During the early days of the Arab Spring in 2011, there was an indefinable moment when the street protests became something larger than a mass of people chanting slogans and holding up signs. A whole nation seemed to rise up as one and find its voice. For those of us who were in Cairo's Tahrir Square, there was something thrillingly archaic about it — like being thrown back to the era of Michelet and Rousseau, when "the People" were spoken of as a single entity. The trademark chant of the protests — the people want the fall of the regime — seemed to well up from the seething crowd itself rather than any individual author.
It did not take long for this spectacle of passionate unity to dissolve like fireworks in a night sky. Still, something happened in Tahrir Square that should not be entirely erased by the tragedies that followed. In "The Arab Winter," Noah Feldman — a Harvard law professor with significant experience in the Arab world — takes as his subject "the deep political meaning of the Arab Spring and its consequences." He 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.
Feldman wants to rescue the Arab Spring from this verdict of "implicit nonexistence." He believes the uprisings signaled "a new, unprecedented phase in Arab political experience, in which participants engaged in collective action for self-determination that was not conceived primarily in relation to imperial power." To understand why this matters, one has to recall that most of the Arab world has been under the sway of one empire or another for the past two millenniums, from the Romans to the Mamluks to the Ottomans to the European colonialists. Even after the Arab countries achieved independence in the mid-20th century, their politics were largely subsumed by superpower rivalries and agendas.
[ Read an excerpt from "The Arab Winter." ]
In other words, in 2011 the Arabs finally cast off their historic subservience. The people spoke. Feldman concedes the difficulty of equating a chaotic series of street protests with a nation of (in Egypt's case) almost 100 million people. But he says this kind of revolutionary speech was meaningful because the old regimes — in Egypt and elsewhere — were so transparently not representative of the people's will. 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. In Egypt, many of the original protesters rallied in Tahrir Square again in 2013 against their country's first freely elected president, the Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi. That second rebellion resulted — as many knew it would — in a military takeover and the return of dictatorship. Yet Feldman argues that "the people" spoke in this second instance just as surely as they did in the first: In 2013 "the Egyptian public rejected constitutional democracy — grandly, publicly and in an exercise of democratic will." The result is an autocracy more repressive than Mubarak's ever was.
The tragedies have continued, notably in Syria, where much of the population appeared to "speak" against the Assad regime in that country's early nonviolent protests. But Syria's internal divisions were far more toxic, and any illusion of a collective voice quickly collapsed into war. Feldman concludes that despite the destructive role of foreign powers in that war — including the United States — responsibility ultimately lies with Syrians, who had made the momentous decision to rise up en masse like their fellow Arabs. This conclusion will anger some people. Having written my own book on the Arab uprisings and their consequences, I am inclined to agree with it. (Full disclosure: Feldman draws on and praises my book.)
ISIS also qualifies, in Feldman's reckoning, as an authentic expression of collective political will. Its creators were "attempting to act as agents in politics every bit as much as the peaceful Arab Spring protesters or those who took up arms against oppressive regimes." In some ways, they had a better claim, since they had a more precise idea of the kind of state and society they were creating.
Surveying all this carnage, one might conclude that Feldman's effort to discern a new political or historical agency in the Arab protest movement is a dangerous one, an incipient endorsement of the kind of revolutionary political action that has so often ended in disaster. I remember hearing young Cairo protesters dismiss the call for early elections in 2011 by invoking their own "revolutionary legitimacy" — a phrase that should make anyone's blood run cold. Revolutions have a habit of eating their own children, and their aftermath often bolsters the countervailing view: that politics should be guided by a reverence for continuity and tradition, despite the different kinds of injustice those principles bring with them. This was the essence of Edmund Burke's 1790 treatise "Reflections on the Revolution in France," which became a founding text of modern political conservatism.
Burke has no equivalent in today's Arab world, but some would see an echo of his views in Mohammed bin Zayed, the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates, a shrewd traditionalist who has led a campaign to tame the revolutionary energies of the 2011 uprisings. Feldman does not mention bin Zayed, but he concedes that the tragedy of the Arab Spring's fallout lends credibility to a Burkean view.