“The Arab Winter: A Tragedy”
A book review of Noah Feldman’s The Arab Winter: A Tragedy (Princeton University Press, 2020).
2011 was the year of the upheaval known as the ‘Arab Spring,’ a time when much of the Arabic-speaking world seemed to have embarked on a path toward democracy—or at least a path away from authoritarian government. The upheaval began in December 2010, when a twenty-six-year-old Tunisian street fruit vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi—distraught over confiscation of his cart and scales by municipal authorities, ostensibly because he lacked a required work permit—doused his body with gasoline and burned himself. Protests began almost immediately after Bouazizi’s self-immolation, aimed at Tunisia’s autocratic ruler since 1987: Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. On 14 January 2011, Ben Ali—who had fled to Saudi Arabia—resigned.
One month later, Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s strongman president since 1981, resigned his office. By that time, protests against ruling autocrats had broken out in Libya and in Yemen. In March, similar protests began in Syria. By year’s end, Yemen’s out-of-touch leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, had been forced to resign, and Colonel Muammar Qaddafi—who had ruled Libya since 1969—was driven from office and shot by rebels. Only Syria’s Bashar al-Assad still clung to power, but his days, too, appeared numbered.
The stupefying departures in a single calendar year of four of the Arab world’s seemingly most firmly entrenched autocrats sent soaring the hopes of many, including the present writer. “Finally,” we said, “at last—at long, long last—democracy had broken through in the Middle East.” The era of dictators and despots was over in that part of the world, or so we allowed ourselves to think. It did not seem far-fetched to compare 2011 to 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and countries across Central and Eastern Europe were suddenly out from under Soviet domination.
But as we know, ten years later, 2011 was no 1989: the euphoria and sheer giddiness of that year turned to despair. Egypt’s democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi was replaced in 2013 by a military government that seems at least as ruthlessly autocratic as that of Mubarak. Syria broke apart in an apparently unending civil war that continues to this day, with Assad holding onto power amidst one of the twenty-first century’s most severe migrant and humanitarian crises. Yemen and Libya appear to be ruled, if at all, by tribal militias and gangs, conspicuously lacking stabilizing institutions that might hold the countries together. Only Tunisia offers cautious hope of a democratic future. And hovering over the entire region is the threat of brutal terrorism, represented most terrifyingly by the self-styled Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS.
It is easy, therefore, or almost inescapable, to write off the Arab Spring as a failure—to saddle it with what Harvard Law School professor Noah Feldman terms a “verdict of implicit nonexistence,” as he phrases it in The Arab Winter: A Tragedy. But Feldman, a seasoned scholar of the Arabic-speaking world, would like us to look beyond notions of failure and implicit nonexistence to consider the Arab spring and its aftermath from the perspective of classical political theory. Rather than emphasizing chronology and causation, as historians might, political theorists—the “philosophers who make it their business to talk about government”—ask a normative question: what is the right way to govern? Looking at the events of 2011 and their aftermath from this perspective, Feldman hopes to change our “overall sense of what the Arab spring meant and what the Arab winter portends.”
In this compact but rigorously analytical volume, Feldman considers how some of the most basic notions of democratic governance—political self-determination, popular sovereignty, political agency, and the nature of political freedom and responsibility—played out over the course of the Arab Spring and in its bleak aftermath: the “Arab winter” of his title. Feldman focuses specifically on Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, and ISIS; each meriting a separate chapter, with Libya and Yemen mentioned intermittently. In an introductory chapter, he addresses the Arab Spring altogether, highlighting factors common to the individual countries that experienced the events of the Arab Spring and ensuing “winter.” In each country, those events took place within a framework defined by “collective political action that was in an important sense autonomous,” he writes.
The Arab Spring marked a crucial, historical break from the era in which empires—Ottoman, European and American—were the primary arbiters of Arab politics. The “central political meaning” of the Arab Spring and its aftermath, Feldman argues, is that it “featured Arabic-speaking people acting essentially on their own, as full-fledged, independent makers of their own history and of global history more broadly.” The forces arrayed against those seeking to end autocracy in their countries were also Arab forces, “not empires or imperial proxies.” Many of the events of the Arab Spring were nonetheless connected to the decline of empire in the region, especially in the aftermath of the two wars fought in Iraq in 1991 and 2003. The “failure and retreat of the U.S. imperial presence” was an “important condition in setting the circumstances for self-determination to emerge.”
“Finally,” we said, “at last—at long, long last—democracy had broken through in the Middle East.” The era of dictators and despots was over in that part of the world, or so we allowed ourselves to think.
While the massive protests against existing regimes that erupted in Tunisia, Egypt, Syrian, Libya, and Yemen in the early months of 2011 were calls for change in the protesters’ own nation-states, there was also a broader if somewhat vague sense of trans-national Arab solidarity to the cascading calls for change. By “self-consciously echoing the claims of other Arabic-speaking protestors in other countries,” Feldman argues, the protesters were “suggesting that a broader people—implicitly the Arab people or peoples —were seeking change from the regime or regimes . . . that were governing them.” The constituent peoples of a broader trans-national Arab “nation” were rising, “not precisely together but also not precisely separately.”
The early-2011 protests were based on the claim that “the people” were asserting their right to take power from the existing government and reassign it, a claim that to Feldman “sounds very much like the theory of the right to self-determination.” The historian and the sociologist would immediately ask who was making this “grand claim on behalf of the ‘people.’” But to the political theorist, the most pressing question is “whether the claim was legitimate and correct.” Feldman finds the answer in John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, first published in 1689. Democratic political theory since the Second Treatise has strongly supported the idea that the people of a constituent state may legitimately seize power from unjust and undemocratic rulers. Such an exercise of what could be termed the right to revolution is “very close to the central pillar of democratic theory itself.” Legitimate government “originates in the consent of the governed”; a government not derived from consent “loses its legitimacy and may justifiably be replaced.”
The Egypt of the Arab Spring provides one of recent-history’s most provocative applications of the Lockean right to self-determination. Can a people which opted for constitutional democracy through a legitimate exercise of its political will opt to end democracy through a similarly legitimate exercise of its political will? Can a democracy vote itself out of existence? In his chapter on Egypt, Feldman concludes that the answer to these existential questions of political theory is yes, a conclusion that he characterizes as “painful.” Just as massive and legitimate protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in January 2011 paved the way for forcing out aging autocrat Hosni Mubarak, so too did massive and legitimate protests in the same Tahrir Square in June 2013 pave the way for forcing out democratically-elected president Mohamed Morsi.
Morsi was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood—a movement banned under Mubarak that aspired to a legal order frequently termed “Islamism,” based upon Sharia Law and the primacy of the Islamic Quran. Morsi won the presidency in June 2012 by a narrow margin over a military-affiliated candidate, but was unsuccessful almost from the beginning of his term. In Feldman’s view, his most fatal error was that he never developed a sense of a need to compromise. “If the people willed the end of the Mubarak regime, the people also willed the end of the Morsi regime just two and a half years later,” he contends. The Egyptian people rejected constitutional democracy, “grandly, publicly, and in an exercise of democratic will.” While they may have committed an “historical error of the greatest consequence by repudiating their own democratic process,” that was the “choice the Egyptian people made.”
Unlike in Egypt, the Tunisian will of the people—what Feldman terms “political agency”—produced what then appeared to be a sustainable if fragile democratic structure. Tunisia succeeded because its citizens from across the political spectrum “exercised not only political agency but also political responsibility.” Tunisian protesters, activists, civil society leaders, politicians, and voters all “realized that they must take into account the probable consequences of each step of their decision making.”
Moving the country toward compromise were two older politicians from opposite ends of the political spectrum: seventy-two-year-old Rached Ghannouchi, representing Ennahda—an Islamist party with ties to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood—and Beji Caid Essebsi, then eighty-five, a rigorous secularist with an extensive record of government service. Together, the two men led a redrafting of Tunisia’s Constitution, in which Ennahda dropped the idea of Sharia Law as the foundation of the Tunisian State in favor of a constitution that protected religion from statist dominance and guaranteed liberty for political actors to “promote religious values in the public sphere”—in short, a constitution that was “not simply democratic but liberal-democratic.”
Tunisia had another advantage that Egypt lacked: a set of independent civil society institutions that had a “stake in continued stability,” along with a “stake in avoiding a return to autocracy.” But Tunisia’s success was largely political, with no evident payoff in the country’s economic fortunes. The “very consensus structures that helped Tunisia avoid the fate of Egypt,” Feldman warns, ominously but presciently, have “created conditions in which the underlying economic causes that sparked the Arab spring protests have not been addressed.”
For Feldman, while they may have committed an “historical error of the greatest consequence by repudiating their own democratic process,” that was the “choice the Egyptian people made.”
As if to prove Feldman’s point, during this past summer, Tunisia’s democratically-elected President Kais Saied, a constitutional law professor like Feldman, froze Parliament and fired the Prime Minister, “vowing to attack corruption and return power to the people. It was a power grab that an overwhelming majority of Tunisians greeted with joy and relief,” The New York Times reported. One cannot help but wonder whether Tunisia is about to confront and answer the existential Lockean question in a manner similar to Egypt a decade ago.
Protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began after both Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt had been forced out of office, and initially seemed to be replicating those of Tunisia and Egypt. But the country degenerated into a disastrous civil war that has rendered the country increasingly dysfunctional. The key to understanding ‘why’ lies in the country’s denominational-sectarian divide, in which the Assad regime—a minority-based dictatorship of Alawi Muslims, followers of an off-shoot of Shiite Islam representing about 15 % of the Syrian population—had disempowered much of the country’s Sunni majority. Any challenge to the Assad regime was understood, perhaps correctly, as an existential threat to Syria’s Alawi minority. Instead of seeking a power-sharing agreement that could have prolonged his regime, Bashar sought the total defeat of his rivals. The regime and the protesters were thus divided along sectarian lines and both sides “rejected compromise in favor of a winner-take-all struggle for control of the state.”
The Sunnis challenging Assad hoped that Western powers, especially the United States, would intervene in the Syrian conflict, as they had in Libya. United States policy, however, as Feldman describes it, was to keep the rebel groups “in the fight, while refusing to take definitive steps that would make them win.” As military strategy, this policy “verged on the incoherent.” President Barack Obama wanted to avoid political responsibility for Bashar’s fall, if it came to that, in order to avoid the fate of his predecessor, President George W. Bush, who was considered politically responsible for the chaos that followed the United States intervention in Iraq in 2003. But the Obama strategy did not lead to stability in Syria. It had an opposite, undesired impact, notably by creating the conditions for the Islamic State, ISIS, to become a meaningful regional actor.
ISIS is known mostly for its brutality and fanaticism, such as beheading hostages and smashing precious historical artifacts. While these horrifying attributes cannot be gainsaid, there is more to the group that Feldman wants us to see. ISIS in his view is best understood as a utopian, revolutionary-reformist movement that bears some similarities to other utopian revolutionary movements, including John Calvin’s Geneva and the Bolsheviks in Russia in the World War I era. The Islamic State arose in the aftermath of the failure and overreach of the American occupation of Iraq. But it achieved strategic relevance in 2014 with the continuing breakdown of the Assad regime’s sovereignty over large swaths of Syrian territory, creating the possibility of a would-be state that bridged the Iraq-Syria border. Without the Syrian civil war, “there would have been no Islamic State,” Feldman argues.
The Islamic State attained significant success through its appeal to Sunni Muslims disillusioned with modernist versions of political Islam of the type represented by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Ennahda in Tunisia. With no pretensions of adopting democratic values and practices, which it considered illegitimate and un-Islamic, ISIS sought to take political Islam back to pre-modern governance. It posited a vision of Islamic government for which the foundation was the polity “once ruled by the Prophet and the four ‘rightly guided’ caliphs who succeeded him in the first several decades of Islam.”
But unlike Al-Qaeda or other ideologically similar entities, the Islamic State actually conquered and held enough territory to set up a functioning state in parts of Syria. Until dislodged by a combination of Western air power, Kurdish and Shia militias supported by Iran, and active Russian intervention, ISIS was able to put into practice its revolutionary utopian form of government. As a “self-conscious, intentional product of an organized group of people trying to give effect to specific political ideas and to govern on their basis,” ISIS represents for Feldman the “strangest and most mystifying outgrowth of the Arab spring.”
Despite the dispiriting outcomes in Syria and Egypt, alongside those of Libya and Yemen, Feldman is dogged in his view that democracy is not doomed in the Arabic-speaking world. Feldman’s democratic optimism combines Aristotle’s notion of “catharsis,” a cleansing that comes after tragedy, with the Arabic notion of tragedy itself, which can have a “practical, forward looking purpose. It can lead us to do better.” The current winter of Arab politics “may last a generation or more,” he concludes. “But after the winter—and from its depths—always comes another spring.” A generation, whether viewed through the lens of the political theorist or that of the historian, is a long time to wait for those Arabic-speaking people yearning to escape autocracy, civil war, and terrorist rule.