Mar 21 2011

Revolution in the Arab World: Tunisia, Egypt, and the Unmaking of an Era by the editors of Foreign Policy

Neda Semnani

web exclusive

My life has been shaped by the aftermath of a revolution gone bad. I was born in 1979 to Iranian revolutionaries, and when we were growing up my mother characterized the days after the Shah's ouster as generally euphoric. Many protesters felt that finally democracy was close, she said. After the revolution but before everything changed, people gathered in the street—to speak on top of soapboxes, argue over ideas, and chart the country's path forward.

Then, of course, everything did change. The Islamists won the day and the Islamic Republic of Iran was born. My father and more than two dozen of our friends and family members were executed; many others were imprisoned. Those of us who could escape left on horseback, crossing the mountains into Turkey before finally reaching the United States. For the following three decades, my ideas about revolution were defined by these events, not by the idea of young people giving over their lives to change the world.

And then a young Tunisian man doused himself with gasoline and lit himself on fire, an act that helped spur protests from Tunisia to Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Djibouti, and Iraq—and led to the toppling of at least two regimes in the process. Suddenly, the Arab Spring made me forget my cynicism and feel something closer to hope and pride.

With the protests still raging, Foreign Policy magazine's new e-book on the recent turbulence in the Middle East and North Africa, Revolution in the Arab World: Tunisia, Egypt, and the Unmaking of an Era, is a fascinating, if limited, study of the protests: how they have been shaped by history and how they are being recorded in real time. It is a look at the miraculous and sometimes terrifying early days of revolution. The volume is structured chronologically, weaving in real-time reporting from Foreign Policy reporters and bloggers such as Ashraf Khalil, Blake Hounshell, and Mark Lynch. Also featured are historical, political, and cultural analyses penned by a diverse group of popular regional bloggers, Ivy League professors, human-rights activists, and policymakers, among others.

The dramatic tension underlying this collection of essays, articles, and blog posts is, of course, that we—the readers and authors—know just a fraction of the story. Indeed, our knowledge of events in the Middle East and North Africa is changing daily. None of us can know how these upheavals will end or what their impact will be. What regimes will grow out of the fall of president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and from Hosni Mubarak's resignation in Egypt? Will the protesters get the democracy and socioeconomic opportunities they are demanding? How will these revolutions affect the United States, our national security, and our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? How will these movements impact America's influence in the region?

There are no sure answers to any of these questions—but their unsettled state actually gives the collection an immediacy it may have otherwise lacked. Unlike other analyses of foreign policy, this collection doesn't need to spell out the importance of US self-interest—the policy implications here are self-evident, even if they're still very much a work in progress. The book examines the surprising fragility of the police states in the region and the United States's relationship with these regimes. Many of our closest allies—Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Egypt—are integral to US national security, energy, and defense policy, and effectively force the United States to turn a blind eye as these countries' citizens suffer state brutality and oppression. As America's relationship with the regimes congealed, the autocrats doubled down on their policies of corruption, repression, and fear. The paradox of post-9/11, pro-democracy American policy in the Arab world is that the regimes have become more despotic as their relationships with the United States have grown stronger.

At least one of the articles by Mark Lynch, an editor at Foreign Policy, argues that true democracy in the region was not in US's national interest, because "authoritarian retrenchment, unfulfilled economic promises, rising sectarianism at the popular level, and a deep frustration among an increasingly tech-savvy rising generation" basically guaranteed an empowered population would vote the bums out. Leaders like Mubarak, Ben Ali, and Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh may have been little better than corrupt extortionists, but they were our corrupt extortionists, and the US policy elite made the calculated call that the devil they knew was better then the Islamists they didn't.

Against this backdrop, the larger narrative of Revolution in the Arab World strikes the reader as all the more incredible. In the essays "Revolution U" and "Did WikiLeaks Take Down Tunisia's Government," for example, Tina Rosenberg and Tom Malinowski unpack the ways WikiLeaks and social media have allowed partnerships to develop between career revolutionaries and nascent movements in the Middle East. With these new tools for organization and communication, the young revolutionaries learned to outwit, and ultimately defeat, some of the most entrenched despots in the region.

But it is the heart-pounding, street-level reporting by Ashraf Khalil and Blake Hounshell, collected in the chapter "18 Days of that Shook the World: Reporting from the Streets of Cairo," that truly transports. In the article, "January 25: Tear Gas on the Day of Rage," Khalil describes the gathering swell of peaceful marchers as they overwhelm and overrun thousands of riot police. He describes the scene as he gets "caught up in an acrid cloud of [tear] gas" with crowds of protesters and riot police gagging on the sidewalk, and recounts the euphoria he witnessed when one group of protesters met another, larger group: "The two sides embraced in the street amid raucous cheering and began marching together."

In another piece, Khalil reports the hairpin turn of events when a group of anti-government protesters is attacked by a "bizarre, medieval mounted charge" of Mubarak supporters riding camels and horses. In their wake, he writes, Tahrir Square is "littered with wounded protesters who were frightened, enraged, shell-shocked, and desperately short of medical supplies." In one short paragraph he deftly describes the speed with which naive revolutionaries must toughen up.

A few kilometers from Tahrir Square, Hounshell reports from "a high-end coffee shop overlooking the Nile in the wealthy island neighborhood of Zamalek, [where] Gucci-wearing young people smoked shisha and spoke with new interest of the protest movement." In a few short pages, the reporters steward the reader through the scenes of an embattled Cairo: checkpoints in Tahrir Square, a scared and angry mob, lattes in a trendy coffee shop, and the euphoria of victory.

By necessity, this volume is very much a first draft of history and not a tightly realized chronicle of events. The immediacy of the still-stunning revolutions likely means that more time will have to pass before they can acquire even the porous kind of permanence conferred by an e-book.

But the book also suffers from larger problems and sins of omission. Conspicuously absent, for example, is any mention of the attack on Lara Logan, the journalist who was sexually assaulted by a mob the night Mubarak stepped down. Indeed, there is no mention of the gender dimensions of the protest movements or in the historical analysis of the region. Young Arab and Persian women are as educated, ambitious, and frustrated as their male counterparts; many are more consistently politically active than men are, and yet these female citizens, victims, activists, bloggers, and journalists get almost no notice in Revolution in the Arab World. And that means, in turn, that the incredible bravery that women protestors displayed during the uprisings gets completely overlooked here. Consider just one obvious example in this regard: The simple act of sleeping out night after night in Tahrir Square would have been profoundly nerve-racking and even dangerous for female protesters and their families—and yet, there they were, sacrificing the most personal sort of security for the sake of the pro-democracy movement. Foreign Policy has recently published an article analyzing women and the Arab revolutions, so I can only assume that it will be included in the next edition of the e-book.

Another omission that already looms large as events continue to unfold in the region is any sustained or focused analysis of Libya, the country's protests, and its devolution into potential civil war. No doubt, Foreign Policy's editors compiled and published the volume as Libya was teetering on the brink of long-term unrest; but since topical currency is the calling card of both this collection and of the e-book format, this narrative lapse will continue to stand out more prominently with the passage of time.

Still, whatever its weaknesses, Revolution in the Arab World succeeds in its most fundamental task: capturing the Arab Spring largely as it happened. Hundreds of thousands of Arabs organized in a largely non-violent fashion and demanded better for themselves from their governments—and, by extension, from the West. In doing so, they have also dislodged seemingly immovable regimes from power—and, just as impressively, forced the White House and the State Department to scramble to adapt. These revolutions, the book persuasively argues, have succeeded where the West, Al Qaeda and others have failed: The status quo is fundamentally changing, both within the region and beyond.

And that is the revolution to keep watching. The politics of fear the despots and terrorists have used to scare and motivate their citizenry has given way to a still unsettled but enormously promising new opening in the Middle East's political history. Perhaps in thirty years the world will remember this winter as the time when an extraordinary army of ordinary people stopped being afraid.

Neda Semnani is a deputy editor at CQ-Roll Call Group.


March 21, 2011
4:25 pm

What a fantastic review!

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