Noah Feldman


On his book The Arab Winter: A Tragedy

Cover Interview of May 26, 2020

In a nutshell

Today many people think that, in retrospect, the Arab spring was doomed to fail. Arab popular self-government was a “mirage,” a “false dawn.” There was no truly transformative political self-determination in those countries where people took to the streets and expressed their will to change.

The purpose of this book is to save the Arab spring from that verdict of implicit nonexistence. I propose an alternative account that highlights the exercise of collective, free political action—with all the dangers of error and disaster that come with it.

There is no question that, apart from removing a handful of dictators, the Arab spring did not achieve most of its grander aspirations.

Nevertheless, there was an Arab spring that led to today’s Arab winter. People whose political lives had been determined and shaped from the outside tried politics for themselves, and for a time succeeded. That this did not lead to constitutional democracy or even to a more decent life for most of those affected is not a reason to believe that the effort was meaningless. Failure is always one possible outcome of attempting self-determination.

Regardless, the effort mattered for the course of history. And it matters for the future. The central political meaning of the Arab spring and its aftermath is that it featured Arabic-speaking people acting essentially on their own.

The Arab spring marked a crucial, historical break from a long era in which empires—Ottoman, European, and American—definitively shaped the course of Arab politics. The participants in the events of the Arab spring and its aftermath took charge of their politics through action. In doing so, they remade and transformed the two big forces that have dominated political ideas in the Arabic-speaking world for the past century, namely Arab nationalism and political Islam.

This book is not an attempt to explain precisely why the Arab spring took place when it did or why the outcomes differed from place to place. It’s not a work of history or of structural political science.

My constant question is, rather, what does it mean that these things happened?

This is the sort of question that Hannah Arendt so influentially asked about the American and French revolutions, and indeed about political action itself. The exploration I undertake is indebted not only to Arendt’s question but also to her distinctive view that people who engage in genuine collective political action are exercising freedom in the truest sense.