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Waiting for the Arab Spring
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The Arab Spring evolves so rapidly that it is hard to keep up, yet the test of any book is how well it stands up as a contribution to the understanding of its subject over time — its intellectual shelf life. But publishers are not full of alacrity, which is hard to understand considering where the market is for timely analyses. Four of the five works reviewed here are dated 2014, but events have already left them behind. Some were finished before Mohamed Morsi’s election in June 2012 as president of Egypt, and none foresaw the possibility of his overthrow. None expected Bashar al-Asad’s now-impending victory in Syria nor the General National Congress’s fractious stalemate nor General Khalifa Haftar’s exasperated reaction to how events have unfolded in post-Qadhafi Libya nor (less certain) the promising national dialogue in Yemen. That is not their fault by any means; it merely shows the rapidity of significant events as Arab countries move on through their seasons. The real challenge is to convey an understanding of the movements into which these significant incidents fit, or do not fit, and from which further events emanate, so that unforeseen turns in history can nonetheless be understood. They meet this challenge variously.

Three of the books are limited to North Africa (from Morocco to Egypt), although the course of events in Syria and Yemen can throw much light on developments in North African countries. The works are generally similar in their take on the general trend — Tunisia is promising, Algeria is frozen, Morocco is hopeful, Egypt is confusing, while Libya, and with it Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon, are fractious and unstable — though they differ in significant details. Even historically there is disagreement among the works. The three books that deem an Arab “Awakening” to have taken place consider 2011 to be either the first (Pollack) or the second — after 1956, following Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser (Dawisha), or after 1939, following George Antonius, as is usually done (Muasher). Thereafter, the views of the authors differ in sensing the temperature of the Arab Spring.

Approaches and Focus

The broadest approach is presented in two works sponsored by the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. One, by Stephen Grand, is about the Arab Spring only by analogy, examining instead transitions elsewhere by region — Eastern Europe, Muslim Asia, Latin America, and Sub-Saharan Africa — in the hope of finding lessons for the Arab World. Each region’s review hangs on a few countries in a full Current History–type of summary of policies, parties and elections (there is no FARC or Sendero Luminoso in Latin America, no Boko Haram or FDLR in Africa, among other omissions), most ending with “it remains to be seen” and “time will tell.” Some general lessons are then drawn, a bit distantly from the preceding experiences, for Arab countries and for US policy, including emphasis on education abroad, encouragement of local and NGOs and democracy movements (despite the Egyptian experience), and investment and free trade agreements.

The second work is a collection of essays by 18 colleagues of the Brookings Institution, focusing — if there is a focus — on “America and the Transformation of the Middle East.” It deals with a number of forces and a number of countries somewhat unusually grouped as transitional (Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Palestine), reform-related (Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, Jordan, Morocco, and Algeria), crises (Yemen and Syria), others (Iran, Israel, and Turkey), and external powers. While there is no decisive strain in these countries’ events the general thrust is positive, seeing a pent-up outburst for change in the hopes expressed by the uprisings. Each chapter concludes with implications for the US, which is the ultimate message of the work. The message is “Keep engaged, be wary, be helpful, because it matters.”

A similar message comes from Adeed Dawisha, professor at Miami University in Ohio and a Wilson Center scholar, who seeks to understand the events of the Arab Spring in the recent histories of the countries concerned, beginning with the impact of Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser and the dictators of his era produced and then continuing into individual histories grouped as Islamic...

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