Image via Wikimedia Commons
From the all-out civil war in Syria to the internet restrictions in Turkey and the return of military rule in Egypt, the revolutionary youth of the Arab Spring seem to be facing one hurdle after another. VICE obtained an exclusive copy of a study that concluded that the “Arab Spring” seems to have been just a “translation mistake.” Additionally, there is no evidence at all to support the theory that people in the Middle East had revolted against their rulers. The revelations come as an embarrassment to Western media outlets that have been claiming for three years that people from Tunisia to Syria were engaged in popular uprisings, as it becomes apparent that the misperception was a result of a multitude of translation mistakes by reporters and commentators who are not sufficiently versed in Arabic.
The study that VICE obtained a copy of prior to publication was conducted by a panel of European and American experts and was funded by the government of Saudi Arabia, but there is nothing to suggest that it had ulterior motives in commissioning the report beyond its commitment to truth and accuracy in reporting. The experts analyzed hundreds of videos and articles and recorded many witness testimonies that all firmly point to a giant misunderstanding.
According to the report, Western reporters in Tunisia and Egypt were confused by the scenes of thousands of people on the streets and wrongly assumed that they were protesting against the regimes when in fact they were spontaneously expressing their support for their leaders. Upon reading the reports in the Western press, Tunisia’s former president, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, a sensitive and considerate leader much beloved by his people, felt deeply hurt and decided to leave power before the truth emerged.
A similar scenario was repeated in Egypt, when President Hosni Mubarak decided to leave power rather than risk upsetting his people. The report points out to Western support of the two presidents as evidence of their essential goodness, as it is inconceivable that the Western powers would support corrupt dictatorial regimes.
A crucial piece of evidence was the mistranslation of the phrase al sha’ab yurid ithbat al nizam (the people want the stability of the regime) as al sha’ab yurid isqat al nizam (the people want the fall of the regime). The reporters quizzed about this claimed that it was very loud during these demonstrations, and it was an honest mistake than anyone could make.
Unfortunately, events quickly spiraled out of control before anyone could correct these mistakes, and as the celebrations spread to other Arab countries, the Western press continued to misinterpret them as protests against the rulers. The study harshly criticized lack of familiarity with Arab culture and norms and poor language skills for these failings, which have inadvertently destabilized the region and perhaps the entire world for years to come.
A spokesman for the Saudi government outlined the reasons for commissioning the study arguing that the Kingdom has always been interested in promoting cultural understanding and accuracy of reporting, so it decided to use its resources to correct this giant mistake. “Arab people have huge respect for their leaders, and protests have no place in our culture. Sadly, foreign reporters misinterpreted these events due to their lack of training in cultural sensitivity and poor grasp of the complex Arab language,” he said.
Tragically it seems that the very first public gathering that sparked the theory of an “Arab Spring” was a surprise birthday party that people in one Tunisian town had planned for their leader and that Western journalists present misinterpreted as a demonstration. The passionate and raucous nature of Arab celebrations was lost on the reporters, who are predisposed to see Arabs as angry mobs. The report recommends further investment by Western governments and media outlets in cultural sensitivity training to overcome those barriers in the future.
The Saudi spokesman urged everyone involved to come together to put a line underneath this chapter, citing his government’s effort to end the misunderstanding in Egypt and repair the damage done by misguided Western reporting. “We are very close to re-establishing the situation exactly as it was in 2010 before all of this started. Please urge your governments to support us in correcting this historical error.” He lamented how a small translation mistake caused this much damage, and urged Western reporters to rely on official version of events in the future to avoid such confusion.
Karl Sharro is an architect, writer, satirist, and commentator on the Middle East. He has written for a number of international publications and writes a blog, Karl reMarks, about Middle Eastern politics and culture, with occasional forays into satire. Follow him on Twitter.