Micheline R. Ishay


On her book The Levant Express: The Arab Uprisings, Human Rights, and the Future of the Middle East

Cover Interview of February 19, 2020

The wide angle

When the Arab Spring began, I had an unusual vantage point. Living in the United Arab Emirates as a visiting professor, I was teaching one of the first human rights courses in the Arab World when protesters started flooding the streets in Tunis, Cairo, and beyond. The UAE was in the eye of this historical storm, and I was meeting regularly with diplomats, world leaders, scholars, and journalists. I had the privilege of teaching politicians and members of the Emirati ruling family, learning about their hopes and fears as upheaval shook the region. I also traveled extensively to hear from some of the people who were most affected, from human rights activists to refugees from civil wars. As a human rights scholar trained in political philosophy and history, I recognized patterns of revolutionary contagion and anticipated the turning points at which these uprisings would falter or come to fruition.

Those insights are represented in this book, in which I carry on the tradition of progressive realists—a category that includes people as diverse as Franklin Roosevelt and Antonio Gramsci—as I attempt to untie the Gordian knots that prevent a regional peace predicated on economic development and the advance of human rights. I consider how the pendulum, which has moved since 2013 from Enlightenment to counter-Enlightenment, can swing back toward a sustainable Enlightenment pole. These arguments remain relevant as protesters return today to Arab streets, and as repressive regimes face new domestic and international pressures.

The train of human rights progress, the Levant Express, is more than just a metaphor. I also propose (among other developmental projects) restoring an abandoned rail network—the Hejaz train that once connected major cities in the Middle East—as a way to reinvigorate the economy and connect people from different parts of the region. I am not the only one to see the potential of this idea, which is capturing the imagination of several non-Western countries. The vision of a Middle East connected by high-speed rail, new roads and trade routes is attracting financial, commercial, and governmental interest, spearheaded by China; and the West would do well to pay attention.

The book is filled with other details about this and other actual and planned regional projects consistent with basic human rights aspirations. It is informed by a deep understanding of political theory, history, economics, and law—fields that often are marginalized within Middle Eastern studies. But it is also highly readable and light on academic jargon, and very accessible to a nonacademic audience. Artwork, maps, poetry and rap lyrics are used to dramatize events that led to the changing political seasons since the Arab uprisings—and to stir the imagination about what could possibly happen in the future.