"Arabellion" In Ruins - The Wishful Thinking That Undermined The Arab Spring

Egypt and Syria are edging toward failed state status, while the West asks how all the hope has faded so fast.

Syria, a nation in rubble
Syria, a nation in rubble
Richard Herzinger


BERLIN - Of all days, Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi chose Jan. 30 for a state visit to Berlin – the 80th anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. It was also the day that the German federal parliament held its commemoration ceremony for International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

We know that Morsi has called Jews the “descendants of apes and pigs” and “bloodsuckers.” In the speech he gave in Berlin on the evening of Jan. 30, he verbally attacked Israel and called for the end of "every occupation of Arab territories" by which we can be pretty sure he wasn’t only referring to the West Bank.

The bitter truth is this: in Egypt, anti-Semitism constitutes a common ground that binds both religious and secular groups across their differences. That Morsi was received in Berlin as the representative of a new Arabic democracy while in Egypt a state of emergency has been imposed to stop those protesting the hijacking of the Egyptian revolution by the Islamists shows just how helpless the West now is after the euphorically celebrated "Arab Spring."

Two years after the spectacular start of popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, theocratic-tinted dictatorships are now in the process of emerging. Not only Syria, but Egypt – on the threshold of bankruptcy and economic collapse – also threatens to become a failed state, as well as a shelter and hub for Jihadist terrorists from North and West Africa. And instead of seeing an end to the tragic Syrian bloodbath we are seeing, how it may well throw the whole region into an even greater state of conflict.

The murderous civil war in Syria has by now come to stand for war between the Shiite Islamic Republic of Iran and its “advance troops,” the Lebanese Hezbollah –and the Sunni hegemony of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The big fear is that Syrian government weapons will fall into the hands of the Hezbollah, and ultimately end up with Iranian jihadists.

This is the very fear that apparently led Israel to bomb a Syrian military research facility and an arms transport heading from Syria towards Lebanon – attacks that have yet to be officially confirmed. Israel has to consider the possibility that Hezbollah could use Syrian weapons – including deadly chemical weapons – against the Jewish state.

A spring that never came

In Syria, the West acted differently than it did in Libya, and let slip by the chance to help what began as peaceful demonstrations by a democratic opposition against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The result is not only a humanitarian catastrophe, it’s something of a self-fulfilling prophecy: the reason the West did not intervene was that it feared that doing so might benefit Islamists and other religious-sectarian forces.

And it is just such forces that are gaining ever greater influence in the uprising – precisely because those Syrians who revolted feel they were let down by the West and left to the murderers. Violence, chaos and oppression are the hallmarks of the "Arabellion" that the West had initially placed such hopes in by making a false analogy with the peaceful revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989-1990.

The largely non-violent upheavals in the crumbling Communist bloc had a very clear goal – Eastern European satellite states wanted to achieve the standards of living of democratic Western Europe as quickly as possible. In the Arab world on the other hand, the historical and conflict-saturated context is completely different.

Country borders in the Middle East are still those set after World War I by the Treaty of Versailles. The mostly military despots that came after the decolonization of Arabia didn’t leave the Arabs any real political or cultural legacy. Sometimes though, they left remnants of nationalist and socialist ideologies inherited from Western totalitarianism.

Now that the tyrannical regimes are crumbling, long dormant ethnic and religious-sectarian issues are coming to the fore. And it is in the midst of this minefield that the Arab world faces the task of building a new social contract from the ground up that will enable it to join the modern world.

But there is no common ground as to what the focal points of such a social contract should be. Meanwhile, a brand of fundamentalist, radical anti-West Islam is serving as a kind of identity crutch. That the Arab uprisings were a democratic movement in the sense of a liberal, open society was in large part an optical illusion born of Western wishful thinking.

The secular forces of freedom we like to romanticize as the "Twitter and Facebook Generation" are – in the new game of Middle Eastern power poker – just another powerless bunch of outsiders. Before anything resembling civilian democratic structures can take roots, we are looking at years if not decades of violent ethnic and religious conflict that have the potential to bring entire states crashing down.

The West is thus ill advised to bank on supposed guarantors of stability like Morsi. It would also be shortsighted – not to say racist – to draw the conclusion from the present destructive upheaval in the Arab world that Arabs are not meant for democracy. Rather, the West must far more energetically than it has until to now make its economic and military help contingent on the observance of basic human rights and democratic values.

And it should help shape those who can lead future generations towards a humane society. In the middle-term, it has to give up its illusions about the "Arabellion" without abandoning the hope of a better future for the Arab world down the line. Our own future depends on it.

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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