The ‘Arab Spring’ Tragedy, Ten Years On: Who is at Fault?
Hesham Sallam 24 August 2020

Every revolution carries the seeds of its own counter-revolution, argued the late Ghali Shukri in 1978 as he reflected on the presidency of Anwar Al-Sadat and its transgressions against the legacy of his predecessor Gamal Abdel-Nasser. The same revolution that brought about nationalization, land reform, and state socialism, he explains, harbored and protected the very interests that would later steer the country toward economic liberalization. The Free Officers Movement that gave us Abdel-Nasser is the same one that gave us Sadat. In that sense, Shukri asserts, every revolution is by default also its own counter-revolution. That paradox could not be more pronounced in Noah Feldman’s The Arab Winter: A Tragedy, a deep exploration into the meaning of the “Arab Spring”[1] and an account of how a promising and noble popular call for change ultimately resulted in authoritarian resurgence, social polarization, and civil war.

The Arab Winter situates its arguments in four major events. That is, Egypt’s January 25 Revolution and the collapse of democratic institutions in the wake of a popularly supported coup; the fall of Syria’s uprising into civil war; the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq; and the resilience of Tunisia’s democratic experiment in the face of social conflict.


A force from within

Central to Feldman’s argument is the notion that the so-called Arab Spring marked “a new phase in the Arab political experience, in which participants engaged in collective action for self-determination that was not conceived primarily in relation to imperial power—neither as the main target of the collective movement nor as its fomenter or supporter” (xii). Thus, the Arab Spring, even if it failed to generate normatively desirable outcomes in the countries of the region, cannot be simply dismissed as a “mirage” or a “false dawn”. Instead it must be recognized as an historic moment with a value in and of itself, and in which large swaths of people acted together in an attempt to decide on their own fate independent of external influences (x). Accordingly, credit for the successes and failures of the Arab Spring, Feldman maintains, must be attributed first and foremost to those who participated in it and not to foreign actors and imperial powers (xiii).

The book is admirable in its insistence on upholding the agency of the people who rose up against dictatorship in the course of the Arab Spring. In that respect The Arab Winter’s narrative sets itself quite distinctly from other accounts of the Arab Spring that privilege the role of foreign powers and external players in shaping the realities of Arab domestic politics during that period. Hence, the book is recurrently emphatic that US power was not the major driver of the course of the Arab Spring and the (often dark) trajectories it exhibited throughout the region.

While some put great weight on the Barack Obama administration’s often praised decision to adopt a conciliatory stance toward the Egyptian protesters who would force Hosni Mubarak’s downfall, Feldman holds that Washington was not the major protagonist in that story. What enabled Egyptians to exercise political agency and act against Mubarak, he argues, is not the involvement of the US but lack thereof. The imperial over-stretch resulting from the failed US occupation of Iraq, Feldman explains, guaranteed that Washington “would take no major steps to either effectuate or promote the events of the Arab spring” (45). Accordingly, it is within that context that people in Egypt and throughout the region felt emboldened to rise up against autocracy.

In a parallel fashion, Feldman notes that Obama’s critics frequently fault him for Syria’s woes by failing to intervene effectively on behalf of the rebels who sought the downfall of Bashar Al-Assad. The Arab Winter states that such critiques overlook that US policy did not “cause” the Syrian civil war, even if it contributed to it (93).

Analysts often contend that US policies in Iraq, which fomented lawlessness and sectarianism, are to blame for the rise of the Islamic State. Feldman counters that the decisive factor that enabled the Islamic State’s rise to prominence is the Syrian civil war, which allowed it to capture territories and establish itself as a meaningful entity and a credible project that could attract support from around the globe (106-107).

Many sympathetic observers will certainly welcome The Arab Winter’s emphasis on the agency of those who led the charge against autocratic leaders. Yet in building his case for what is distinct in this wave of protests, Feldman separates domestic politics from national liberation. Many local activists would question this neat theoretical delineation on grounds that they view their own struggle against authoritarianism domestically as inseparable from a struggle against imperialism and an unjust global economic order. Others will scrutinize Feldman for camouflaging the role of external powers in his local agency centered narrative. Even if they did not spark anti-regime protests in 2011, as he contends, such actors arguably shaped the dynamics and outcomes of subsequent transitions and domestic conflicts, and often tilted the balance of power in favor of specific parties, whether in Syria or Egypt.


Making sense of political outcomes

Feldman, quite modestly, presents his study as an attempt at understanding political meaning. That is, it seeks to explain what is significant about the events under study, as opposed to a social scientific endeavor trying to answer why specific outcomes emerged, especially as they relate to the success and failure of the Arab Spring across time and space (xx). The book, nonetheless, does not shy away from making causal claims. That becomes apparent in Feldman’s provocative discussion of why the Arab Spring succeeded in relative terms in Tunisia but resulted in renewed autocracy and civil war in Egypt and Syria respectively.

Notwithstanding the role of external players in Syria (90-92; 99), Feldman tells us, the horrors that the country witnessed since 2011 occurred primarily because both Al-Assad regime and the protesters “rejected compromise in favor of a winner-take-all struggle for control of the state” (78). Thus, “the fault for the Syrian civil war,” the author concludes, “lies with Syrians” (97). Similarly, Egyptians are to blame for the end of their troubled democratic experiment and the emergence of the repressive rule of Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. Just like they chose a path of change in 2011 and called for Mubarak’s downfall, Egyptians, through what Feldman claims is an equally legitimate expression of public will (61; 66; 75), chose to overturn the democratic process when they took to the streets on 30 June 2013 (62-63). That is, Egyptians “rejected autocracy. Then they welcomed it back” (74).

Tunisians, on the other hand, acted “responsibly,” and therein lies the key factor behind the country’s success compared to the rest of the region. In the face of polarization, political assassinations, fundamental differences over constitution writing, Tunisians rose up to the occasion and embraced compromise and consensus (130). Unlike Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Ennahda, Tunisia’s largest Islamist party, knew that despite winning a plurality of votes and enjoying electoral legitimacy, they still needed to build common ground with their secular counterparts (141). Tunisia’s political protagonists, moreover, did not look for support from foreign powers as they worked out their differences (130), unlike the Syrian rebels who hoped that outsiders would intervene on their behalf to oust Al-Assad regime thereby “further avoiding direct responsibility” (157). “Everyone [in Tunisia] had to compromise in order to avoid breakdown; so everyone did” (131).


Methodological questions

In evaluating this line of reasoning, the reader will find herself yearning for the voice of the activists who led the charge against dictatorship in 2011; voices and experiences that the book does not engage directly beyond the major slogans that hit the English-language headlines (1; 16; 22; 85-86; 95). Instead, the book relies for the most part on secondary English-language accounts from major US and international news outlets, as well as books and studies written by Western-based scholars and think-tank experts. It also cites the author’s own observations and frequently delves into counterfactuals.

Equally relevantly, Feldman’s argument puts him in direct debate with those who believe that the range of choices that the relevant actors in these countries faced were arguably shaped and limited by the very institutional, structural, and external factors the book tries to underplay—not to mention country-specific historical legacies and contingencies. Did the proponents of democratic change have much of a choice in Syria once Al-Assad regime deliberately turned their peaceful protests into a violent confrontation in which the language of guarantees, compromise, and consensus became largely obsolete? Can one truly say that Syrians were solely responsible for their own fate as their country quickly turned into an arena for proxy wars and regional and international rivalries? Did either the Muslim Brotherhood or its opponents in Egypt ever have control over the transition once the military, with consistent US backing, took charge after Mubarak’s downfall and immediately began playing divide-and-rule with its challengers across the political spectrum? Did Egyptians choose a path of polarization and gridlock or did they inherit a political field that was inconducive to compromise and consensus? Put simply, did Egyptians and Syrians in fact make poor choices, or were they forced to choose between a set of poor choices? Returning to the issue of external interventions, did Tunisians succeed because they “responsibly” eschewed foreign interferences and took charge of their own fate? Or was it that Tunisia, unlike Egypt and Syria, did not present any major stakes for Washington or Moscow and thus was spared the same constraining interventions witnessed elsewhere in the region?

Feldman is sensitive to that type of critique (xxiv). For instance, he acknowledges the structural environment that made violence a likely outcome in Syria, including the sectarian composition of the ruling class (86; 95), the position of security agencies in the ruling coalition (88), and the legacies of imperial involvement in the country (97). Yet these factors do not fare significantly or hold much analytic weight in the book’s conclusions, which unequivocally implicate the free will of Arab Spring protesters and that of the leaders they sought to challenge (74; 97).


A different perspective

The most engaging contribution of The Arab Winter is its implicit invitation to rethink the normative commitments guiding conventional interpretations of the Arab Spring. Feldman breaks with the view that violence in Syria, Egypt’s military coup, and the rise of the Islamic State are all reversals to the Arab Spring. Instead, he presents them as part of its course. For Feldman, all three contexts, even if they feature outcomes that betray our normative expectations and desires, capture the essence of the Arab Spring moment; that is, an attempt by people to wage autonomous political action and act as agents of their own fate. Nowhere is this proposition more unsettling than in the book’s account of the Islamic State. Feldman contends that “the phenomenon of the Islamic State belongs to the tragedy of the Arab spring” and that its founders “were attempting to act as agents in politics every bit as much as the peaceful Arab spring protesters or those who took up arms against oppressive regimes” (122).

The Arab Winter offers a unique account of the Islamic State; one that steers clear of the national security and terrorism studies paradigms that tend to dominate discussions of that widely debated phenomenon. Instead, the book presents the Islamic State from a unique perspective: A ‘utopian revolutionary-reformist’ project aimed at emulating the ideal society of the Prophet Muhammed and the early ‘rightly guided’ caliphs who succeeded him (112). It is that utopian element that explains why the Islamic State enjoyed such a global appeal. People from around the world flocked to the Islamic State, Feldman contends, not as a self-sacrificial act of joining an armed struggle. Rather, they did so as part of a hopeful journey to a tangible space where they could take part in building and inhabiting the so-called ideal Islamic society, the world of the prophet and his companions (117-121). It is that same “utopian script,” with its emphasis on millennialism, that justified the horrific acts of violence the Islamic State committed (116); violence that, Feldman provocatively notes, only deviates in degree from that committed in the past by other nationalist quests for self-determination (123).

Many scholars will undoubtedly debate the book’s argument that the fall of the Islamic State, Morsi’s ouster and the violent repression of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Ennahda’s embrace of a separation between state and religion, all signify the decline of political Islam (75; 126; 156). But the book’s narrative will likely remain an important springboard to that discussion.

Feldman makes no secret that his own sympathies lie with partisans of change in the region and the actors and movements that the term “Arab Spring” came to embody (xxii). The book, however, struggles at times—perhaps for compelling reasons—in challenging the wisdom that the Arab Spring was simply not worth all the deaths and destruction that happened since its advent (100; 126-127). Thus, The Arab Winter stands as a sympathetic critique of the Arab Spring; one that recognizes, quite deferentially and without equivocation, the moral legitimacy of revolutionary protesters’ right to choose their own destiny regardless of outcome, but that nonetheless finds itself unable to dismiss the conservative view that the societies of the region would have been better off without it. The reader is left wondering: Is the promise of transformative change actually worth all of the risks the book brings to light? The people of Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq, and many others, clearly think the answer is a resounding yes.



[1] For some of the problems associated with the use of the term “Arab Spring” to describe the popular uprisings that took place in the Arab world in 2011, see James Gelvin, The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 32-33.


The Arab Winter: A Tragedy
By Noah Feldman
216 pp. Princeton University Press. $22.95.


Hesham Sallam is a Research Scholar at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, where he serves as the Associate-Director of the Program on Arab Reform and Democracy. He is co-editor of Jadaliyya ezine.

Cover Photo: Marwan Naamani / AFP


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