Review: The Arab Spring: The Hope and Reality of the Uprisings
Review: The A rab Spring : The H ope and Reality of the Uprisings
Ahmed E. SOUAIAIA University of Iowa 0 1
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Review: The A rab Spring: The H ope and Reality of the Uprisings
Reviewed by Ahmed E. Souaiaia, joint appointment in Religious Studies, History, International Studies, and
College of Law, The U niversity of Iowa, Iowa City, IA; https://ahmed.souaiaia.com.
Creative Commons License
Thi s review is available in Mathal: https://ir.uiowa.edu/mathal/vol5/iss1/5
Since the events widely known as the Arab Spring started in 2011,
scholars and researchers have produced more than 200 books and ten
times as many journal articles. For an event that is, by some measures, still
ongoing, this body of knowledge is astounding. This broad interest speaks
to several key facts. First, the region impacted by the Arab Spring is
important geopolitically to the rest of the world. Second, advances in
publishing technology and changes in publishing industry practices have
made it possible for academic works to be put in the public domain in a
fraction of the time it used to take a work of scholarship to reach its
audience. Third, the revolution in communication technology has enabled
researchers to access primary sources, collect evidence, and interpret data
more efficiently. These changes come with opportunities and challenges.
One challenge is the researcher?s ability to gather all the facts necessary to
make sound conclusions. The editors of The Arab Spring: The Hope and
Reality of the Uprisings, Mark Haas and David Lesch, quickly became
keenly aware of this challenge, declaring that ?writing or commenting on
current or recent events in the Middle East is a hazardous business? (xi).
This is one reason the volume needed a second edition in less than two
The volume is well organized, and there is no question that the
expertise of the contributors makes this work an indispensable resource
for professors, students, and informed members of the public. The editors
provide information about the substance of each chapter and the reason
behind the selection of the expert and the topic. Despite the time pressure,
the contributors produced detailed accounts of what has happened and
why it happened in the country they were studying. The perspectives were
diverse as were the approaches and methods. There is no benefit in
summarizing the skills and insights of each contributor, for doing so for an
edited volume will always fall short in giving each one their due credit.
Instead, I focus on the very few shortcomings of the volume, especially the
ones that apply to all chapters.
One memorable statement was the editors? claim that the ?so-called
Arab Spring unexpectedly erupted in late 2010 and early 2011? (1). The
same impression was present explicitly or implicitly in the other chapters.
I have also heard it at professional conferences and other forums. The
Arab Spring was a surprise to everyone. I am not sure that everyone was
surprised by what happened, perhaps by when it happened and how it
happened but not by the fact it happened. The idea of an ?Arab Spring??
that it is a peaceful uprising that resulted in the overthrow of a regime,
which is the sense intended in many quarters?is not common in Islamic
societies, is Eurocentric, and is factually baseless.
First, most successful uprisings or revolutions have been more or less
unexpected. After all, since such uprisings are a threat primarily to
governing regimes, if they happen as expected, the government would not
be doing its job of protecting itself from the masses. So, there is nothing
special about an uprising unexpectedly happening in the Middle East.
Moreover, it might help to point out that Tunisia, the country some believe
to be the birthplace of the Arab Spring, is no stranger to Arab Springs. It
suffices to note that Ben Ali, who was overthrown by the 2011 uprising,
himself came to power through another Arab Spring that took place in
1987 that overthrew Habib Bourguiba, although Ben Ali may want to take
credit for a bloodless coup instead of giving credit to the uprising of 1987.
Furthermore, from the 1970s until 1987, Tunisians often rose up,
peacefully, to protest corruption, to complain about economic conditions,
and/or to demand political reform. Similar uprisings took pace in Algeria
in the 1980s, and we cannot ignore the popular uprising in Iran in 1978?
79 that resulted in the overthrow of the Shah. It should also be noted that
in Egypt and in other Arab countries, protests, albeit low key and less
dramatic when compared to Tunisia?s, took place, and people dissented
and risked jail and torture before the Tunisian uprising of 2010?11. The
implication that the 2011 uprisings, are a special event, and Arab Spring,
diminishes the sacrifices the people of the region and deprive them of
agency; representing them as peoples who lacked initiative, more likely to
react than to act.
The last critique is that all contributors to this volume either ignored or
downplayed the role of regional and global actors in shaping the trajectory of
the subsequent uprisings. NATO and Qatar played a decisive role in the
war in Libya. Regional and global actors? direct military interventions in
Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen predestined the near future of these countries.
And, most recently, and related to the first critique, the world?s reaction?
or, more appropriately, inaction?to the gruesome killing of Jamal Ahmad
Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi operatives believed to have been acting on
orders from the Saudi crown prince underscores the role of Western
countries in steering events in the region.
Another common theme was present throughout the volume: a linear
logic that endows an uprising with a cause, a plan of action, and an end
goal, such as the ?creation of stable democratic regimes in their place? (6).
That, too, is a misrepresentation of popular uprisings, especially the 2011
uprisings in Arab countries. Uprisings happen not because someone like
Mohamed Bouazizi manages to do something out of the ordinary to ignite
them. Uprisings often happen when the conditions that are being
protested reach a threshold. That was the case in Tunisia, and one could
argue that if it were not Bouazizi shocking act, it would have been
something else. Uprisings and revolutions are not about replacing a
regime or an ideology with another. Uprisings and revolutions are about
interruptions. Those who rise up are often interested in putting an end to a
trend, but they are rarely interested in creating a substitute. In Tunisia, for
instance, most of the protesters, like Bouazizi, had no unifying political or
ideological interest or motives. However, once the regime fell, ideological
and political groups like Ennahda and others from the left and right
moved in to fill the vacuum.
These critiques are not intended to diminish the value and importance
of this volume dealing with one of the most consequential events of the
century thus far. Rather, they are intended to provide another point of
reference for a discussion that the authors will soon have as they
contemplate another edition of this important work.