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Has the Arab Spring linguistically challenged you?

Three years on, the Arab Spring has proved to be unusual not only politically, socially and economically but also linguistically

Raed Omari

Published: Updated:

Three years on, the Arab Spring has proved to be unusual not only politically, socially and economically but also linguistically.

Attributed maybe to the language development, the Arab Spring uprisings and the accompanying rhetoric have been remarkably marked with the emergence of a lot of words, coinages and expressions with many of them, if not unheard-of in the Arabic dictionary, have been oddly used to convey certain political connotations.

Let it be asserted from the very beginning that this not a linguistic/sociolinguistic account of the Arab Spring rhetoric, but an attempt to shed light on how language has played a role in shaping the political discourse on the revolutionary wave of demonstrations and protests that swept many Arab states.

What is worth noting is that, even rooted in a certain Arabic dialect, such words have been fitted into the Arab Spring rhetoric, restricting a word meaning to a single political connotation and social status regardless of whether such words really exist in the other dialect. In other words, such a “dialect borrowing” has created a sort of “collective” Arab discourse of the Arab Spring era.

Let us put it practically this way, the word “baltaji” from the Egyptian colloquial Arabic, which is commonly translated as “thugs,” has been used in other Arab states of different dialects and different revolution style to convey the same political connotation as in Egypt.

Though existed in the Egyptian Arabic before the Jan. 25 Revolution, the word “Baltaji,” which could also mean “thief or bandit,” has been used in the Egyptian anti- Hosni Mubarak rhetoric to stigmatize the ousted president’s supporters.

The word has began to be excessively used after the “Battle of the Camel” when pro-Mubarak men, or “thugs”, on horses and camels attacked protesters arrayed in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on February, 2, 2011. The scene was unquestionably terrible and disgusting and, as described at the time, “a reminiscent of the Middle Ages” but what has to be underlined in this context is that even Mubarak’s supporters who stayed in their homes have been also described as “thugs” or at least “foloul” as the ousted regime’s members have been negatively described.

Across the region

The word “felool,” which in Arabic means “scattered remnants of a defeated army,” came into use in Egypt only few days after Mubarak was forced to step down to refer to the members of the unseated president’s regime, including cabinet, parliament and key operatives of his National Democratic Party.

Even in the Jordanian press, which is written in standard Arabic, the word “baltajiya” and, at times “felool,” have been used in headlines even without being put between converted commas.

Raed Omari

With ousted President Mohammad Mursi taking power in Egypt, all the Islamist leader’s opponents have been up to now described as “thugs” by his supports who have been also depicted as “baltajiya” – the Arabic plural form for “baltaji.”

Those supporting Egyptian Defense Minister General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi – now Field Marshal – are also described as “baltajiya” and “felool” by the Muslim Brotherhood’s members and supporters and vice versa.

However, members of the “hirak” in Jordan and Yemen have borrowed the words “baltaji” and “ felool “ from the Egyptian dialect to fit into their anti-government rhetoric. The word “hirak” is a separate story in itself.

In Jordan, the word “baltagi” is unheard-of in fact but has been used during the small-scale popular uprisings to stigmatize their pro-government opponents.

What is really remarkable in Jordan is that even no serious clashes have erupted between the supporters of the government and its opponents during the “hirak” period of 2011 and 2012, yet both parties have been describing each other as “baltajiya” and “felool.” Even in the Jordanian press, which is written in standard Arabic, the word “baltajiya” and, at times “felool,” have been used in headlines even without being put between converted commas.

In Yemen, members and even loyalists of the president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime have been referred to as “felool.”

Actually, the word “hirak,” which refers to the popular uprisings that swept Yemen and, in less degree Jordan, literally means “mobilization of people” and, in Arabic, it is an exaggeration of the word “movement.”

Know your vocab

To embellish their popular movements and to add an air of magnificence to them, their leaders and organizers describe them as “hirak.” In modern Arab politics, any massive popular uprising is referred to in the Arab Spring dictionary as “hirak.”

The word “Shabiha” from the Syrian Arabic dialect, which refers to the pro-President Bashar al-Assad civil militia, is sometimes used as a synonym to “baltaji” but rarely and with caution due to large-scale killing and brutality of the armed group.

All in all, there is now an established stereotypical image created by the words “baltagi,” “felool “ and others completely different from their common connotations to the point someone opposing the mainstream may end up being described as “thug” or remnant of a defeated regime regardless of the righteousness of his/her cause.

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Raed Omari is a Jordanian journalist, political analyst, parliamentary affairs expert, and commentator on local and regional political affairs. His writing focuses on the Arab Spring, press freedoms, Islamist groups, emerging economies, climate change, natural disasters, agriculture, the environment and social media. He is a writer for The Jordan Times, and contributes to Al Arabiya English. He can be reached via raed_omari1977@yahoo.com, or on Twitter @RaedAlOmari2

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.