"The Battle for the Arab Spring - Revolution, Counter-Revolution and the making of a new era"
(Lin Noueihed and Alex Warren, Yale University Press, 2012)
Reuters correspondent Lin Noueihed and Middle East analyst Alex Warren have written an comprehensive account of the revolution and counter-revolution underpinning the Arab Spring over a year after its inception.
The book attempts the ambitious feat of investigating the origins of the Arab Spring, the particular dynamics of the 'battleground' states as well as the more subtle geopolitics and identity politics that provide the arena in which events have taken place.
The authors trace the origins of the Arab Spring to before the 2011 'explosion', chronicling the wave of protests that swept the region in 2008 in response to rocketing food prices. The roots of the feelings of injustice felt by millions is covered widely and surmised effectively in a chapter entitled "Bread, Oil and Jobs", where words like 'malaise', 'frustrations' and 'corruption' dominate. A particularly well-made argument explores why other economically disadvantaged areas have not reacted in the same manner as the Middle East and North Africa region, making the persuasive point that "perhaps the key difference in the Arab world was the combination of economic hopelessness with political powerlessness" (p.42).
The Arab Spring at the core of its explosion was a well networked population rejecting the legitimacy of the 'owners' of the state. What makes the timing of "The Battle for the Arab Spring" particularly interesting is that it can comment on the counter-revolution that followed the heady optimism that came with the rapid fall of Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafi. With each of the 'battleground' states getting an assessment of the likelihood of the revolutions' success.
Tunisia comes out as the most successful to date with "an educated population and active population" and "a long history as a state" (p.94). The prospects are less rosy in Egypt where the authors look back a year to what they describe as a "protest inspired coup" (p.99) that could be only "half completed" (p.113). The current battle between the newly elected President Morsi and the military authorities whose "establishment that had not only provided all the presidents since the overthrow of the monarchy sixty years earlier" (p.111) could have numerous consequences against an increasingly bleak economic climate. The focus on the fate of Coptic Christians (10% of the Egyptian population) in 'post-revolutionary' Egypt should be of particular concern. The managing of expectations around the Arab Spring remain at their most uncertain with Egypt where the book makes the succinct point that "if the first stage of the revolution took eighteen days, the next will take years, if not decades" (p.133).
Whereas 'bread and freedom' lay behind much of Egypt and Tunisia's revolutions, the spirit of change swept into Bahrain a country where a "history of activism" had been created by a Sunni monarchy ruling over a majority Shi'ite country. Within Bahrain's uprising the book touches upon the multilayered nature of the Arab Spring, whereby new dynamics interact with existing conflicts. Perhaps most complex of all is the 'Cold War' between Iran and Saudi Arabia and how it manifests itself in sectarian terms. Whilst Warren and Noueihed chronicle the challenges facing the Arab monarchies and have a chapter that stands alone debating meaning and application of 'Islamism', the reader feels slightly short changed that the Saudi-Iranian conflict wasn't described as a clearer arena within which much of the battleground states are directed.
Libya's "revolution from above" is outlined in a powerful chapter that puts at its beginning the ramifications of this 'new phase' of the Arab Spring that would see tens of thousands of people killed (between 30,000 and 50,000 were killed in the six months after the NATO intervention). Unfortunately the book fails to unearth the catalyst that turned peaceful marches into such a deadly armed insurrection and perhaps places too much emphasis on the role of Bernard-Henri Levy in the NATO decision to intervene. The chapter paints a bleak future for the new militia ridden post-Gaddafi Libya, speculating that "it will be almost impossible for the new government not to inherit the way that Gaddafi distributed power between different groups. It is the only means of holding the country together through a long transitional period" (p.189).
Syria is likely to remain at the centre of global attention for some time. The book provides a nuanced look at the urban-rural divides that would drive much of the early protests. The authors accept the Western bloc consensus that Bashar will go but how long it will take and how many will die is unknown, a powerful quote from a Syrian protester sums this up "it's like faith in God, once you stop believing, you can't go back" (p.229).
The book concludes by recognising that the Arab Spring is by no means over and that the notion of any regime being "too big to fail" is obsolete. The overall scope and breadth of the work makes it deserving of special recognition. The authors personal experiences are combined well with a riveting narrative that plays especially well in chronicling the 'battleground states'. Less successful is the attempt to overlay the aspects of both Islamism and various geopolitical dynamics to create a more coherent structure, although perhaps this is inevitable considering the scale and unique differences across such a vast and diverse region.
Originally reviewed for International Affairs