Reviewed by Amb. (ret.) William A. Rugh, Ph.D.
“Revolution in the Arab World: Tunisia, Egypt and the Unmaking of an Era” is a 217-page book that has been produced by the journal Foreign Policy in an on-line format. (www.foreignpolicy.com/ebooks/revolution_in_the_arab_world ) It is also available at $4.95 through Amazon as a Kindle book. The advantage of e-book medium is that it has allowed the editors, Marc Lynch, Susan B. Glasser, and Blake Hounshell, to get it out very quickly. The disadvantages are not only that the reader probably will have to read it on a computer screen, but also that the subject is a moving target because the revolution is not over. Yet the editors have assembled a fascinating collection of 37 essays, some of which were written by Lynch and Hounshell themselves but most were written by 29 other authors. Most are fairly short, fewer than one thousand words, but some are longer.
Some of the essays were written shortly after Ben Ali and Mubarak stepped down from power, so they take a close look at the causes and consequences – up to mid-February – of those revolutions. But the first eight essays were written before the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutionaries had succeeded in toppling their dictators. The editors included them in the book to make the point that even experts on Arab affairs failed to predict that the uprisings would occur and be successful. The experts did lay out the grievances that were being expressed in various countries against the rulers, but none of these eight essays, published in 2010 and up to January 2011, foresaw that Ben Ali and Mubarak would be toppled in January and February of 2011. It is a credit to the editors that they republished these analyses that failed to predict the dramatic events. Academics, like journalists and politicians, are often reluctant to be reminded that they were wrong. But it is a mark of the editors’ intellectual honesty that they demonstrated how everyone, even the professional Mideast-watchers, did not see it coming when it did.
The attempts at predictions of the future course of events in the Arab world are likewise presented in prudent and cautious fashion. The final section has four essays that attempt to venture into this territory but they do it in a very gingerly fashion, especially in view of the fact when the book appeared the turmoil in the region was still under way, the fate of Qaddafi, Ali Abdullah Salih and the monarchy in Bahrain still hung in the balance, and also the eventual outcomes in Tunisia and Egypt were uncertain. Stephen Walt nevertheless went out on a limb and gave his list of eventual winners and losers, Mohammed Ayoub warned that the military in Egypt would be a continuing problem, and Nathan Brown gave his more optimistic take on the situation. Yet the overall lesson from this collection of essays is that the region has been unpredictable and even the experts sometimes get it wrong. That is useful humility.
The book includes a dozen essays that give day-by-day accounts of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. These were apparently written at the time as blogs, and although it might seem that their accounts have been overtaken by events so not worth reading, in fact they are valuable to anyone interested in carefully looking back at the developments as they appeared at the time. After all, these revolutions are such historically significant events that they will be studied by students and scholars for some time, and this collection of eye-witness accounts will continue to be useful as reference material.
Marc Lynch and several of the authors give credit to the Obama administration for its policies during the crises. Lynch points out that the Obama administration carefully and wisely did not try to intervene in the ongoing uprisings, and helpfully worked behind the scenes with the Egyptian generals to persuade them to avoid the use of violence. Lynch notes that there was a great deal of unfair criticism of Obama during the crisis “including by people inspired by or who worked on the previous administration’s Freedom Agenda.” He doesn’t name the latter but readers probably know that one of them, Elliott Abrams, published an oped in the Washington Post giving Bush credit for democracy promotion. An essay by Abrams does appear in this volume but not that oped; instead it is a very short piece saying simply that the revolution was not about Israel and dictators don’t necessarily bring stability. Lynch in his own essay concludes: “for those keeping score in the ‘peacefully removing dictators game’, it’s now Obama 2, Bush 0”
The authors to their credit do not try to reduce the revolutions to simple causes. In fact, they review the many grievances that have built up over time, and remind us of previous public demonstrations that petered out with no regime change, and they try to understand why the demonstrators succeeded this time. It is fashionable for oped writers and others to call this the Facebook or Twitter Revolution, and the expert analysts in this book do discuss the role of the social networking media but they do not reduce events to that factor. Media expert Hugh Miles has a solid piece on al Jazeera, which certainly did play a role in inspiring Egyptians and others to defy authority.
Tom Malinowski has a provocative essay on the role of Wikileaks. He argues that when Wikileaks made public the classified telegrams written by the American ambassador in Tunisia describing Ben Ali as a corrupt and brutal despot, many Tunisians realized they were not alone in criticizing their president. Moreover, they were embarrassed that foreigners were describing him in such negative terms. They had also assumed that Washington would back Ben Ali no matter what, but when they read the American ambassador’s cables about him, and noticed that Washington did not try to deny their accuracy, they were encouraged to think they had a chance of topping him. Malinowski’s conclusion is that the leaked cables were helpful not only to Tunisians but also to US interests, and he ponders how that fact might be utilized. He says he has had conversations with US officials about speaking out more in public to convey American criticism of the domestic policies of dictators who are friendly to the US, and he suggests that Washington to consider more public diplomacy that finds a way to make clear what we really think of their domestic behavior.
Rugh who holds a Ph.D. in political science is the author of “Arab Mass Media” and many articles on Middle Eastern subjects, as well as two books on public diplomacy. He was a U.S. Foreign Service officer for 30 years, and during that time he served at embassies in six Arab countries, including as American Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates (1992-95) and as Ambassador to Yemen (1984-87). During his career he held several public diplomacy positions, including Area Director for Near East and South Asia (1989-92), and PAO in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Between 1995 and 2003 he was President of AMIDEAST, an American non-profit organization. He is currently the Edward R. Murrow Visiting Professor of Public Diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a member of the board of directors of the Public Diplomacy Council.