The Arab Spring promised to end dictatorship and bring self-government to people across the Middle East. Yet everywhere except Tunisia it led to either renewed dictatorship, civil war, extremist terror, or all three. Noah Feldman argues that the Arab Spring was nevertheless not an unmitigated failure, much less an inevitable one. Rather, it was a noble, tragic series of events in which, for the first time in recent Middle Eastern history, Arabic-speaking peoples took free, collective political action as they sought to achieve self-determination.
...argues that the uprisings are in danger of being dismissed as a meaningless experience, not just because of the chaos and terror that followed them, but because of the widespread sense that they have left no real political residue apart from Tunisia’s fragile success at building a democracy ... Drawing on the writings of Hannah Arendt, he argues that the people who took to the protest squares in 2011 'acted as agents of their own political future' ... This is a bold claim, and Feldman spins out its ramifications in fascinating and persuasive ways. He recognizes that tragedy was a corollary of these political awakenings in almost every place the uprisings occurred ... share Feldman’s admiration for the Tunisian compromise, but I think he is too sanguine about its meaning. Tunisia is profoundly different from the other countries where uprisings took place: no oil, no major ethnic or religious minorities, an apolitical army, a far less brutal history. Sadly, the continuing tragedies in other Arab countries are more like the classical Greek kind. They are likely to go on inspiring pity and fear for a long time to come.
The Arab Winter is not a history. Rather, it is an argument, in the best sense of that word, couched in political philosophy. To get the most out of the argument (for who doesn’t want to argue back?) the reader should be somewhat familiar with the Middle East ... it’s not for the uninitiated ... personalities loom large ... Feldman’s focus on agency leads him at times to understate factors beyond the control of the crowds and the leaders they opposed ... Feldman’s book also ignores how Iran’s military backing of the Syrian regime, and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates’ support for the coup in Egypt, helped tip the precarious balance of forces and, conversely, how the lack of outsider meddling in Tunisia gave leaders there more freedom ... Can democracy flourish in the Arab world? The Arab Spring’s collapse is upsetting for those of us who would argue yes. However, in the end, I found myself convinced, and even slightly comforted, by Feldman’s claim that 'continued dictatorship is the most probable result; yet the struggle to do better still carries profound meaning.'
One of the difficulties in writing about the Arab Spring is that the term really refers to a series of mutually inspired but quite different national conflicts. Yet in his new book, Noah Feldman...has tried to outline a unified theory ... On the face of it, his argument is unconvincing ... Feldman’s book purports to challenge the conventional wisdom on the Arab Spring by taking the region on its own terms and setting aside the simplifying lens of imperialism. In fact, he follows the main principle set down by the foreign policy establishment: namely, that the role played by the United States should be ignored or excused ... Feldman does recognize the existence of an American empire, but for him it is either past or passing ... The conventional wisdom today in the United States is that America is finally disengaging from the Arab World ... In my view this is mostly rhetoric. The strategic reasons for U.S. predominance in the Middle East are unchanged. This is precisely why a reinvigoration of civilian politics in the region remains very difficult.