Reviewed by Mamoon Chaudhry
Lin Noueihed, a Reuter’s correspondent in the Middle East, and Alex Warren, a Middle East and North Africa consultant, have co-authored The Battle for the Arab Spring: Revolution, Counter-Revolution and the Making of a New Era.
The book provides a comprehensive background to the uprisings in the Arab world since 2010. Noueihed and Warren have used their experience to give readers a broad overview of the forces that have played pivotal roles in the uprisings and chronicled the events across the Arab world since December 2010. Divided into three parts, the book identifies the root causes of the protests, analyses each of the revolutions and concludes with a study of the outcomes, the shifting balance of power in the region and the complex challenges faced by different countries.
Unprecedented increase in food prices, high unemployment, concentration of wealth in few hands, lack of space for political participation and lack of freedom are some of the key reasons identified by the authors behind the mass protests that followed the self-immolation of a vegetable seller in Tunisia and swept across the Arab world. It is interesting to note that not a single Arab country was on the 2011 list of top global risks issued by the Eurasia Group, a consulting firm that helps clients identify looming instability.
Arab rulers had proved remarkably resilient to both domestic pressures and external shocks in the past; however, this time, satellite television and the internet played an important role in connecting people throughout the region. The power of the media inspired and instigated people to discard political taboos, strengthen civil society and overcome personality cults. Channels like Al Jazeera gave viewers access to multiple and conflicting points of view. To this, the authors add, “available internationally, satellite televisions also helped to connect the thoughts and interests of a huge Arab diaspora with those of their compatriots back home.”
Analysing Tunisia, the authors point out that its resilient civil society, well-educated people, neutral army, relative religious homogeneity and pragmatic Islamic movement possessed the factors which contributed to the indigenous struggle. The ruling family was so obsessed with amassing wealth that they failed to share the spoils of power with even their loyalists. Their repression was not only targeted against the Islamists but also nationalists, leftists and human rights activists. “Ben Ali’s government was among the most draconian in the Arab speaking world, when it came to online censorship,” the writers say.
In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak’s regime had been selling off state-owned companies since the 1990s in an attempt to vitalise and privatise major sectors of the economy. The economy, however, continued to suffer with workers blaming corruption. Moreover, Egyptians lived under brutal repression, including arrests, tortures, and military trials. Trying to forecast post-revolution Egypt, Noueihed and Warren feel that even if it is more democratic, it will likely be more conservative and religious. They portray a picture of Egypt as a place where “Christians feel excluded from an increasingly Islamic national narrative and identity. The position of women in the new Egypt could be more precarious, at least in the short term, as their rights come under assault from conservative religious groups with a new found voice in law making.”
In Libya, people wanted jobs, services and an end to the mafia-like state that had terrorised and humiliated them for decades. Gaddafi had subjected the population to a litany of whimsical and half-baked political and economic experiments. He had also developed an antipathy towards the eastern region after it was a center of an Islamic uprising in the 1990s and development in the region was deliberately ignored. In addition, there was a lack of serious effort with respect to opening up of the political front and Gaddafi’s family was the main beneficiary of the country’s wealth. “While there is no sectarian divide of the type that devastated Iraq,” the authors caution that “deep rooted and often intense divisions separate many part of Libya along ethnic, local and racial lines.”
Discussing Bahrain, the authors observe that the Sunni ruling family of Bahrain has maintained an iron-fisted rule over the Shiite majority. This sectarian divide is also reflected in the class divide as most of the Shiite population is poor in comparison with other groups who hail from merchant and landowning classes. This economic disparity aggravates the feelings of discrimination among Bahraini Shiites as they suffer disproportionately from unemployment, low incomes and poor infrastructure.
The book concludes with an impressive analysis of the challenges faced by countries in the aftermath of the uprisings. Bread and butter issues, the rise of political Islam and the declining clout of the United States in the context of a multi-polar world are all deftly discussed by the authors.
They claim that even though each nation will be grappling with multiple issues including the role of Islam, the nature of democracy and the revival of moribund economies, these struggles are likely to result in very different types of states. Whatever the outcome, they are unlikely to replicate the distinct brand of liberal democracy familiar to the West. Corruption, mismanagement, waste and unemployment are so pervasive that brave decisions are required from politicians to implement structural changes. Economic accomplishment will not be judged solely on GDP per capita, level of debt and foreign investment but on concrete measures for job creation, income distribution and improving regional inequalities. Noueihed and Warren conclude that “the chances of long-term stability will be improved if no foreign country seeks to export a specific economic or political blue print in the same way that Washington had done in the past.”
By Lin Noueihed and Alex Warren
368pp. Rs 3,100