The Foreign Service Journal, November 2020

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | NOVEMBER 2020 93 Hope Springs Eternal The Arab Winter: A Tragedy Noah Feldman, Princeton University Press, 2020, $22.95/hardcover, e-book available, 216 pages. Reviewed by Gordon Gray January 2021 will mark the tenth anni- versary of the massive demonstrations in Tunisia that forced Zine El Abidine Ben Ali into exile. Those demonstrations started a chain of events that shook the Arab world and came to be known as the Arab Spring. I had the privilege of serving as the U.S. ambassador to Tunisia at the time; many of us at U.S. Embassy Tunis had also served previously in Cairo. Egyptians like to refer to their coun- try as Um al-Dunya , or “Mother of the World,” so it came as a surprise to all of us when Egypt (home to roughly a quarter of the Arabic-speaking world) followed in the footsteps of Tunisia (whose entire population was barely more than half that of Cairo) and ousted Hosni Mubarak the following month. Soon after, many other nations in the region began to follow suit. The political transition to democracy in Tunisia has been relatively successful, with peaceful transitions of power follow- ing fair and free national elections. (The faltering economy is another story.) But this political progress contrasts sharply with the military coup d’état in Egypt that replaced Mohamed Morsi, the nation’s deeply flawed but only freely elected leader, in 2013. And elsewhere, civil wars ravage Libya, Syria and Yemen. In The Arab Winter , Harvard Law professor Noah Feldman explores why the hopes and expectations bred on the streets of Tunisia in 2011 turned to dust— and far worse—in Egypt, Syria and other Arabic-speaking countries. At the same time, he also explores why, despite those setbacks, the seeds planted by the Arab Spring provide a basis for at least some optimism in the long run. The chant “the people demand the fall of the regime” first surfaced during the demonstra- tions in Tunisia and could be heard at protests in Egypt before spreading to other Arab countries. (It even crossed the Atlantic, as “Occupy Wall Street” activists chanted it.) But as Feldman notes, the slogan revealed a fundamental weakness of the Arab Spring. While the overriding goal of the demonstrations was crystal clear and served as a unifying factor, there was no consensus on what should replace the existing regimes. Nor did the people speak with a single voice. Feldman observes that in Egypt they had one message in early 2011, when protestors demanded Mubarak step down, and another message in the summer of 2013 when they took to the streets seeking the end of Morsi’s presidency. This sharp internal division, Feldman explains, was also a cause of the tragedy that befell Syria. The winner-take- all mentality that prevailed in Egypt (as well as in Syria) suffocated any potential compromise. The political agency that Arab Spring participants exercised also transformed the two dominant politi- cal ideas in the region, Arab nationalism and political Islam. While demands for karama (dignity) and huriya (free- dom) resonated across borders in 2011—just as they had during Gamal Nasser’s speeches in sup - port of pan-Arab national- ism during the 1950s and 1960s—Feldman correctly notes that pan-Arab ideology did not play a compelling role during the Arab Spring. He argues that the Arab Spring, and specifically the events in Egypt between 2011 and 2013, had a transformative effect on political Islam. Following Morsi’s ineffectual time in office and the 2013 protests that led to the military coup that removed him from office and then imprisoned him, Feldman concludes, the Muslim Brotherhood’s concept of Islamic democracy no longer resonated beyond Egypt. Notwithstanding his sober analysis of what happened in Egypt and Syria (including the rise of the Islamic State), Feldman expresses cautious optimism about possible future developments in the region. For the first time in nearly a century, Arabic-speaking citizens acted to take control of their political future. Moreover, their doing so marked a dramatic change from the centuries-long history of outside powers (Ottomans, Europeans, then BOOKS The political agency that Arab Spring participants exercised also transformed the two dominant political ideas in the region, Arab nationalism and political Islam.