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Sunday, 26 June 2022
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Arab tragedy?

The Arab Spring feels like the distant past these days. In just a few months it will be the 10th anniversary of the self-immolation of Mohammed Buazizi, a vegetable seller in the central Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid, and there will doubtless continue to be plenty of global distractions to ensure that it will not attract the attention it deserves.


 Noah Feldman’s short but thought-provoking new book, the Arab Winter*, is a timely reminder of that turbulent and exciting period – and its disappointments. It is a scholarly addition to a growing literature and focuses on key chapters: Egypt, Syria, the rise and fall of the Islamic State (Daesh) and the exceptional, if relative, success of the Tunisian revolution.


 Feldman, a professor of law and Arabist at Harvard, begins by analyzing the famous slogan: “The people want the overthrow of the regime.” He looks at what constitutes “the people,” the meaning of “overthrow” and “regime” in a region shaped by Ottoman, European and American empires, as well by Arab nationalism and political Islam in the course of the last century.


 He defines the Arab Spring as an historical event of first-order importance whose “significance must not be overlooked or played down simply because the exercise of political agency in Egypt and Syria later went seriously awry.” His book’s subtitle is simply: ”A Tragedy.”


 Examining events in Egypt, he labels landmark developments Tahrir I and Tahrir II. The first is the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. The second is the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Muhammad Morsi in July 2013. “The people spoke clearly and repeatedly,” Feldman writes, making clear that it in his view removing the democratically-elected Morsi was a mistake. “They rejected autocracy. Then they welcomed it back.”


 Syria’s “tragedy” is of enormous dimensions. He attributes that to the concentration of power in the hands of the Alawite sect and the undying loyalty of the military and security services to the regime of Bashar al-Assad. He also dismisses the once fashionable notion that the president ever considered compromise and reform as way of retaining power. Instead he sought the total defeat of his rivals.


 Syrian activists hoped in vain for foreign intervention, underestimating the negative impact of George Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 on the Obama administration’s “middle-ground” policy. Instead  they saw Russia’s Vladimir Putin – and the Islamic Republic of Iran, along with its ally/proxy Hizbullah  – backing Damascus to the hilt.


 The author’s personal experience of the US response to the 9/11 attacks on America is clearly relevant: in 2003 he served as senior constitutional advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, where he advised members of the Iraqi Governing Council on the drafting of their interim constitution.


 Feldman’s chapter on the Islamic State underscores, as he puts it, “the risks associated with trying to make political change in an uncertain world.” Those risks includes confusingly mixed messages from Washington about how far it was prepared to go. The murder and rape of thousands of innocent civilians, Yazidis and others, were perceived as collective Muslim self-defence in the name of the Salafi-Jihadi Caliphate.


 “In the time of the Arab winter, “ he writes, “political Islam is now left without a noteworthy model of a state form that might actually work. As a set of ideologies, political Islam stands more discredited than at any time in the past century.”  He attributes huge significance both to its failure in Egypt and the horrific atrocities committed by Daesh.


 Like many foreign observers, Feldman sees Tunisia after Ben Ali as a success story. He attributes that to the Ennahda party led by Rashid Ghannouchi and offers the thought that what distinguished it from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood was a readiness to compromise. Tunisians succeeded because they benefitted from a robust civil society and exercised not only political agency but political responsibility – not even considering the idea of outside intervention on their behalf.


 “There can be little doubt,” he writes, “that Tunisia had good fortune in having a leader of Ghannouchi’s intellect, character, and leadership, all of which were absent in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and particularly in Morsi.” Still, economic reform remains limited - even with the liberal version of Islamist politics (comparable to Christian Democrats in Europe) operating in the framework of constitutional government and acknowledging that Islam alone is not the solution to everything.


 Overall, Feldman believes, the events of the Arab Spring gave a sense of empowerment to the peoples who starred in its riveting but sad drama – even if they ended up failing to achieve their aspirations for change. Winter, after all, is always followed by spring -  however long it takes to arrive. “It is time to recognize that the future of the Arabic-speaking world is and ought to be made by the people who live there, not from the outside,” he concludes. “Their successes and failures will, be, and must be, their own.” It is hard, whatever you think of what he has argued otherwise, to disagree with that.


 


* https://www.amazon.com/Arab-Winter-Tragedy-Noah-Feldman/dp/0691194920


IAN BLACK