According to the quote in my day-timer calendar, Marie Curie once said, “Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.” I came across this quote marooned in my hotel room in the Semiramis Hotel in Cairo, Egypt. This country never was at the top of my bucket list, and the circumstances of my inability to leave the country (irregularities to my passport delayed my leaving for four days) did not exactly enamor Cairo’s bleak urban landscape to my less than receptive eyes.

Still, the tenor of Cairo streets blared “History-in-the-making,” and who was I not to try and attempt to understand what was going on, or to tell Marie’s ghost that she was mistaken? I grabbed my i-Pod and ventured out toward Tahrir Square where, still, in the wake of Mubarak’s toppled government, protests frothed underneath a mid-July sun. I also began to search for clues, for answers, for some understanding as to why much of the Arabic world roiled in 2011 (see Tunisia, Bahrain, Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, etc.).

When the “Arab Spring” first began, I thought it eerily similar to the French revolution of 1968; a collection of various factions, led mostly by youth, that demanded their native country to step up and be a part of History. French youth articulated their dissatisfaction at their country’s relative insignificance in an increasingly globalized world: culture and technological innovations all seemed to be happening somewhere else. I sensed a similar angst by the youth in Tunisia and Egypt, a yearning to no longer be second class citizens of the Arab and Mediterranean world – at the least, and perhaps partake a greater role in their local lives by grabbing a slice of the global pie – at the most.

Then came my four day unexpected sequester in Cairo. The comparison to 1968 France, though helpful, falls short of the complexity of what’s occurring on the ground and masks to a significant degree the twisted and ever-developing history known as the Arabic world. This brief post attempts to fix that.

One; what Osama bin Laden represented, and Al Qaeda represents, is the failed Arab state system. Take a look at this from the perspective of a common Egyptian college student: if one man can organize such unrest, disrupt global banking and trade, level destruction against the United States and other targets around the world, then what good is a nation-state? Why can Al Qaeda affect History but not Egypt? Not Tunisia? Not Syria? A roaming, semi-nomadic, disaffected Saudi prince and his terrorist organization is making more history than all of Arabia combined. To make matters worse, at least in the minds of some of the youth I talked to, Al Qaeda represents the worst, the pitiful stereotyping of Arab peoples everywhere; it more hurts the goals, desires, and wants and dreams of the common citizen. The rebellion in Cairo, then, in part, represents the failure of the Mubarak regime to elevate Egypt to a more respected global position so that the aspirations of its people can come to fulfillment. As one protestor put it to me, “Why is everything made in China? Can we not build factories in Egypt? Cannot Egypt be part of the global manufacturing world rather than a collection of relics [pyramids] and a trench in the sand [Suez Canal]?”

Two; this change – as Oraib Al-Rantawi (a Jordanian political scientist) put it – “is one of the most sweeping…witnessed by the Arab world since the age of [their] renaissance and enlightenment some 100 years ago.” More important, though, is Al Rantawi’s claim that the current Arab Spring is more a continuation or “delayed phase” of that era. Thus, World War I and its post war treaties, which divvied up the Ottoman Empire significantly, influence the current Arab Spring. The revolutions of 2011 are also – in part – reactions to the faux colonial borders that mapped out the destinies of so many Arab lands following the Second World War.

Third; in the wake of retreating European colonial presences, the governments that replaced them, or more correctly propped up, tended toward the peasant. The Arab lands were “Bedouinized,” where urban civil life came to be dominated by not only by these rural-elites, but by an ultra conservative form of Salafism: anti-modern and thus anti-Western. The discovery of oil throughout the Arab world, but particularly in Saudi Arabia (the most “Bedouinized” of all the Arab regimes), only added to the depths of resources that Salafi and Wahhabi rural conservative peasantries drew upon – including Western support and arms, all in the name of stability.

Change, though, is never easy. Demands made by a majority of citizens within their respective and perceived Arab nation-states will not quiet (see Syria). There does exists an urgent claim that the Arab state system benefits too few. This Arab Spring’s unfolding, where a push for modernization clashes against the conservatives of Bedouin-based governments, will dominate the news for next decade or so. Indeed, Abdel Monem Said Aly, a Cairo-based writer, confides that each of the 168 political factions sprouted in the wake of Mubarak’s overthrow vie for a say in the future of Egypt, some liberal and progressive, some Wahhabi-influenced and financed.

Thus comparisons to the French uprisings of 1968, though helpful, serve only to undermine the complexity of the Arab Spring. Stay tuned, there will be more to come.

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