Why the conventional wisdom about the Arab Spring is wrong
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. In The Arab Winter, 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.
Focusing on the Egyptian revolution and counterrevolution, the Syrian civil war, the rise and fall of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and the Tunisian struggle toward Islamic constitutionalism, Feldman provides an original account of the political consequences of the Arab Spring, including the reaffirmation of pan-Arab identity, the devastation of Arab nationalisms, and the death of political Islam with the collapse of ISIS. He also challenges commentators who say that the Arab Spring was never truly transformative, that Arab popular self-determination was a mirage, and even that Arabs or Muslims are less capable of democracy than other peoples.
Above all, The Arab Winter shows that we must not let the tragic outcome of the Arab Spring disguise its inherent human worth. People whose political lives had been determined from the outside tried, and for a time succeeded, in making politics for themselves. That this did not result in constitutional democracy or a better life for most of those affected doesn't mean the effort didn't matter. To the contrary, it matters for history—and it matters for the future.
Noah Feldman is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the author of many books, including
The Three Lives of James Madison,
The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State (Princeton), and
What We Owe Iraq (Princeton). A contributing writer for Bloomberg Opinion and the host of the podcast
Deep Background, he lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Twitter @NoahRFeldman
"Noah Feldman has written an elegant and incisive book that illuminates one of the most important events of our time: the tragic failure of the Arab Spring. It was tragic because failure was avoidable. Tyranny returned in Egypt, horrendous slaughter followed the uprising in Syria, but Tunisia demonstrated what political prudence could achieve: the emergence of democracy in the Arab world. Feldman asks a question with haunting relevance well beyond the Middle East: can a people who have chosen a democratic path then choose to renounce it in favor of tyranny?"
—Michael Ignatieff, President, Central European University, Budapest