I’ve mentioned in several posts that I’ve done a less than stellar job hosting the Middle East Reading Challenge. While I’ve contributed more than a few reviews as part of the challenge, quite frankly I could be doing more. Since a good leader leads by example, I’ll try a bit harder to read and review more Middle Eastern themed books. Maybe with a lot of hard work and a little luck I can finish strong after a slow start. A bit over idealistic perhaps but we’ll see what happens.
With all that in mind, let me get things rolling with my impressions and such of Adeed Dawisha’s The Second Arab Awakening: Revolution, Democracy, and the Islamist Challenge from Tunis to Damascus. Like many of the books you’ll see featured on this blog, I discovered Dawisha’s 2013 book while rummaging through the “new books” section at my public library. Thinking it would make a nice addition to the Middle East Reading Challenge I grabbed it. I began reading it later that evening and found myself rather enjoying it. Then a few days later I either lost interest, got distracted or hit a rough patch in the book and I quit reading it. But after a brief hiatus and was back at it reading away. After finishing it earlier this morning at a neighborhood coffee shop I asked myself the same question I always do after finishing a book: was it worth my time? Yes, it was.
Why was it worth it? What I liked the most about Dawisha’s book was his attempt to interpret the Arab Spring within the context of the larger scope of Arab history. Specifically, what is the relationship between the recent Arab Spring and that of an earlier tide of Arab and Pan-Arab nationalism which swept through the region in the 50s and 60s. According to Dawisha, while this revolutionary wave did overthrow much of the old colonial order, sadly it did not bring actual democracy to the Arab world. In one of history’s cruel ironic twists, those same revolutionaries who threw out the region’s corrupt colonial stooges ended up being more corrupt and repressive than the leaders they replaced. Dawisha’s book isn’t just a chronicle of how things have unfolded throughout the Arab world, but an attempt to understand if those recent political developments will help produce more progressive and freer societies.
In hopes of answering this question, Dawisha’s response is both detailed and nuanced. He freely admits he doesn’t have all the answers and I admire him for having the wisdom to say so. In pointing out yet another ironic twist, many of the region’s winners are Islamists who for years have denounced Western style democracy as being an affront to more divinely inspired forms of government. Now those same Islamists are actively campaigning in elections, with many of them achieving unprecedented success. But many are learning that getting elected is one thing while effectively governing is quite another. And to govern effectively, one must frequently compromise. Dawisha ends his book by concluding that the future of Arab democracy might be in the hands of Islamists who spent years fearing that very thing. Ironic indeed.