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The Second Arab Awakening

“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.

Things are different in the second Arab awakening — at least so far. As Dawisha points out, “The men and women who poured onto the streets and squares of Arab cities had learned from the experience of the first Arab awakening; they understood that their revolutions would not be fulfilled without the establishment of democratic institutions.” Dawisha gives us an account of the successful uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, as well as the periods immediately preceding and following them. He examines the brutally suppressed democracy movement in Bahrain, the political stalemate in Yemen before and even after its divisive president was persuaded to step aside, and the ongoing civil war in Syria, where peaceful demonstrators eventually resorted to arms in the face of a tyrannical regime’s violent crackdown. Rounding it off are analyses of the severely flawed democracies of Lebanon and Iraq, and the encouraging but limited democratic reforms undertaken by the absolute monarchs of Morocco and Jordan.

While pondering the future relationship between Islam and democracy, Dawisha opines that “in the end, Islam is what Muslims make of it,” an assertion with which many Muslims as well as critics of Islam would take issue. Nevertheless, his treatment of Islam and the Arab Spring will have few detractors, save for the misguided who insist that Islamists constitute a monolithic entity. The author’s overview of the situation on the ground is nuanced and free of generalizations and predictions, though it would have benefited from the exploration of possible outcomes. Tackling the Islamist phenomenon also fills out his account of the second awakening. After all, one of the salient features of the new political landscape in the countries of the Arab Spring is the emergence of Islamist political parties.

For those closely watching this development, two realizations will take shape. They are paradoxical though by no means contradictory. First, despite the wide spectrum of Islamist parties, the Islamist trend is ominous for any prospect of secularization. This is something Dawisha fails to stress. The second realization is that Islamist parties are not interchangeable. The author shows us that both the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and the Salafists’ Nour party in Egypt are more radical and less willing to compromise than are Tunisia’s Ennahda and Morocco’s Justice and Development Party (known by its French initials PJD). Dawisha notes that the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists, who insisted on dominating a committee charged with drafting Egypt’s constitution, “got their first major lesson in the imprudence of political inflexibility” when liberals and Coptic Christians quit in protest. In Tunisia, however, “After proposing to include a reference to al-Sharia [Islamic law] in the Tunisian constitution, Ennahda quickly withdrew it once it became clear that the proposal would prove divisive.”

Despite the many differences between the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Ennahda in Tunisia, however, both have enraged their liberal opponents and confirmed some of their worst suspicions. Liberals, women’s rights advocates, and religious and even ethnic minorities are expressing growing dissatisfaction with the Islamists where they have ascended to power. Since this book went to press, the Muslim Brotherhood and Ennahda, both of which enjoy a major share of legislative and executive power, have faced street protests over their anti-democratic tendencies.

The Islamists of Egypt and Tunisia may even have to work hard to remain popular among their own electorate. They stand to lose much support if they fail to shore up their countries’ ailing economies, a significant point Dawisha gives its due. They may also have to scale back any planned policing of societal morals if their voters, however devout, object to cultural, sartorial or other restrictions (an intriguing scenario Dawisha does not contemplate). And where Islamists are in power, how they handle opposition, whether by liberals or their own supporters, will be crucial to the success or failure of the political process.

Indeed, returning to Arendt, Dawisha says it is too early to tell whether the second Arab awakening, unlike the first, will institutionalize democracy, but he knows in whose hands its fate increasingly lies. “It is somewhat ironic,” he observes, “that the ultimate realization of Hannah Arendt’s simple and elegant formulation, linking the success of revolution to the establishment of democracy, would be left not in the hands of liberals and secularists but in the custody of those professing fidelity to principles whose compatibility with democracy is contested.”

Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and book critic in Beirut.

Rayyan Al-Shawaf
Reviewer
Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a Lebanon-based book critic whose reviews and essays have appeared in the Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, Globe and Mail, LARB, Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald, San Francisco…
Rayyan Al-Shawaf

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