Smart and sharply written, The Battle for the Arab Spring: Revolution, Counter-Revolution, and the Making of a New Era details recent history and political happenings in countries such as Libya, Egypt and Syria, and is a wonderful companion to the current political and economic stories that continue to fill the nightly news. The book looks at a complicated and important subject, but authors Lin Noueihed and Alex Warren manage to make it completely accessible and engaging while never oversimplifying.
The book is divided into three sections, and the first section “The Roots of Rage”, as its title suggests, looks at some of the reasons why certain countries were ripe for the “Arab Spring”. Not surprisingly, economic discontent and inequality, particularly when coupled with political repression, was a major issue: “The burden of food, fuel and housing costs piled pressure on household budgets that were already squeezed by unemployment and low incomes, breeding dissatisfaction that would so readily find an outlet in 2011”. Another major reason: the media revolution, which is explained in chapter three and examines not only the internet but also satellite television.
The second section looks at “the battlegrounds”, and has chapters on Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, and Syria. Some of the names (and events connected to them) in these chapters may ring familiar: Muammar Gaddafi, Tony Blair, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak, etc. Others may be less familiar, but still have compelling stories to share—such as Mohammed Bouebdelli, a Tunisian businessman who ran a chain of private schools, until he refused to pass a substandard student that had important connections: “Bouebdelli refused to let a failing pupil from ‘The Family’ graduate from her class. Bouebdelli came under pressure from the education minister to change his mind. Soon after, his school was seized by the authorities…”
Stories such as these are one of the reasons why this book works so well. Noueihed and Warren blend the better known situations that often revolve around presidents, dictators, or large organizations (such as the Muslim Brotherhood) with stories about more “regular” people. To add another level to their work, they include a hefty number of statistics as well: employment figures, average salaries, timelines, GDP numbers, rates of inflation, population figures, and lots of information related to oil. But while some statistics can be dry, Noueihed and Warren often put interesting spins on this type of information, e.g.: “When Gaddafi seized power in 1969, Richard Nixon was president of the United States and Barack Obama had just celebrated his eight birthday. The United States has seen eight presidents occupy the White House since the colonel, then a youthful twenty-seven-year-old, deposed King Idris.”
The third and final section of the book is titled “The New Arab Politics”. The first chapter in this section, “The Kings’ Dilemma”, looks at locations such as UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar and states “Like all the authoritarian regimes that fell in 2011, the Arab monarchies suffer underlying social, economic and political imbalances that have the potential to tip over into serious upheaval unless handled with the utmost care”. Another concern: What happens when the oil runs out: “other Gulf monarchies face more challenging situations. Oman, which is expected to drain its remaining 5.5 billion barrels of crude some time in the 2020s, must prepare much sooner for a post-oil era.” In this section, Noueihed and Warren also provide an overview of Islam, perhaps because, as they note, “the very term ‘Islamist’ incorporates such a wide variety of views that it can often be misleading”.
The book is written primarily from a journalistic point of view, but Noueihed and Warren still include compelling and powerful language: “This new era will not be peaceful or pretty. There will be winners and losers, revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries, bloodshed and truces, hope and despair. There may be war and another round of revolts… The gusts of the Arab Spring have blown in new uncertainties to replace the certainties of old. In this new climate, anything now seems possible.”
However, just because anything may be possible does not mean that change will come quickly. As they note in the chapter on Libya “But Libya will not be transformed overnight from one of the world’s most difficult places to do business into an efficient, transparent and investor-friendly haven. Some problems in the business environment, like bureaucracy, corruption, and infighting are unlikely to get better quickly, and others will get worse.” And the sometimes slow pace of change will certainly not be restricted to Libya.
Noueihed and Warren also make clear what part the West has played in the political and economic conditions currently found in many of these countries. Among other things, they note that the United States helped create a “monster” in Afghanistan in the ‘80s when it assisted the “Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union”; and they criticize the West in general for not practicing what it preached. They relate, “Washington, which had pledged its support for democratic transitions in Tunisia and Egypt, turned a comparatively blind eye to the crackdown in Bahrain” and also note that France “for years had been trying to seal defense deals with Gaddafi before eagerly pummelling his hardware in 2011”.
Finally, the book’s research is impressive, as is the authors’ first hand knowledge of the subject matter. Noueihed and Warren attended (among other things) “Hafez al-Assad’s funeral in 2000, witnessed Lebanon’s 2005 Cedar Revolution, and watched the bombs crash down in Israel’s 2006 war with Hezbollah”. Their pull no punches approach, along with their insights and observations, result in a book that not only helps explain the past, but also provides interesting thoughts about the future of this region, and how it may impact the rest of the world.