Reading the Arab Revolts

What to learn—or not—from early drafts of history.

The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East. By Marc Lynch. Public Affairs, New York, 2012. 269 pp.

The Invisible Arab: The Promise and Peril of the Arab Revolution. By Marwan Bishara. Nation Books, New York, 2012. 258 pp.

The Arab Awakening: Islam and the New Middle East. By Tariq Ramadan. Allen Lane, London, 2012. 274 pp.

Can there be anything interesting and worthwhile to say, in full-length book form, about a series of events that is still ongoing? Such is the problem facing writers who have decided to tackle the Arab uprisings. The desire to capture a historical moment is hard to resist, as is the temptation to make one’s imprint, and thus we are flooded with a series of instant books about a complex set of events, even though we are barely beginning to understand what just happened and much more is still hidden from us.

It is little surprise that many are rushed and sloppy, that others appear to engage in an act of spinning events to suit a particular ideological narrative (The Islamists are coming! Post-Islamism! The Arabs have awakened from their slumber! Post-post-colonialism! The collapse of the American world order! Etc.) and yet more, perhaps wisely, favor personal narrative and ground-level flavor over grand analysis. Those books that seek to deal with not just the individual uprisings but offer a bird’s eye view of the entire span of events in the Arab world in 2011 have a particularly daunting task. With this in mind, it is fair to say that none of the works reviewed here achieve this with much success. The better ones, however, provide some original thinking in how to understand these events, place them in context, and highlight those aspects that the authors are best-placed to understand because of their prior research or unique perspective.

First, a note on the phrases these three authors have chosen to describe what is most commonly called the “Arab Spring,” a phrase made popular by the media but rightly rejected by many analysts and participants in the uprisings, either because of its European connotations or its inadequate seasonal quality and the way it invites lazy and laborious sequels (hot summers, winters of discontent, etc.). Marwan Bishara, a broadcaster on Al-Jazeera English, is the most enthusiastic and incautious of these writers and goes straight for “revolution” in the singular, in line with his view that the uprisings form a coherent whole. Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss-raised Islamist public intellectual, prefers awakening because he feels “the Arab world has shaken itself out of its lethargy… apparent resignation and silence.” Marc Lynch, an academic and prolific policy wonk, opts for “uprising” in the singular, in good part because his book stresses the commonalities about the events across the region.

Lynch does the best job of justifying his choice of the singular to highlight what is a common, shared experience in the multiple Arab uprisings. His success is based in good part on his previous scholarship on what he calls the “new Arab public sphere,” and on Al-Jazeera in particular, and its role in reviving shared Arab sentiment to an extent unseen since the heyday of pan-Arabist ideology in the 1960s. The book excels in its first chapters in providing context for the rise of Al-Jazeera and its emergence not only as a counter-narrative to years of stale state propaganda, but as a political agent in its own right. Lynch is also rare among commentators on the Arab uprisings to forcefully make the case for an active civil society and culture of protest prior to 2011, which seems to make the term “awakening” rather inappropriate. “The decade of the 2000s,” he writes, was, in effect, “one long wave of intense popular mobilization spanning the entire region.” The main difference, he argues, is that such uprisings between independence and 2011 were generally not successful and, even when on occasion breakthroughs took place, they were easily reversed and replaced by new forms of authoritarianism (and might be again). So ingrained was this lesson in the Arab consciousness for the last two decades that many believed successful uprisings were essentially impossible.

So how did the impossible take place? Lynch cites several reasons, focusing chiefly on the unexpected (and possibly urged by Washington) departure of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali from Tunis on January 14, 2011, and the galvanizing role of the Egyptian uprising and the occupation of Tahrir Square two weeks later. He also repeats an argument he has made elsewhere for a decisive part by the Obama administration, which he says engaged in “near-constant dialogues at all levels up and down the ranks of the Egyptian military, pushing it not to fire, with multiple daily phone calls pressing the case.”

Perhaps. But in arguing there was a crucial role for the U.S. Lynch provides little evidence. One wonders whether he was taken in by the narrative provided by his (top-notch) sources in the Obama administration, or perhaps ignores the possibility that, just like the Egyptian regime, the American regime was divided over what to do about one of its most important allies in the Arab world. It is hard to simply dismiss as miscommunication the contradictory statements by U.S. officials and the very different interests of America’s diplomatic, economic and military elites in the country—or to ignore Washington’s early endorsement of a takeover by other military figures than Mubarak, whom by January 29, 2011, was clearly a spent force. The reality is that no book published thus far, aside from a few biased and unreliable insider accounts, has told us the full story of the power struggles inside the regimes, which is at least as important as the mobilization on the street.

Tariq Ramadan addresses the question of foreign influence repeatedly in his work, but very much unsatisfactorily. His main argument is that the uprisings have the potential to amount to a second emancipation from the West, by a rediscovery of “authentic” local values and a much-needed intellectual effort to rethink Islam’s role in public life, and especially questions of governance. The argument is interesting even if one suspects that Ramadan will see as more authentic ideas coming from his fellow Islamists, despite the long history of other political ideologies in the region. (Indeed, historically Islamism is a modern, even twentieth-century, phenomenon.) But he is right in arguing that there is an urgent need for a redefinition of the public good in Arab societies, far away from “the endless controversies between ‘secularists’ and ’Islamists’… which allow opposing sides to sidestep self-criticism: the mere presence of their opponents, rather than the quality of their programmatic outlook, ends up justifying their political involvement.”

Ramadan’s argument takes for granted that Islam has a central role to play in these societies, and urges that politicians and thinkers who want to refer to religion must think beyond the stale debates of the last century. He writes: “If the reference to Islam is to make sense, it must be couched as an invitation to reclaim meaning instead of transforming the religion into a real or symbolic instrument designed to induce guilt or justify repression, if not to reduce women and men to infantile status.”

That debate is indeed taking place in the Arab world among both progressives and conservatives, but has much further to go—as the sorry state of Egyptian politics shows. But, perhaps because Ramadan is a Western Muslim rather than an “Oriental” one, he appears far too obsessed with Western ideas of what makes a “good Muslim” and a “bad Muslim” (Ramadan’s essay on the topic is reproduced in an appendix, along with other short writings of the past decade). His book is also marred by hazy conspiratorial thinking—again and again, he feels it is necessary to remind readers that the Egyptian activist Wael Ghonim worked for Google, that other activists received training from Eastern European dissident groups funded by Western governments, and that the whole thing might have been in part a Western plot. This very much detracts from his call to for an intellectual renewal to deal with the region’s political challenges ahead.

Whereas Ramadan speaks of the good Muslim being an “invisible Muslim” (i.e. one whose heritage is airbrushed out to be accepted into modernity), Marwan Bishara speaks in a different way of the “invisible Arab.” This is his depiction of the political funk the region has sunk in, particularly since the 1980s, where citizens were crushed by apparently omnipotent autocratic regimes and a world order that perpetuated this condition (a common hope of both Ramadan and Bishara, despite their divergent ideological viewpoints, is that the uprisings will undo not just local despots but the neoliberal world order). Bishara believes in the uprisings as having a teleological nature, in that they serve a Great Purpose: to shatter the idols of our age. “It’s the political and economic culture behind the economic disparities that are drawing out the masses,” he claims, making links so many others have made with the Occupy Wall Street movement and the global economic crisis.

All three writers must provide narratives of the events that unfolded starting late 2010 and into 2011—in the cases of Lynch and Bishara, the narratives occupy the bulk of their books. But while Lynch offers neatly organized CliffsNotes, Bishara’s narrative is messier. In both cases, since there is little original research involved or previously unknown details, there is little that will add to the informed reader’s knowledge. In choosing the bird’s eye-view, they have not contributed to a better understanding of the individual uprisings. Between the two, Lynch provides much more insight in his analysis of social media and Al-Jazeera’s outsize political role—perhaps surprising since Bishara after all works for Al-Jazeera and might have been privy to its inner workings. But in the end it is telling that there is more new to say about the meta-narrative of the Arab Spring—the assertion of citizenship, the role of regional and global powers, how new technologies contributed to the assertion of a newly dominant discourse of revolt and liberation, the rise of Islamists and the challenges they face—than the events themselves.

Issandr El Amrani is the publisher of the Arabist, the popular Middle East blog, which he founded in 2003. He is a columnist for the Egypt Independent and The National, and has written for the Economist, Financial Times, London Review of Books, Guardian, TIME, and Foreign Policy. He can be followed on Twitter at @Arabist.