Small Wars Journal

Wrapping Your Mind Around the Arab Spring: Recommended Reads

Fri, 04/06/2012 - 7:47am

The Arab Spring has caused a renewed interest in the political history of the Middle East, and a hunger to learn the nuances of political discourse from Islamists of various stripes to pan-Arab and secular.  It has been a challenge finding volumes that incorporate the most recent events of the Arab uprisings that began last year and what this means to America’s interests in the region.  This review essay will feature three recent books all published in 2011 and 2012 that will begin to help you make sense of the changes in the region.  The first book is entitled, “The Arab Awakening: America and the Transformation of the Middle East,” (Washington D.C: Brookings, 2011), a highly recommended read that offers a degree of nuance and skepticism of serious thinkers who have the humility to not only describe events but pose questions that require further answers.  The book is a collection of 36 essays divided into six parts beginning with Part I, “The Dynamics of the Arab Spring,” and ending with Part VI, “External Powers.”  The Saban Center for Middle East Studies brings together academics and foreign policy practitioners to add their views on the complexities of the Arab uprisings.  The volume warns that this is an unedited volume, and frankly this refreshing as readers are treated to candid views from the various authors.  Shadi Hamid is the Director of Research at Brookings in Doha, Qatar, he writes a chapter entitled, “Islamists and the Brotherhood.”  Hamid delves into the Muslim Brotherhood youth activists who have defied the group some experiencing the over two week sit in and beatings in Cairo’s Tahrir Square with secular youth and splintering forming a new political party al-Tayyar al-Misri (The Egyptian Wave).  There is a member of the old guard of the Muslim Brotherhood Abdel-Moneim Abou-Fotouh leaving the organization to aspire for a bid for the presidency, despite warnings from the Muslim Brotherhood that it will not field a presidential candidate, this view has changed in recent weeks.  There are a cacophony of Islamist ideas unleashed by free debate of ideas, with some wanting to Islamize society from below and others wanting to apply Islamic law (in their image) from above.  Hamid poses the essential question; will the Salafi (a more fundamentalist strain of Hanbali Sunni Islam) Islamists drag mainstream or pragmatic Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood and their political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, further to the right of Egyptian politics?  How does the United States learn to live with political Islam?

Michael Doran, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense discusses the technological aspects of the 2011 Arab Revolts with a chapter entitled, “The Impact of the New Media.”  Readers will understand the very organization of the street mob has changed with such tools as Twitter™ and Facebook™ and what is now termed “The Smart Mob,” is better equipped to put people on the street at decisive points much like a military campaign.  The chapter features the organization of outrage over the murder of Khalid Saeed, an Alexandrian college student beaten to death for capturing corrupt police officers on his cell phone camera, and posting it on the internet.  Doran also ends with a description of the Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi who flew in from Qatar holding an event in Tahrir Square, when the one of the stars of the Egyptian revolution who enabled the revolt through technology, Wael Ghoneim made his way to share the moment with the cleric, he was barred from sitting next to the famous al-Jazeera network clergyman. 

A chapter by Kenneth Pollack of the Council on Foreign Relations and Brookings Saban Center Director explores Arab militaries in light of the Arab Spring.  It asks difficult questions of the role the United States should play in their relationship with various regional armed forces.  There is no question that the military will play a crucial role in the transformation but what will be the model in balancing civilian and military relationships?  Will it be Israel, Turkey or neither?  Daniel Byman is Research Director at Brookings and served as a staff member in the 9-11 Commission.  He discusses the pressures al-Qaida is facing is making itself relevant in the light of the Arab Spring, and starting off-message, the organization gradually adjusts to a reality that change was brought about in Tunisia and Egypt not through their brand of ideological violent direct action, but non-violent protests.  After treating listeners to an irrelevant discourse on Ottoman history, al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has adjusted his message, now saying that non-violence will fail because the United States will manipulate the counter-revolution.  The book continues with discussions on Saudi Arabia and preservation of Sunni monarchs and emirs, the way in which Arab Gulf countries have addressed the Arab Spring climate by throwing significant portions of their GDP at their citizens to keep them pliant and much more.  This is an excellent and thought provoking work for anyone wanting a starting point to understand the Arab Spring.

John Bradley is a foreign correspondent who has spent decades in the Middle East.  He is known for his scathingly critical assessment of the region through his book “Inside Egypt: The Land of the Pharaohs on the Brink,” (New York: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2008) and “Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crisis,” (New York: Palgrave-MacMillian, 2005).  His latest book offers less optimistic scenarios to the Arab Spring and the role Islamists will play amidst a cacophony of political voices.  He reminds readers to be careful what you wish for in democracy.  My problem with Bradley’s thesis is that Islamist groups from Yemen to Egypt are part of the political landscape and we cannot simply wish them away.  I still find his less than optimistic views of Islamist encroachment useful in managing constructive versus regressive Islamist political agendas, and to see how Islamist groups will compromise with secular and even more radical Islamist groups in parliament.  He makes an interesting observation that while extremist Islamists are despised by most Muslims, since only 20-40 percent vote and of those who vote Islamists are mobilized to turn out the vote they are able to capture a majority from a minority.  This translates to 50 percent or more of seats in parliament for various Islamist groups.  In fairness to Bradley, how Egypt has so far managed this problem was manifested the week I wrote this review essay.  Egyptian political leaders agreed on the composition of the Constitutional Convention, in a straight democracy Islamists would take over 70 percent of 100 seats.  The compromise struck between the military, and various political groups was that 50 seats would go to parliamentarians, meaning 25 seats go to the Muslim Brotherhood, another dozen seats will go to the Salafis, and the remaining 50 seats would go to prominent Egyptians, with a set number for the army.  This is to manage the wicked question of whose Islam will be imposed on other Muslims.  Bradley provides troubling incidents of Islamist groups shutting down theaters and attacking intellectuals in Tunisia, like the ransacking of the AfricArt Theater.  It also offers an interesting intellectual biography of Islamists political leaders like Tunisia’s Rachid al-Ghannouchi, who dabbled in Nasserism, pan-Arabism, socialism, before settling on an Islamist model.  While there are segments one can disagree, such as the Egyptian military accepting any deal that perpetuates their rule, in actuality there are red-lines for the Egyptian army when it comes to impacting their economic prerogatives or escalating tensions with Israel, a wider conflict is not what the Egyptian military desires.  Bradley’s book is a good alternative view of the Arab Spring, and his pessimistic outlook is useful to avoid looking at events from so-called rose-colored glasses. 

The last book reviewed will take us to the Middle East’s past; it is a welcome and detailed look at the Anglo-French agreements, competition, and struggle for dominance in the Middle East.  British historian James Barr really impressed me with a realistic and de-mythologized look at T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) in “Setting the Desert on Fire: T.E. Lawrence and Britain’s Secret War in Arabia, 1916-1918,” (New York: Norton, 2009).  His current work looks at recently declassified material from British and French archives looking at Middle East policy from 1914 to 1948 in his excellent new work “A Line in the Sand: The Anglo-French Struggle for the Middle East,” (New York: Norton, First American Edition, 2012).  It starts with an MI-5 document from 1945 asking who was financing the Jewish underground against British forces in Palestine, the answer was: The French.  This was part of the greater Anglo-French competition which spilled into the Middle East and Africa, defined by such events as the British triumph over evicting the French from Fashoda in the Sudan, an incident that sparked the 1904 Entente Cordiale, an agreement in which the French acknowledged British rule over Egypt and the Sudan, and the British recognized French claims in North Africa.  Barr makes characters of the period come alive such as British official Sir Mark Sykes and his French counterpart George Francoise Picot that drew up an agreement that bares their names in 1916 dividing the Ottoman Arab dominions into French, British and Tsarist Russian spheres of influence.   The book contains one of the most realistic assessments of the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence (1915-1916), a series of letters that was so obscure and the Arabic translation so misleading that British officials had to re-read it several years later untangling even a comma in mid-sentence, and looking at the English and Arabic versions side by side.  At stake was whether the Hashemite Dynasty would rule over a good portion of the Middle East.  You will understand the complexities of World War II politics, and the method by which Charles de Gaulle granted independence to Lebanon and Syria in 1943 much to the consternation of Winston Churchill, who had condoned the suppression of a pro-Axis revolt in Iraq in 1941 and was contending with Egyptian wanting a revision to the British troop presence in the Suez Canal and compete independence after the war.  This was a fine and nuanced read of some of the pivotal events that shaped the modern Middle East, it is a must for anyone wanting a real immersion in the region’s politics.     

About the Author(s)

CDR Aboul-Enein teaches part-time at the National Intelligence University and National Defense University.  He is the author of “Militant Islamist Ideology,” and “Iraq in Turmoil,” both published by Naval Institute Press. His first book goes paperback this September and was named among the top 150 most influential titles on terrorism and counter-terrorism by the journal, Perspectives on Terrorism.  



Sun, 04/08/2012 - 8:31pm

In reply to by ADTS


Your last 'contrary' position is right on point, Islam/MENA are not synonyms, and in either category there is more than ample diversity to throw good doubt on predicted outcomes. I think where the Arab Spring gets its ugly "islamist future" tint is from a more basic category that transcends both Islam and MENA. That category is populist revolt. Pan Arabism, Pan Islamicism, and Local Nationalism have fought a war for the MENA heart and mind since Napoleon landed in Egypt. I think the fear of Islamist resurgence is mostly driven in the media by the "worst case scenario" mentality.

Local Nationalism won during decolonization, and it will likely win again. The future character of those nations, however, is hard to pin down mainly because these are first and foremost populist revolts, that exploded on the heels of the highest food prices in generations. Unlike Nasser, Qasim, and Ghaddafi rebellions, these rebels are leaderless and driven by populist tensions. In populist revolts we have to ask who the will hold the power, and if the revolt is coming from the cities and the middle class, we can expect a moderate outcome. If they are fed from the country side or the poorer classes, then what we can expect is indubitably a much more extreme end.

In this the Arab Spring is in fact worrying and trending to the Islamist variety. But I would strongly doubt a pan-Islamist outcome.

dos pesos

I will be a tad ornery and contrarian, if for no other reason than this has probably been my typical modus operandi on SWJ of late. I have no reason to think this selection of books is anything less than stellar, and certainly more reading is better than less, everything else being equal. That said, a few thoughts come to mind. First, does not the review provided present an arguably implicit (if not indeed explicit) assumption that the Arab Spring will result in a region more rather than less focused on Islam, as opposed to at least entertaining the possibility of secularism as a realistic outcome? Second, and probably a more acute and incisive point to raise: rather than "zooming in" on the particulars of the region, perhaps the appropriate action is instead to focus on the dynamics of the situation? Namely, rather than immersing oneself in the particulars of the region, one should acquire a knowledge of "transitology." I would put forth a good attempt to raise interesting parallels can be found here:, and suspect an appropriate book-length appropriate starting place would be…. Third, somewhere between and stemming from my first two points, while I haven't read the works suggested in the review, I would point to the potential for "fallacy of composition" and sloppy analysis that can result from, as well as being implicated being in, considering "all" Islam/MENA/etc. to be the same, when in fact each region/country/city/unit of analysis is ultimately unique.