a catalyst for the uprising that followed in other parts in the Middle East (Hope springs eternal, 2012).

Using Tunisia and Egypt as points of reference, it will be argued that social constructivism can exemplify events in the global system due to its ontological premise that structures in a political system not only constrain, but also shape the identity of actors. This paper will exemplify the ways in which the social constructivism theory can explain the root causes of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. This research will also attempt to provide an explanation of the events that took place in Tunisia and Egypt within the realm of social constructivism theory by sketching out a historical background and the political environments that has motivated the masses in these countries to react with great fervor. We shall also examine the influence of global systems in the uprising. The rational that motivates the selection of the social constructivist theory of international relations is hinged on the intrinsic premise of this theory that it does not seek to offer any form of predictive outcomes (like other IR theories of the events), but it provided plausible methodical tool for understanding the forces that moves this social-political transformation (Barnett, 2011).

Theoretical Framework

Social constructivism theory, which states that social forces such as norms, ideas and rule shape a states interest and identities, is among the more pragmatic theories that seeks to explain the events that have occurred and continue to take place in the Middle East, in the face of many international relations theories that are important and that offer a very limited application to contemporary events (Badre, 2014).

The key principles of the neoliberal theory has been the withdrawal of the state from facets of social provision, deregulation and that human well-being can be achieved best by emancipating individual entrepreneurial skills within an institutional structure. Undoubtedly, globalization is a multiplicative process that incorporates a kaleidoscopic array of diverse economic and social-cultural trajectories. Klair (2012) contends that a dominant ideology such as capitalist globalization has the power to explicate the events that took place during the Arab uprising in 2011. As succinct example of this is how technology and infrastructural developments are normally regarded as the process of globalization (Norman, 2014). The capitalist-based globalization no longer focuses on the operation of a single nation, but instead functions on a multinational scale. Given that globalization as a system that is being fueled by capitalistic goals, it is not far-fetched to suggest that social needs have been overlooked in pursuit on accumulation of capital (Norman, 2014). In this light, the 2011 uprising in North Africa cannot be regarded primarily as a event of purely domestic nature, but must be viewed in a global context. At the heart of this contention is the fact that there is a changing configuration of power, a phenomenon that has diminished the power of the state in favor of non-state agents, specifically the supranational and transnational bodies. In this vein, the state of the mid 20th century can be described as a “force field that internalized class relation” (Harvey, 2007).  In contrast the reduced role of the state, neoliberal orientation is geared towards ensuring the free flow of capital. Consequently, the government or the state is typically judged on the basis of the relative hospitality of foreign capital and not necessarily on its capacity and ability to meet the social needs of its citizenry (Badre, 2014).

Consequently, this means that structural changes in the global system will have tremendous impacts on the sovereignty and operations of a given state (Badre, 2014). In this alignment, global institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have increased in relevance and importance in shaping domestic decisions (Pace & Cavatorta, 2012). The Arab uprisings are therefore not merely domestic developments that were a response to the unpopularity of Ben Ali’s and Mubarak’s governments, but is also signs of the decrepitude of the state amid the increasing import of non-state actors (Pace & Cavatorta, 2012).

Proponents of Marxist theory have shed more light on the reasons why non-state actors have gained more power in the contemporary world, by explicating the Neoliberal theory of globalization as an innovative concept that proposes that the world system can only be best delineated by the terms of budding transnational hegemony (Pace & Cavatorta, 2012). This is in stark contrast to the state-centric view that is at the heart of realist, where the state is the dominant actor in a integrated system. Therefore, based on the view of Neoliberalism, the global system is primarily organized based on the political and economic hegemony of a transnational capitalist group (Sklair, 2002). The realist view of state-centeredness has been criticized for disregarding the rising inclination for ‘transnational social forces’ to influece world political machinery and therefore obfuscating the authenticity of the world system (Bogaert, 2013).

The social and economic transformations of the neoliberal era in North Africa can be conceptualized by examining the manner in which the state has increasingly become ‘entangled’ by the dominant group which has a transnational orientation and that is looking for integration into the emerging world capitalist structures. In Egypt, this is well represented by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, which experienced massive growth and immense popularity due to the socio-economic activities that were meant to improve the declining welfare of the people (Pace & Cavatorta, 2012).

The role played by transnational bodies such as international financial institutions and transnational capitalist class has been consolidated as a result of improvements in technology and social platforms of communication (Gill, 1993). The growth and development of international bodies has aided discourse among class factions, resulting in a transnational identity and shared consciousness that ensures a closer identification of interest (Gill, 1993). The prominent role performed by transnational bodies, international financial institutions and other agencies has been perceived some as an elementary “transnational, quasi-state infrastructure” that creates a background for an inchoate the capitalist elite (Overbeek & van Apeldoorn, 2012). The conceptual framework proposed by Neo-liberals such as Sklair and Robinson relating to the change in the world system and the hegemony of the transnational capitalism has become philosophically indicative of the modern events of the world system, such as the nature of the Arab Spring and other pressure groups observed in 2011.

Viewing the global system from the lens of embryonic hegemony of a transnational capitalism makes it possible to build a new scaffold from which the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt together with other events that are taking place in the Arab world (Bogaert, 2013). It enables the conceptualization of a global anti-systemic movement that occurs in response to the transnational hegemony of a section of the capitalist elite (Pace & Cavatorta, 2012). The Neo-liberal globalization concept helps reconcile the link between social and economic factors salient in Tunisia and Egypt before the uprisings and differences between the two uprisings. Social constructivism theory has its roots in the works of Kratochwil Friedrich and Richard Ashley (1990) but it has received greater attention due to the work of Alexander Wendt, who is credited for the introduction of constructivism theory as a worthy alternative of Liberal and Realist paradigms (James, 2013).

In one of his most famous articles, “Anarchy   is   What   States   Make   of   It:   the   Social   Construction   of   Power   Politics” (1992) Wendt prepared what he termed as the solid base for challenging the shortcomings neoliberal and neorealist populists (Wendt, 1992). The key salient feature that separates constructivism from other international relations theories is the departure from the materialism approach (Wendt, 1992). In addition, its approach to "anarchy," the notion of “imagined community” is another main characteristic that separates it from liberals and realists. Proponent of this theory indicate that “anarchy” is an element that is pegged on the meaning attached to it, which means that anarchy means different things to different people (Wendt, 1992). At the epicenter of the constructivism approach is the aspect of social context that is regarded as an important ingredient in international relations and operation within the political institutions of a state. In this light, international relations is believed to be constructed by norms and social values (Harrelson-Stephens & Callaway, 2014).

Constructivists regard their theory to an unconventional concept that challenges realism and liberalism, although proponents of neorealism and neoliberalism do not consider it to be a paradigm, but simply a commonly shared set of principles related to a natural event (Badre, 2014).

Social Constructivism Explanation of Arab Spring

It is evident that numerous international relations concepts make the assumption that all countries where a degree of similarity that inevitably results in the creation of fixed ‘generalization’ and construction theories (Fierke, 2010). Nonetheless, in spite of the generalization that afflicts most international relations theories; the inability to predict and explicate global politics such as the events that took place during the recent Arab Spring. Social constructivism departs from other international relations theories in that it places less weight on generalizations and places a greater emphasis on social identities, norms, rules and language (Barnett, 2011). Principally this makes the global system a continuous process of construction and interaction, where structures are influenced by agency and not inflexible under the fixed generation of forward by neoliberals and neorealists (Anderson, 2011).

Social constructivism can explain the origin of the uprising in Tunisia from the perspective of the link that existed between Tunisia and Egypt to the rest of the world, particularly with Europe. As mentioned above, Tunisia is a small country and Tunisians are relatively more educated than their counterparts in other Arab nations (Harrelson-Stephens & Callaway, 2014).  In this light, the Arab Spring occurred in Tunisia before any other place due to the proliferation of democratic norms, largely disseminated through the social platforms and other media technologies (Harrelson-Stephens & Callaway, 2014). These ideas were generated due to globalization and was the force that drove the educated youth in Tunisia to demand the political changes that sparked the uprising. In this vein, it is clear that the Arab uprising would not have taken place without the social media interactiion both domestically and internationally that provided Tunisians with the organization and awareness to demand political freedom and an end to economic corruption (Badre, 2014). Therefore, it is clear that Tunisians did not despise Western democracies and liberties but instead desired them. Concepts of freedom, dignity, human rights and social equity pervaded North Africa and the Middle East and significantly weakened the established structures that had ruled the region for many decades (Harrelson-Stephens & Callaway, 2014).

Undeniably, the assumption that their authoritarian rule would last forever among Arab leaders in Tunisia and Egypt might have been informed by the belief that the set parameters could not be changed. But although it is true that the structures are vital tools in the processing of setting the parameters in any political system, these parameters are not irreversible and the events in Tunisia and Egypt are evidence of this fact (Badre, 2014).

The leaders of these nations felt reassured by their purported structure and safe identity and as such the dissemination of Western norms and ideas through interaction domestically and globalization was not regarded as a threat to their rule (Anderson, 2011). However, the actors of political socialization were proficient at shaping people’s thoughts and consciousness, mainly through the popular media. The more intensive their social interaction became via social platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, the more individuals in Tunisia and Egypt were ready change their social identities (Ajami, 2012). The increased awareness about political rights and demands for full citizenship were some of the unifying factors among protesters in the two countries. One of the most effective tools that worked against the autocratic regimes in Tunisia and Egypt was human consciousness. The link between ideas and material forces led people in these nations to question the hallmark of what they had come to accept and believe to be the facts of their lives, leading in notions to create an alternative pathway and a different world in North Africa (Anderson, 2011).

The intensity and rate at which information is disseminating in the information age is very high, and the sharing of information and stories around the globe raised awareness and fostered Western principles in the Arab world at an unprecedented rate. It began extricating autocracy, as underneath the face of stability, there was economic and political desolation and unproductiveness (Ajami, 2012). When viewing the events of entire North African region and to large extent the Middle East, it becomes clear that while young people hailed from different backdrops and education schemes, they were fueled by similar political ideas and economic views to rise against unsympathetic rulers. The capacity to marshal support through informal networks joined civilians in the Egypt and Tunisia to face the established structures and authorities (Anderson, 2011). Tunisia and Egypt have similar identities in respect to religious discourse and as such, identical norms and ideas encouraged people to bypass the fixed discourse to acquire legitimacy for the new political rights. The autocratic governments restrained the public sphere and this forced people to search for new ways to express their displeasure (Ajami, 2012). 

Due to globalization and interaction, the protesters in Tunisia and Egypt were able to juxtapose their political and economic experience against the political and economic structures and experience in Western countries, a factor that produced an interactive process of agency and structure. Western norms and values had been absorbed gradually and they transformed people, which enabled them to remodel their national identity and structures (Anderson, 2011).

Social constructivism theory appears to offer a helpful approach to explicate contemporary events, especial those related to the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. When well organized, a determined group can be in a position to bring great amount of transformation and totally alter the operations and structure of society and government. It is all too evident that the Western powers, especially America, significantly shaped and influenced numerous political and economic aspects and power policies in North Africa (Badre, 2014).

At the same time, mainstream international relations theories cannot be overlooked, even though it is clear that without the support of other theories, neorealism and neoliberalism could not have explained or predicted the events that took place in North Africa in 2011. Furthermore, it is apparent that the disgruntlement over the political and economic structures were not the sole reason behind the revolution, other factors such as economic competition both at the domestic and international level also played large roles the uprising (which is an important effect of globalization) (Anderson, 2011). In Tunisia, when Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in December 2010, leading to his death a month later, his actions were partly linked to the competition because the state through police brutality had effectively removed Bouazizi’s competitiveness in the local market. Nonetheless, globalization has not only augmented economic competition but has also facilitated dissemination of ideas, values and norms, an elements that had only served to reinforce the ability of social constructivism as a vital to explicate the uprising in Tunisia and Egypt (Harrelson-Stephens & Callaway, 2014).

Markedly, globalization and the dissemination of ideas, values and norms had created and inspired a new value system and norm in North Africa, an aspect that generated a new reality (Harrelson-Stephens & Callaway, 2014). Together with a young, educated population and a state that is strongly connected to the rest of the world, especially Europe, the long-serving autocratic government had but very limited time. It is evident that structures are never a fixed phenomenon but are flexible constructs that continuously interact with values, social norms and identities of agencies and actors (Anderson, 2011).

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