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Review of Noah Feldman’s The Arab Winter: A Tragedy

Building on a renowned body of work on legal and political theory, Noah Feldman’s The Arab Winter: A Tragedy deftly weaves together case studies of three presidential states, Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia to examine political self-determination during the Arab spring and subsequent Arab winter. Feldman qualifies early on that he does not intend The Arab Winter to contribute to historical or political science accounts of the Arab spring, but rather to explore the question, “what does it mean that these things happened?” (p. xx) (emphasis his). With an abundance of literature on the Arab spring it is refreshing to encounter arguments related less to regime actions and more to those of the people — examined here not as individuals but as a collective expression of political will. While the legalese makes The Arab Winter a challenge for lay readers, Feldman’s arguments, which draw on his own observations living and working in the region offer singular new insights for practitioners and scholars of Middle Eastern affairs.

Over 2 millions protesting in Tahrir Square after Mubarak’s speech saying that he will not step down in February 11, 2011. Image by Jonathan Rashad.

While Feldman’s book is organized geographically, three arguments run throughout these case studies: First, these protests must be read as expressions of independent Arab political will, breaking with earlier movements defined by their opposition to imperial powers. Second, while pan-Arab identity played a role in spreading protests throughout the region, subsequent reforms undercut the idea of an “intraborder Arab nation,” (p. xiv) bringing into focus internal cleavages along ethnic or denominational lines. Third, although political Islam emerged in various forms during the Arab spring, subsequent reform efforts exposed the weaknesses of religious governance, leaving the region “without a noteworthy model of a state form that might actually work.” (p. 126)

Although each country case clearly presents these core arguments, Feldman’s analysis is not universally compelling. In the Tunisian example he successfully delineates the roles of self-determination, Arab nationalism, and political Islam. However, Feldman struggles to relate these same arguments to countries like Egypt where structural barriers frustrated efforts at political reform. Throughout The Arab Winter, institutional factors such as demographic makeup and existing governance traditions aretreated as addendums to political action rather than key factors in the differentiated outcomes of the Arab spring.

As the birthplace of the Arab spring, Tunisia’s protests clearly represented a legitimate exercise of political self-determination. Where Feldman excels is in looking beyond street protests to highlight the critical role of labor unions and civil society organizations in fostering political consensus. Likewise, he subverts traditional thinking on Arab nationalism in Tunisia, a country distinct from its neighbors in its lack of oil wealth and homogenous population. Feldman argues that these endogenous factors actually make a compelling case for the country’s success: While Egypt and Syria remained embroiled in denominational divisions, Tunisians prioritized national cohesion. Finally, Feldman traces the path of political Islam through a discussion of Ennahba, Tunisia’s Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated political party. Rather than disband in the face of democracy, Ennahba evolved into an institution that today more closely resembles Europe’s Christian Democrats than traditional Islamists.

The Egyptian experience of the Arab spring, by contrast, is unique for the swiftness with which the country moved from autocracy to democracy and back, the coups against Mubarak and Morsi occurring just two years apart. While the events share surface similarities, Feldman’s comparisons go far beyond like concerns around regime succession. He asserts that the ousting of the thirty-year dictator and the democratically-elected leader were interchangeable from a political theory perspective, both representing “legitimate expression[s] of the will of the Egyptian people to take charge of their own fate in the realm of politics.” (p. 37)

Feldman’s Egyptian argument is weakest in his assertion that the 2011 and 2013 protests represented popular repudiations not only of individual leaders but of entire systems of governance. In the spirit of other regional movements, the anti-Mubarak protesters attacked the notion of autocratic tyranny, invoking slogans such as “Freedom, dignity, social justice.” (p. xvii). Subsequent anti-Morsi protests chiefly targeted the Brotherhood’s failure to meaningfully engage opposing parties. While this could be seen as a legitimate call for Morsi’s removal from office, it hardly represents a wholesale rejection of democratic governance.

To bolster his argument Feldman offers the idea of a Tunisian “playbook” (p. 53) for democratic advancement, positing that because anti-Morsi protests occurred simultaneously with Tunisian constitutional reform Egypt had only to look to its westerly neighbor for an example of democratic processes. This line of reasoning emphasizes the weakness of The Arab Winter’s premise: By focusing solely on the meaning behind political phenomena Feldman fails to appropriately consider institutional factors. In this instance, he suggests that political tactics used in Tunisia could seamlessly translate to Egypt, ignoring the former’s structural advantages in the pursuit of democracy.

Feldman closes his Egypt chapter by saying “I imagine I will not have convinced all readers,” (p. 75) and indeed I struggled to square the two events, which strike me as distinct in both their goals and executions. Furthermore, Egypt and Tunisia’s differences in demographics and political history reveal Feldman’s comparison to be apples to oranges.

Throughout The Arab Winter Feldman repeatedly returns to the themes of self-determination, pan-Arabism, and political Islam. While he successfully argued the importance of each in shaping some political outcomes, his most compelling argument is separate entirely. The Arab Winter’s afterword suggests that the Arab spring should not be thought of as a historic event, but as an encapsulation of reformist political instincts, from Bouazizi’s self-immolation in 2010 all the way through the 2019 anti-regime movements in Sudan and Algeria. This is the most powerful takeaway from Feldman’s latest work: In spite of the Arab spring’s failure to bring about significant improvements, much of the Arab world remains galvanized, not only attuned to the possibility of reform but also ready and willing to fight for it.

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Kathryn Urban

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