Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

The Unfinished Arab Spring

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 29th May, 2020

The Unfinished Arab SpringIn the wake of the December 2010 self-immolation of the impoverished young Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, a wave of unrest swept across much of North Africa and the Middle East, leading to the ousting of Presidents Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. At the time, I railed against fellow journalists who adopted the lazy slogan of “Arab Spring” for the new phenomenon. Lazy for at least two reasons. First, the term was a clumsy adaptation of the 1968 (ultimately failed) Czech uprising against the country’s Soviet occupiers (the “Prague Spring”); just as virtually every US political scandal since Watergate brought down US President Richard Nixon in 1974 has similarly been sloppily dubbed X-gate or Y-gate. But the second, and more important, reason for my displeasure was that it was blatantly obvious from the turn of events, not least when they reached Syria, where I was lecturing in March 2011, that this momentous political trend was not a matter of just one season. Or indeed one year. I predicted it would take at least a decade, probably two, before we could map its trajectory or judge its success.

Tahrir Square demosWhile I was working with the late Palestinian-Jordanian Minister, Jamal Nasir, on his autobiography, we adopted a fresh term to describe what was happening: The New Arab Awakening. We were intending to write another book, with this title, deliberately echoing that of the classic 1938 history of the rise of Arab nationalism by George Antonius, The Arab Awakening, but sadly the nonagenarian Dr Nasir died before we got very far with that. Now, however, a book has appeared that effectively does what we would have wanted to achieve, but with the added benefit of bringing together contributions from a wide range of distinguished scholars, many of them from the MENA region themselves. The title is well justified, too. The Unfinished Arab Spring  (Gingko, £40), edited by Fatima El-Issawi and Francesco Cavatorta, is in two distinct parts. The first is a series of case studies, covering Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Morocco and Algeria (Yemen being an interesting omission). Each chapter’s author takes a different approach that is country-specific and illustrates well how very differently each uprising or revolution has turned out, from “delegitimising democratic demands” in the case of Egypt to “resource competition” in Libya. The second part brings an analytical approach to the dialectic between the “dynamics of change” and the “dynamics of continuity”. Various agents and actors are identified, from well-educated youth to secular women, but so too the technological context, not least the prevalence of social media and other alternative platforms.

Algeria demosIn the second section, Tunisia receives particularly close attention, which can be justified not only because this is where the so-called Arab Spring began (in mid-Winter, of course), but also because Tunisia is the one country in which the New Arab Awakening can be said, more or less, to have been a success. Whether others will prove to be in the long term remains to be seen, though there have been encouraging recent developments in Algeria.

All of the chapters have extensive footnotes and at the end of each there is a very useful bibliography. This is, after all, a serious collection of academic papers, though most of its authors have nonetheless managed to write in a style that is accessible to the informed general reader. As a part-time SOAS academic myself, I did momentarily baulk at one chapter heading in Part Two: “Youth Activism and the Politics of ‘Mediapreneurship’: The Effects of Political Efficacy and Empowerment on Mediated Norm Conveyance in Tunisia and Morocco”. But do not be put off by this, or indeed by the price of the book. For a work of such scholarship, £40 is quite reasonable. And if you cannot afford to buy the book yourself, get your library to order it. You and they will be grateful.

One Response to “The Unfinished Arab Spring”

  1. PHILIP LINGARD said

    I am extremely worried by the concerted attempt to undermine and destroy the achievements of Tunisia. The current set backs for Haftar seem to be diverting focus onto destabilising Tunis.

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