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.
The book grew from almost two decades of trying to interpret the trajectory of political developments in the Islamic and Arabic-speaking worlds—and from my efforts as an engaged outsider seeking to enable liberal, Islamic-democratic constitutionalism in the Middle East and North Africa.
Writing in 2003, before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, I predicted in After Jihad that free elections in Arabic-speaking countries would lead to experiments in Islamic democracy, and I encouraged the United States to let those experiments run their course in the name of democratic self-determination.
In 2004, after a truncated stint as constitutional advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, I explored in What We Owe Iraq the ethical consequences of the Iraq invasion and what already appeared as the contradictions and dire failures of the occupation that followed.
In 2008, in The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State, I tried to deepen the continuing debate over Islamic democracy by offering some hypotheses about how classical Islamic constitutional design had worked, how it had failed, and what challenges it would have to overcome in order to solve contemporary governance challenges.
Since 2011, I have watched Islamic democracy rise and fall with stunning speed in Egypt and observed the antidemocratic ideology of the Islamic State drive its own horrific cycle of death and destruction. Islamic democracy was tried, briefly, in Egypt—and it failed, for complex reasons not necessarily inherent to the undertaking.
In contrast, in Tunisia, where I was a constitutional advisor and an observer, I saw firsthand the alternative of gradual, compromise-driven constitutional politics, complete with the liberalization of the leading Islamist party there. Islam and democracy have cohered there. Yet what emerged is not Islamic democracy.
In the depth of the failure of Islamic democracy and the Arab winter, I feel no longer young and idealistic but chastened and middle-aged. Nevertheless, midlife demands meaning-making as much as or more than does youth. This book is an attempt at that.
To me the heart of the book is my argument (in chapter two) about the two major Egyptian movements that centered on Tahrir Square: The January 25 movement or revolution, referring to the date of the first mass protests against Hosni Mubarak in Tahrir in 2011; and the June 30 movement or revolution, referring to the date of the first mass protests against Mohamed Morsi in 2013. I call them Tahrir 1 and Tahrir 2.
My central argument can be stated simply. If you believe that the Egyptian people acted through the January 25 revolution to replace Mubarak, the dictator, then you should also believe that the Egyptian people acted through the June 30 revolution to replace Morsi, the democratically elected president. The Egyptian people acted as agents of their own political future by calling for the overthrow of the regime. Then the Egyptian people acted as agents of their own political future by overthrowing the regime that had replaced it—effectively inviting the return of the very regime they had overthrown two and a half years before.
Consequently, Egypt’s authoritarian presidential dictatorship was not the product of the people’s will before 2011. But Egypt’s authoritarian presidential dictatorship is today, in the aftermath of the June 30 revolution, the product of the people’s will. The people acted; and they acted mistakenly. They took their fate in their hands—and gave it away.
To be clear, as a normative matter, I myself rejected and still reject the army’s coup as an illegitimate usurpation of the democratic process. But what is at issue is not my view or preference but the political agency of the people who went to Tahrir and facilitated Morsi’s ouster in much the same manner as people had gone to the square to enable the removal of Mubarak. I argue that this exercise of political agency was a historic, generational mistake; but it is nevertheless a legitimate expression of collective political agency.
I recognize the claim is at least counterintuitive, and arguably antidemocratic. Those who were in Tahrir to oppose Morsi in late June and early July 2013 were not a representative sample of the Egyptian people. But neither were the protesters who were there in late January and early February 2011 to oppose Mubarak.
Yet both were historical agents of presidents’ removal. And they were also the political agents of removal—much as I would love to deny it. Normatively, the protesters’ claim to speak on behalf of the people was valid because it expressed a popular repudiation of the results of a series of formally democratic elections. That desire stemmed not merely from former Mubarak regime supporters but also from many activist liberal, secularist Egyptians who had participated in the January 25 movement and had previously seen themselves as favoring democracy.
Those of us who live in democratic countries are accustomed to believing (or being told) that “the people” only speak in the name of democratic-constitutional values and institutions. But, of course, that is quite wrong, both logically and normatively. When the people gather in the streets to exercise their political agency, and succeed in displacing existing government institutions, they can choose any form of government they want. Similarly, the people can repudiate any form of government they do not want—including democracy itself.
As I was preparing the book for publication, in the spring of 2019, two sets of events occurred that seemed very much like afterimages of the Arab spring. First in Algeria and then in Sudan, large crowds gathered to protest unfree elections that promised to keep in place two old, long-standing dictators, Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Omar al-Bashir. Both leaders resisted for a time, but the protests persisted. Soon enough Bouteflika resigned, and Bashir was removed by the Sudanese military. The people, it seemed, had gotten what they wanted—at least in the moment.
What do these belated mini-Arab springs mean, taking place as they are in the depths of the Arab winter? One lesson is that the original Arab spring protests still possess resonance and the power of example—notwithstanding the tragic consequences that followed in most of the places where they occurred. A second lesson is that genuine, optimistic political action to change government remains possible in the Arabic-speaking world, even in the face of the experience of tragic failure.
The third lesson is more sober: the 2019 protests carry ennobling political meaning even if they ultimately fail to produce significant improvements in the lives of the peoples of Algeria and Sudan—as seems possible and even probable.
What I am really asking is, What comes after tragedy? Aristotle’s catharsis is thought to be a purging or a purgation—an inner experience that transcends the emotions of terror and pity and turns them into something cleansing. Tragedy functions as a shaper of the viewer’s internal cognitive and emotional state.
But the Arabic reception of Aristotle’s conception of tragedy is, famously, different. Ibn Rushd, the great medieval commentator on Aristotle, interpreted tragedy and comedy through the filter of the very different Arabic literary genres of blame and praise poetry, in which the poet faults or idealizes an enemy or a patron. This reading—or perhaps misprision—is explored by Jorge Luis Borges in his poignant and beautiful orientalist story, “La busca de Averroes” (“Averroes’s Search”).
As Ibn Rushd has it, tragic catharsis “makes souls become tender and prompts them to accept the virtues.” This version of catharsis starts inwardly, with the preparation of the soul taking place through the experience of observing tragedy. But it moves outward, to the embrace of character virtues that can then be expressed through actual human action.
In this way, the catharsis of the Arabic Aristotle invokes a different, competing strand of Aristotelian thought—a strand that sees not reflection but the doing of politics as the highest form of human flourishing. The point of tragedy, in this vision, is to offer inspiration for the exercise of virtue, including political virtue. Tragedy can thus be made to have a practical, forward-looking purpose. It can lead us to do better.
There is no handbook for successful self-determination. No single political or constitutional solution will fit every polity.
Yet tragedy seen through the lens of the Arabic Aristotelian tradition may nonetheless guide us toward political virtue, by its capacity to help us do better in the future. Bleak as circumstances are now for Arab politics, there will be changes. New possibilities will eventually emerge. The current winter may last a generation or more. But after the winter—and from its depths—always comes another spring.
Noah Feldman is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. He is a Senior Fellow of the Society of Fellows, a member of the Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a contributor to Bloomberg Opinion. Feldman served as a law clerk to Justice David H. Souter of the U.S. Supreme Court (1998-1999), and as a senior constitutional advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, advising members of the Iraqi Governing Council. He is the author of eight books, including Arab Winter (2020) featured here.