When Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in his Tunisian village last December, nobody knew he would electrify the entire Arab world and send the existing political order in the region into a long period of turmoil. Very quickly, however, there were signs that the success of Tunisian demonstrators in toppling their long-ruling dictator had sparked something important -- something with probably lasting, although unclear consequences. As the first signs emerged that the movement might catch on elsewhere in the region, a catchy label derived from Czechoslovakia's brief Cold War-era uprising against Soviet rule quickly engraved itself in the Western lexicon. Today, the uprisings that have engulfed a dozen Arab countries are collectively known in the West as the Arab Spring. The label, apt or not, has taken hold for now.
Despite some disagreement about what the term suggests, most people would agree it evokes a Hollywood-esque outcome, one where the moral force and sheer courage of the people sends a series of dictators to their ignominious end, bringing freedom at last to the region.
We hope for a happy ending, of course. But the future, especially in the Middle East, tends to lay traps and hidden surprises. And not everyone thinks that such a sunny, hopeful label is the best way to characterize the revolts. In fact, the expression is for the most part not used in the countries where the uprisings are unfolding.