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David Ottaway's painstaking account of the revolutionary upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt (2010–16) is essential reading for all those seeking to better understand the significance of these events. Building on years of experience reporting on and from North Africa, Ottaway provides a wealth of detail on the twists and turns in the two stories, gleaned from intensive research of original sources, including interviews with several key actors.
To frame his analysis Ottaway draws on the works of various writers who have theorized about the defining characteristics of a revolution. Using Crane Brinton's typology of the English, French, and Russian revolutions as a template,1 Ottaway finds sufficient grounds to rank the events in Tunisia and Egypt as comparable. However, in neither case can the process be considered anywhere near complete. Revolutions take decades, and classically entail reversals and periods of dictatorial rule—as under Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Joseph Stalin.
Ottaway adopts Brinton's term—the Thermidor—for the backlash that results from the excesses of overzealous revolutionaries in the early stages of the process. (The word derives from the name given to the month of July in the French Revolutionary calendar.) The Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi lasted only one year as the first freely elected president of Egypt before being ousted by the military, acting with the backing of all the others Morsi had alienated, including those Ottaway categorizes as "the secularists" who instigated the revolution. The avoidance of a Thermidorian backlash in Tunisia, thus far, Ottaway attributes in large part to the pragmatism of Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Ennahda Movement (from al-nahda; "the revival"). [End Page 692]
There are a number of other concepts that Ottaway deploys during the course of the book, including that of the "new-old order" (Brinton's term) and the relative merits of "revolutionary legitimacy" versus "constitutional legitimacy"—a source of contention in both Egypt and Tunisia. Revolutionaries who abandon the streets to rely on the authority of a new constitution, Ottaway asserts, incur their own demise.
Also important in the trajectory of a revolution, Ottaway asserts, is the role adopted by the armed forces. In Tunisia they refused to intervene directly in politics, leaving the politicians and their civilian supporters with little choice but to find ways to share power, since neither secularists nor Ennahda supporters had a clear majority. In Egypt, by contrast, the military was a decisive actor. It played various roles between the start of the revolution in January 2011 and the toppling of Morsi in July 2013, sometimes standing back and at other times making crucial interventions.
As Ottaway demonstrates, in 2011 opinion in Egypt was divided along a spectrum, and the success of the Muslim Brotherhood in the first free parliamentary elections owes as much to their superior level of organization compared to the disarray of their numerous opponents, as it does to their relative popularity with the electorate. Subsequently, Morsi, as president, managed to unite almost all Egyptians (except his staunchest supporters) against him and the movement, by his ineptitude and mistakes.
The book is most valuable for the detail with which the twists and turns in the two revolutions are recounted and substantiated. It is in this sense a useful reference source on specifics. The basic arguments advanced about the extent to which both revolutions conform to the templates propounded by Brinton and others are also well developed and referenced.
Overall, Ottaway adopts a broadly dispassionate and matter-of-fact tone. He attributes Morsi's failure to his mistakes and Ghannouchi's success to his pragmatism—and professes no opinion on the merits or otherwise of their religious appeal. In light of this, it is a little irritating that his references to the uprising in Bahrain in 2011 fails to clarify what part, if any, the sectarian identity of the majority of the population played in their motivations for revolt.
Of greater significance, however, is Ottaway's treatment of the US role, or lack of it, in...