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  • Taking to the Streets: The Transformation of Arab Activism ed. by Lina Khatib and Ellen Lust
  • Jillian Schwedler
Taking to the Streets: The Transformation of Arab Activism, edited by Lina Khatib and Ellen Lust. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014, 351 pages. $29.95.

Since the outbreak of the Arab uprisings in December 2010, at least a dozen books have been published that seek to explain the uprisings, explore the variation across cases, and pontificate about their trajectories and the prospects of some 250 million people who live in the region. Most of these books are structured around country studies, seeking primarily to explain why the uprisings happened in the cases (i.e., in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria), why some turned violent, and why others achieved the seemingly unthinkable — regime change — through peaceful resistance. Four years after the uprisings began, many of those published volumes are not worth the trees that were felled on their behalf (although there are of course notable exceptions).

Two weaknesses stand out. First, most accounts of the Arab uprisings begin with what Laryssa Chomiak in this volume describes as an origin story (p. 22): that the uprisings began in Tunisia with the self-immolation of fruit vendor Muhammad Bouazizi and spread first throughout that country and then quickly to others. This narrative — how an individual’s desperate suicide tapped into the collective frustration of millions of Arabs — has been endlessly reproduced because it is so appealing that an individual can spark a massive mobilization that brings down multiple repressive regimes. This origin story has many weaknesses, however, not least of which is the wide range of protest activities that took place prior to the Arab uprisings, even in the most repressive of police states. The “Spring” did not come out of nowhere.

Second, most analyses of the uprisings wrongly sort the countries into two categories: those that experienced an uprising and those that did not. Space is then dedicated to the cases in which uprisings occurred: Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain. This categorization of cases implies that uprisings did not occur in the countries that are absent from the discussion—clearly a wrong conclusion. Indeed, nearly every state has seen at least some escalation in protest activities and expressions of dissent, even if they did not escalate to revolutionary levels.

In Taking to the Streets, Lina Khatib and Ellen Lust have compiled a set of case studies that (with minor exceptions) do not fall into these traps. The volume does not seek to “explain” the uprisings in an overtly theoretical sense, but rather seeks to explore the uprisings in ten cases, beginning each analysis prior to the escalation of events associated with the recent uprisings. The cases include Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain, but also Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. The latter four have often been discussed only as “negative” cases that saw no significant escalation in protests. [End Page 154] The data in these chapters easily dispel this notion, as well as the persistent but wrong assertion that monarchies were able to easily weather the “Arab Spring.” (Oman might also have been included, and of course Bahrain was a monarchy that saw a massive uprising.) Their inclusion alone in this volume makes the book standout in a crowded field.

Structured around case studies, the chapters do not explicitly engage the scholarly debates most often discussed in reference to the uprisings (i.e., the literatures on durable authoritarianism and on social movements and revolutions). Instead, each pays careful attention to identifying the range of actors at play: new and old opposition movements, factions within each regime, and the role of less politicized market and business groups and other civil society organizations. These actors are traced through a narrative analysis of events in each country, emphasizing the longer trajectories of anti-regime activities and how the dynamics of the uprisings themselves altered those patterns. The editors also emphasize their wish to debunk the popular myth (although much less common in scholarly literature) that the uprisings were driven by tech-savvy youths, and the careful attention to the full range of actors in each chapter readily accomplishes...


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pp. 154-155
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