x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Revolution in the Arab World: lack of context muddles draft of history

Foreign Policy's hurriedly released collection of essays on the Arab world's revolutionary moment seems oddly out of date.

EgypEgyptians participate in the
EgypEgyptians participate in the "Million Man March" in Tahrir Square on February 1, 2011.

When the last line of the last essay is the best of the collection, questions need to be asked. "At the end of 2011, Mohamed ElBaradei may well be president of a democratic Egypt. But then, at the end of 1789, Louis XVI was still King of France." This arresting line is written by David A Bell, a Princeton professor with one of the most curiously specific titles in academia ("professor in the era of North Atlantic revolutions"), as he surveys history in an attempt to predict which direction the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt will take.

Bell's words are written at the very end of Revolution in the Arab World: Tunisia, Egypt and the unmaking of an era, a collection of already published Foreign Policy articles now released as an e-book.

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In it he writes that revolution often take two forms, best understood by reference to the revolutions of 1688 in England and 1789 in France. In 1688, an English Catholic monarch was overthrown and the Protestants William and Mary placed on the throne. Parliament gained new powers and a Bill of Rights and England's constitutional monarchy began. France in 1789 was different; an attempt to create a constitutional monarchy which ultimately executed the monarch and re-formed the society.

The point is that the 1688 revolution was all but over in a matter of months: William of Orange landed in England in November of 1688 and by January of the following year was enthroned with parliamentary reforms in place. The French Revolution, by contrast, was a much longer process, the beginning of a political and social upheaval that lasted for years. (Or even longer: asked in the 20th century about the historical significance of the French Revolution, the Chinese premier Zhou Enlai replied it was "too soon to tell".)

Which of these two paths will the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions take? Bell points out that Egypt has already been through a 1789 revolution, as recently as 1952. The revolutionary zeal that brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power still colours modern Egypt (after all, Hosni Mubarak served in Nasser's military) and - as per other 1789-type revolutions - has tried to export itself elsewhere in the world.

Another 20th century revolution also did that, the Iranian in 1979. Bell is optimistic Egypt won't end that way, but sounds a note of caution, like Zhou, that the decisive moment for North Africa's revolts may yet lie in the future.

In publishing this volume, Foreign Policy has tried to embrace the new reality of the digital era by offering the book only as a download and by promising to offer regular updates to those who purchase it. The trouble is not the form, but the subject matter. At a time when the ends of the revolutions across the region aren't even in sight, this body of work already feels dated. If its purpose is to show how quickly articles date, it is a success, but as a product of journalism it struggles to feel weighty.

This weakness is apparent from the very beginning of the book, which has been arranged across six themed chapters. The second and third chapters deal with Tunisia and Egypt, mainly on the ground reporting and analysis from the time. Their chief inadequacy is a lack of dates or a time frame. When Mark Lynch writes that "for the last few weeks a massive wave of protests has been rocking Tunisia", the reader has no idea which period he is referencing. Is it January 13, the day before the Tunisian president Ben Ali stepped down, or the day after? In fact, it was January 5, but a reader would only know that by searching on Foreign Policy's website, somewhat defeating the point of the collection.

The same weakness plagues much of the rest of the reporting in these chapters. They feel like archive articles, like fragments without context. Since the point of the collection is to provide some understanding of these events - and since most readers who take the time to buy it will have a passing familiarity with the subject - this is inadequate. (Late in the book, an article by James Traub ends with the line, "How will the White House react if public outrage threatens ... Cairo?" This seems curiously out of date.)

The reporting from Cairo itself is better and merits revisiting. Ashraf Khalil's description of the hope, fear and above all chaos on the streets of Egypt's capital is fascinating and gives an excellent insight into how messy revolutions really are. Here the chronological sequencing of the articles (with dates) is both useful and powerful. On January 25, the day Egyptians first took to the streets in large numbers, Khalil writes: "In 13 years of covering Egyptian protests ... [this is] the first time I've ever been in a situation where the protesters potentially outnumbered riot police on the ground." This drip-feed of reporting, knowing what comes next, is suspenseful. Here is Khalil a few days later on February 2: "By nightfall, the streets around Tahrir were littered with wounded protesters who were frightened, shell-shocked and desperately short of medical supplies." Even knowing how the protests ended, and having followed it from the start, is no defence against willing the revolution to work, of wanting those characters to prevail.

But Foreign Policy's declared aim in publishing this book is to "assess, interpret, analyse and understand" the revolutions and here the book reveals its weaknesses.

The first is a product of time - recalling David Bell's points, we don't yet know whether the revolutions will end in weeks, months or years. But the second is a failure of understanding, such as has bedevilled policy and journalism in the region for decades.

Take, as an example of this, how Western-centric it is, trying to understand two Arab revolutions with reference to a narrow conceptual framework. "Did WikiLeaks take down Tunisia's government?" asks one essayist, pondering how far leaked diplomatic cables contributed to Tunisia's uprising. He writes: "The cables also contradicted the prevailing view among Tunisians that Washington would back Ben Ali to the bloody end, giving them added impetus to take to the streets." Later in the collection, the idea that Facebook and Twitter drove the revolution is repeated, both websites accessible mainly in English and easily understandable to Western correspondents.

Both suggestions are riddled with inaccuracies. Tunisians didn't need WikiLeaks to tell them about the corruption and extravagance of Ben Ali's family, it was common knowledge, the stuff of jokes and gossip. It was Western correspondents who needed to be told, because they had barely been to Tunisia or met many Tunisians outside of the diplomatic corps. Further, the idea that Tunisians would take to the streets against a repressive regime because they hoped America would back them is laughable. In Egypt, it is tragic, because the weapons the protesters could have expected to be used against them were American-made.

Facebook and Twitter clearly helped get the protesters' message out, in the same way as paved roads and cars helped get protesters to the capital cities quickly. But they didn't create the revolutions. What created them were millions of small connections and conversations that activists had been having for years - building links, meeting, talking, debating, doing the hard, thankless, dangerous work of political activism, so that when the point was ripe, they could work together. It was the people behind the screens that mattered, and it was the people who created the revolution.

One of the best articles deals with this subject (it is also by some way the longest) and captures the essence of it: "Facebook could bring together tens of thousands of sympathisers online, but it couldn't organise them once they logged off." Tina Rosenberg traces the Egyptian activists from a failed protest in 2008, through the development of links with other activists in Serbia. Her article is mainly about a Serbian organisation that trains activists, but is most important in the Egyptian context for understanding what happened before Tunisia lit the spark.

After the Egyptian protests began, an anonymous 26-page pamphlet began circulating, laying out the goals of the protesters and tactics, telling people to gather in their own neighbourhoods before moving to the protest site, to remind police that their own families could be among the protesters, pushing them to change sides. This is precisely what transpired, as the protesters stood largely united, across social and sectarian lines, with Christians protecting Muslims as they prayed and Muslims protecting Christians as they worshipped.

This is where Revolution in the Arab World excels, helping us understand how the region got to the tipping point. It is less useful at analysing what might happen next. At best, the collection offers a recap of daily events without providing a context, and some fragments of the hopes and fears of policymakers in Washington.

While Egypt is well-covered, there is very little analysis about Tunisia and the problems it might face. Even then, Egypt is seen mainly through a US lens, as a problem to be solved or a potential source of tension to US interests in the region.

Bell's essay falls into this category, defining the revolutions in terms of what they might mean for America. However, what they might mean for the millions who participated in them and will live with the consequences is not the focus of this book.

Faisal al Yafai is a columnist at The National.