June 10, 2020

George Floyd and the Arab Spring

Patrick Marren
Principal

                                                                                                                                                                     Photograph by Omer Messinger / Sipa / AP

As we have often argued here, much strategic planning assumes the forces that created the past will continue to be determinative in the future, and that change will be incremental rather than disruptive.  Scenarios are meant to be an antidote to such straight-line extrapolation. Only by challenging the most basic stories underlying our current model of reality can we truly begin to appreciate the full range of plausible futures that might await us.

That said, we scenario writers do use the past in our work. To shorten a Mark Twain quote, “History does not repeat itself; but it does rhyme.” And there are certain “rhymes” in the current civil unrest over the death of George Floyd. 

One is the case of Mohammed Bouazizi. He was a street vendor in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. He had been continually harassed and shaken down for bribes by police and corrupt officials in that town. On 17 December 2010, a female municipal official reportedly confiscated his weighing scales and his produce cart, and others working for her beat Bouazizi. In response, he went to the local governor’s office and demanded his scales back. When no one would see him, he stated his intention to burn himself alive. When no one took that seriously, he shouted, “How do you expect me to make a living?” He then doused himself with gasoline in the middle of the street, and lit himself on fire. 

The result of that one match was not predictable from previous trends. It was the Arab Spring, a revolution that swept across the majority of Arab countries, toppling a number of longstanding autocratic regimes, including the Tunisian dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the Egyptian regime of Hosni Mubarak, the Libyan regime of Muammar Ghaddafy, and the Yemeni regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. It also spurred protests and unrest in many other countries, most notably in Syria. 

The George Floyd moment
So what does the Arab Spring tell us about how the current unrest over the killing of George Floyd?

Well, first off, we should note the “dogs that did not bark,” at least up until two weeks ago, when George Floyd was killed. Why did nationwide protests result from this killing, when they had not resulted from the police killings of other unarmed African Americans? Why not Jamar Clark or Philando Castile, both of whom were killed in the Twin Cities in the past few years? Why not Dreasjon Reed, killed in Indianapolis May 6? Why not Breonna Taylor, killed as she lay sleeping in her bed March 13 in Louisville? Why not Ahmaud Arbery, killed in Brunswick, GA in February? Why not Botham Jean, killed in 2018? Stephon Clark? Laquan McDonald? 

Demonstrations happened locally as a result of some of these cases, as in the cases of McDonald, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, but they were not nearly as persistent nor as widespread as the current ones.

What causes one event to spark a conflagration, and so many others not to?
In 1898, the eternally youthful Empress Elizabeth of Austria, “Sisi” to her many fans, was assassinated by an Italian anarchist. Much of Europe was plunged into mourning, but no war resulted. Sixteen years later, her cousin, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, Duchess Sophie, were assassinated by a Serbian nationalist, and the entire world went into a war that, in some senses, did not truly end until 1989. Why was one a mere tragedy, and the other earthshaking? Some of the reasons are clear, but some of them remain obscure. 

As does the final upshot of the current demonstrations. The Arab Spring toppled several regimes, and raised democracies in their place; but only in Tunisia, where it all began with Mohammed Bouazizi, has democracy lasted. Egypt’s dalliance with democracy ended with a military coup and the assumption of power by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (no relation). Yemen’s revolution set in motion a civil war that rages to this day. Syria’s popular rebellion against the ruling Assad family appears to have been put down at unspeakable cost. At best, to date, the Arab Spring seems to have been like the 1848 European revolutions: initial success followed by reversal and reestablishment of reactionary regimes in most places.

 Scenarios and the long arc of history
Will the death of George Floyd cause significant change in policing practices and race relations in the United States? It is possible. Other deaths have caused such changes; for example, the death of John F. Kennedy, which created openness to Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, and the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., which created space for further advances in civil rights in America. But we should be aware that protest, no matter how justified (perhaps even more so, the more it is justified), often creates its own backlash. The Vietnam War went on for almost a decade after the first protests against it. While it is hard to argue that a complete lack of protest would have ended the war sooner, it is also hard to imagine that attitudes were not hardened on all sides by that protest and the backlash against it. 

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was fond of paraphrasing Rev. Theodore Parker by saying, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The current protests may result in progress in the end. But the arc of that change may be long, and in between now and then, we may see reversals and reactions interspersed among the advances. Perhaps it will take the ascension of another moral genius such as King, and a political genius such as Lyndon Johnson, to reach the far end of the arc we are currently riding. 

In between now and then, we may see multiple scenarios – progress; reaction; division; unity. 
 

Comments  | 

Fine blog piece, Patrick. I like where you optimistically end up: "unity." May I add "and justice"?
Kevin McDermott
Prediction is risky for all the reasons you suggest, Pat. Still, I’m convinced this time it’s different and bigger. A convergence of things has primed the United States, at least, for change that may feel abrupt but which has in fact been building for a long time—like a geological fault line that after years of tension finally slips and makes the things around it fall down. It’s a phenomenon we observe all the time in our work with clients. Social and political stress has been focused by the stress of the pandemic and the approach of a presidential election. A new generation, one with reduced prospects in comparison to its predecessor, has entered its majority, in both senses of that word, and can’t follow the logic of the world as it’s been given to them. As you say, they are challenging the basic stories underlying our current model of reality. I don’t know if the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. I would like to think so, but maybe not in this life. For right now I would look to Darwinists, who don’t argue that the world gets ever better. Instead, they contend that periodically systems become radically unstable when they no longer suit their environment. When that happens it’s called a “punctured equilibrium”. I think that’s what we’re seeing now. Our clients will be wrestling the cross impacts for decades.

Thoughts?