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The Second Arab Awakening

Posted on Apr 11, 2013

By Rayyan Al-Shawaf

“The Second Arab Awakening: Revolution, Democracy, and the Islamist Challenge from Tunis to Damascus”
A book by Adeed Dawisha

The title of Adeed Dawisha’s new book, “The Second Arab Awakening,” which examines the ongoing upheaval in the Arab world, prompts the question, “When was the first one?” Many people would point to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, during a period of intellectual, literary, cultural and political ferment referred to in Arabic as Al-Nahda Al-Arabiyya (the Arab renaissance). Indeed, that is the period Lebanese-Palestinian historian George Antonius focused on in his influential English-language book, “The Arab Awakening,” published in 1938. In recent decades, however, historians have argued that Antonius exaggerated the popularity of Arab nationalism and its proponents’ desire to break off Arab majority lands from the ruling Ottoman Empire. Dawisha, an Iraq-born political science professor at Miami University of Ohio and the author of several books, agrees with such revisionist findings, and made clear as much in an earlier work, “Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century: From Triumph to Despair.”

In “The Second Arab Awakening: Revolution, Democracy, and the Islamist Challenge from Tunis to Damascus,” Dawisha dates the first Arab awakening to the 1950s and ’60s, when separate groups of military officers—the most famous was Egypt’s Gamal Abdul-Nasser—toppled regimes across the Arab world and sought to achieve the Arab nationalist goal of unity. Dawisha never mentions the Nahda, an omission that may have something to do with his vocation as a political scientist, and the fact that this book’s historical sweep is more limited than that of “Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century.” It remains distressing, though, that for all the cultural output of the Nahda, what matters to the author is that its political dimension was likely exaggerated, which apparently leads him to conclude that it was not an awakening. Nevertheless, for simplicity’s sake, subsequent references in this review to the “first awakening” follow Dawisha’s designation. 

“The Second Arab Awakening” is not a work of original scholarship. The whirlwind history of Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Libya presents nothing new. And the account of the recent revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria draws on a limited number of mostly English-language news reports. If that were all this book had to offer, it would make for a useful but largely undistinguished primer on authoritarianism and rebellion in the modern Arab world. Yet Dawisha does not restrict himself to synthesizing what historians—including him—have previously written about Arab dictatorships, and what the media have reported on their recent collapse. He wants to make sense of, and extract lessons from, all that has transpired. His principal achievements here are explaining why democracy failed to materialize out of the first awakening (homing in on an issue he addressed in “Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century”), and considering the current and potential future role of Islamists in the second awakening.

The author’s approach is simple but effective: He measures the first and second awakenings against political theorist Hannah Arendt’s definition of revolution. For Arendt, revolution is not simply liberation from oppression. It leads to freedom. For that to happen, democracy must take hold. The first awakening “gave the Arabs political independence, enhanced their self-esteem, and improved the lot of the poor,” acknowledges Dawisha. “[B]ut it did not give them the institutions that would represent their interests and provide them a voice in the political process. It did not give them freedom.” He quotes Arendt in “On Revolution,” with special reference to this key requirement: “Liberation may be the condition of freedom, but by no means leads automatically to it.”     

To see long excerpts from “The Second Arab Awakening” at Google Books, click here.

Anyone remotely familiar with recent Middle Eastern history knows that the upheaval of the 1950s and ’60s did not lead to democratic societies, and actually placed some countries—Iraq, Libya and Syria come to mind—on the road to ferociously violent dictatorship. Although this has prompted many a Western pseudo-intellectual to theorize about Arabs’ supposedly endemic cultural aversion to free society, Dawisha contextualizes the lack of enthusiasm for democracy. The army officers who seized power in Arab countries, men such as Nasser, were concerned primarily with dislodging corrupt and exploitative elites—and subsequently rejecting the influence of the Western countries that backed those elites. Nasser and his counterparts initially enjoyed much popular support, as did their redistribution of land and wealth.

Democratic currents existed, but were linked in the minds of many to the anciens régimes, which had established quasi-democratic parliamentary systems. “Their Achilles’ heel,” Dawisha writes, “was their association with the West at a historical juncture when the West represented everything that was evil.” Democracy became even more distant as revolutionary regimes calcified.


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