The Arab spring two years on: reflections on dignity, democracy, and devotion.

Author:Hashemi, Nader
Position:'The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life,' 'Islam and the Arab Awakening,' and 'The Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism' - Book review

The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life, Roger Owen (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2012), 272 pp., $22.45 cloth.

Islam and the Arab Awakening, Tariq Ramadan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 256 pp., $27.95 cloth.

The Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism, Hamid Dabashi (London: Zed Books, 2012), 150 pp., $134.95 cloth, $19.99 paper.

The Arab Spring of 2011 is widely viewed today as one of the great historical moments of political transformation. Comparisons have been made to the European revolutions of 1848 and the post-cold war democratic transitions in Eastern Europe, while some have spoken of a possible "fourth wave" of democratization. (1) These analogies make sense given that longstanding dictators who seemed impervious to political change, in a region known for persistent authoritarianism, were suddenly toppled by largely nonviolent protesters invoking the universal themes of political freedom, dignity, and social justice. From the outset, however, the Arab Spring was met by a small chorus of criticism and contempt from prominent intellectuals, writers, and politicians.

Reflecting on the uprisings soon after they began, the Princeton historian Bernard Lewis argued that they had little to do with democracy; what he found striking in the Arab Spring was what he called "the sexual aspect of it." Focusing on the critical role that young people were playing, he explained that "in the Muslim world, casual sex, Western-style, doesn't exist. If a young man wants sex, there are only two possibilities--marriage and the brothel. You have these vast numbers of young men growing up without the money, either for the brothel or the bride price, with raging sexual desire. On the one hand, it can lead to the suicide bomber, who is attracted by the virgins of paradise--the only ones available to him. On the other hand, sheer frustration." (2)

In a similar vein, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu famously described the Arab Spring as an "Islamic, anti-Western, anti-liberal, anti-Israeli, and anti-democratic wave." (3) Veteran Middle East analyst Aaron David Miller, who was an adviser to six U.S. secretaries of state, has argued that, as far as the Arab Spring is concerned, "one inconvenient and politically incorrect truth stands out: the Arabs are much better at acquiring and fighting over power than they are at sharing it." (4) More recently, Nobel Laureate V. S. Naipaul recalled his initial reaction to the Arab Spring: "I thought it was nothing, really. It would come and go, and we'll be back where we started....Chaos, one-man rule, which is how these things usually end in the Muslim world." (5)

This cynicism and pessimism about the future of the Arab-Islamic world seems to be shared by an increasing number of Americans. An October 2012 Pew Research Poll revealed that nearly 60 percent of Americans do not believe that recent changes in the Middle East will lead to lasting improvements for the people of the region, and a majority of Americans (54 percent) believe that it is more important to have stability (read: pro-Western dictatorship) in the Arab World, even if there is less democracy. (6)

What these sentiments fail to appreciate, however, is that the Arab Spring is not a single event but rather a long-term process of political change. Its precipitating factors were both political and economic; and while history has yet to render its ultimate judgment, fundamental questions remain about how best to understand the nature, character, and trajectory of the Arab revolts. What are the key historical reference points, the optimal analytical framework, and the most salient political themes that can help us make sense of the Arab Spring? These questions are extremely pertinent today given the perception that the Arab Spring seems to be coming apart at the seams --from Tunisia, where the government has resigned following the assassination of a prominent opposition figure; to Egypt, a country plagued by a constitutional crisis; and on to Libya, which is awash in renegade militias and regional rivalries and which possesses a weak central government. How can we best approach this subject?

Three recent books on the Arab Spring offer different points of entry. Roger Owen's The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life provides an accessible historical account of the rise, persistence, and eventual demise of Arab authoritarianism during the twentieth century; Hamid Dabashi, in The Arab Spring, deals with the themes of interpretation, bias, and knowledge production in the study of non-Western societies; while Tariq Ramadan, in Islam and the Arab Awakening, provides a thoughtful meditation on how Islam, reinterpreted, can contribute to the political development of the Arab-Islamic world. Writing during the early days of the Arab Spring, all three authors are optimistic about the political transformations that have taken place and about the future democratic prospects and political trajectory of the region.


The concept of karama (dignity) is useful in understanding the recent events in the Middle East. (7) We do not typically associate the theme of dignity with struggles for democracy. In previous uprisings against dictatorial rule in other parts of the world, this issue hardly surfaced in the way it has recently. It was a core theme, however, of the Arab uprisings, which united Arabs from Morocco to Oman. This subject remains poorly understood in the West.

The theme of dignity, or its converse, indignity, and its relationship to modern Arab politics is a multidimensional phenomenon. It exists both at the level of the individual and the collective. Recall the story of Mohammed Bouazizi. This 26-year-old street vendor from a small town in central Tunisia struggled to feed his family, for which he was the primary breadwinner. One day his weighing scales were confiscated by a member of the police force because he failed to pay a bribe. When he tried to resist he was slapped and spat upon. He complained to the local authorities, but his protests went unheard and he was reportedly further mocked. With nowhere left to turn, no means of making a living, and full of frustration, desperation, and fury, he stood in the middle of traffic outside the governor's office and killed himself in an act of self-immolation. This event triggered the Tunisian Revolution and the wider Arab Spring, rendering Bouazizi's life and martyrdom the stuff of legend. (8)

Arabs across North Africa and the Middle East immediately identified with Bouazizi's story on a personal level. His economic plight was theirs. His frustration, humiliation, and anger resonated and touched a deep personal chord. Copycat self-immolations soon followed, and the region quickly erupted in revolution. Around the same time a similar event involving the death of a young man, Khaled Sa'id, close in age to Bouazizi, galvanized Egyptians and led to the toppling of Hosni Mubarak. But the theme of "Arab indignity" also exists on a collective level, and it is associated with a set of common historical experiences, which partly explains why it is such a potent force in the politics of the region. For the Arab-Islamic world the twentieth century was an extremely bitter one. European colonialism and imperialism thwarted the aspirations of millions of Arabs for self-determination. The desire to create one pan-Arab state from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire's Arabic-speaking provinces was dashed at the altar of British and French ambition. The state system that emerged after World War I reflected the economic and geostrategic interests of London and Paris more than it did popular preference on the streets of Cairo or Damascus. The birth of the modern Arab world thus left behind bitter memories and poisoned relations between Muslim societies and Western ones. This was compounded by Western support for the national rights of Jewish settlers in Palestine over those of the indigenous Palestinian population--the legacy of which continues to afflict the region and our world.

The aftermath of World War II saw the gradual loosening of European control of the Arab world and the emergence of a brief moment of optimism. Many thought that an opportunity...

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