Arabia Rising: Understanding Transformations & Revolutions in the Middle East

Worth A Look
Arabia Rising
Arabia Rising

Esam Al-Amin, The Arab Awakening Unveiled: Understanding Transformations and Revolutions in the Middle East. Washington, DC: American Educational Trust, 2013.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book, and how would you describe it?

Esam Al-Amin (EA): The Arab Awakening Unveiled: Understanding Transformations and Revolutions in the Middle East is a collection of essays about the Arab uprisings and awakening movement, arguably the most important phenomenon that has taken place in the Middle East in the past century. I hope that the book provides thoughtful analysis and a keen understanding of this historical moment, as well as important aspects of US policy towards the Middle East and the Muslim World. For example, the book examines the main causes and effects of the Arab revolutions, especially in Egypt, and describes in details the role of each player in the political dynamics that has been taking place in the last two years across the Arab World, but particularly in Egypt. In addition, American foreign policy objectives and maneuvers vis-à-vis the changes brought about by the uprisings are also discussed and analyzed in many of these articles.

J: What particular topics does this work address?

EA: The first part (about three-quarter of the book) discusses the Arab revolutions, with a particular focus on Egypt. But it also covers other countries such as Tunisia, Syria, and Libya. The second part addresses other events in the Middle East, especially with regard to the Palestinian cause, as well as some aspects of American foreign and domestic policy. For example, several articles address Obama’s Cairo speech, Israel’s aggressive settlement policy, the failed peace process, and the futile Palestinian bid at the UN. This part of the book also covers issues from the Iranian elections and nuclear program to the impact of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the offensive YouTube clip on the Prophet Muhammad.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

EA: The book is written for experts as well as non-experts. Hopefully, those who are interested in acquiring a deep understanding of the phenomenon of the Arab Spring, and why and how it came about, as well as what its future might entail, would find the book useful and illuminating. It is also addressed to those who are interested in, and focused on, American policy in the Middle East. It would be instructive if policy and opinion makers would also read the book and get a different view from the conventional wisdom in Washington.

J: How does your work contribute to and/or diverge from recent scholarship on revolutions in the region?

EA: I think what distinguishes The Arab Awakening Unveiled from others is that it combines critical facts about the discourse and trajectory of the revolutions as well as neutral and in depth analysis of the monumental events that took place in the last couple of years in the heart of the Arab world. Unfortunately, such multi-dimensional analysis is absent from most English language publications about the Arab Spring phenomena. For example, many articles in the book analyze the roots and consequences of the Islamic-secular divide and how this conflict has resulted in the unsettling current state of affairs in Egypt. Another article, for instance, provides sober analysis of the possible scenarios awaiting the popular revolution turned civil war in Syria.

J:  In your view, what is the most important contribution of this book?

EA: Perhaps the most important contribution is the series of essays on the Egyptian revolution, which describe and explain in detail its complexity, the real forces behind it, and its historical developments, including the role of each player in the political dynamics in Egypt in the last two years since ousting Mubarak. Moreover, the book’s prologue attempts to place the Arab Spring phenomenon in its historical context since the dawn of Western imperialism in the Arab world, as well as the centrality of Palestine in the last century within the Arab awakening conscience and resistance movements. Furthermore, the most significant challenges facing these revolutions are laid out and discussed, and thus the ultimate outcome of their success or failure will be determined based on the response to these challenges by the various political movements and the people of the region.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

EA: I am currently working on multiple projects, including a book on the history of the Palestinian issue addressed to high school students, so that it can be used as textbook or supplementary material in social studies classes. Another book I’m writing is focused on the Chronicles of the Egyptian Revolution, to be published by the revolution’s third anniversary next year.

Excerpts from The Arab Awakening Unveiled: Understanding Transformations and Revolutions in the Middle East

On Conquests, Resistance and History
The Arab Awakening at a Crossroads: Seven Key Challenges

Ever since Napoléon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in 1798, the relationship between the West and the Arab-Muslim East has been contentious and convoluted. Although this military leader of the first French Republic conquered Egypt for strategic reasons in his rivalry with the British and the Ottomans, the Muslim Arabs of the region—later dubbed “the Middle East” by an American naval officer—felt vulnerable, exposed, and weak.

However, as early as the eighth century this same landscape, the cradle of the Islamic civilization, represented the world’s most advanced achievements in many fields, including philosophy, education, science, technology, architecture, administration, economic development and trade. As the Ottoman Turks took control of this vital area by the sixteenth century, the gap between Europe and the Middle East widened, especially in military technology. It was thus relatively easy for the French expedition to take over Egypt, but what proved to be harder was keeping this strategic piece of geography. Egyptian resistance to this early imperial invasion was ferocious. Within three years Napoléon had to abandon his dreams and withdraw.

But the immediate consequence of this brief interaction between East and West had a tremendous long-term impact. French laws and courts, as well as educational and administrative systems with their strict secular outlook were introduced and slowly dominated the public discourse. A new class of elites was created that was tied to the much wealthier and technologically-advanced European foreigners after the attempt by Egypt’s new governor, Muhammad Ali Pasha, to establish a strong modern Egypt was thwarted and rolled back by the British, though independently aided by the High Porte in Istanbul.

A Painful Legacy: Western Imperialism in the Middle East

By the early twentieth century many countries in the Middle East were under direct European colonial rule, including Algeria (1830) and Tunisia (1881) by France, Egypt (1882) and Sudan (1896) by Britain and Libya (1911) by Italy. In the aftermath of World War I, the rest of the Middle East came under direct colonial dominance or influence as the Sykes-Picot Accord of 1916 divided the sphere of influence and direct occupation between Britain and France, with Iraq, Palestine, Trans-Jordan, and the small sheikhdoms along the Gulf falling to the British with the Levant (Syria and Lebanon) going to the French.

[…]

For the next half-century most Arab societies were engaged in national liberation and resistance movements against colonial powers leading to national independence for many Arab countries including Syria and Lebanon in the 1940s, Egypt, Sudan, Iraq, and Tunisia in the 1950s, Kuwait, Algeria and Libya in the 1960s, and the Emirates along the Persian Gulf and south Yemen in the 1970s.

Palestine: The Center of Arab Politics

In addition to the national liberation struggle that spread across the Arab world throughout this period another parallel conflict in Palestine between the Zionist movement and the Palestinian and Arab peoples was taking place, eventually leading to several wars (1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982, first intifada 1987-91, second intifada 2000-2003, 2006 in Lebanon, 2008-9 in Gaza.)

[…]

The political legitimacy of the Islamist groups was further consolidated in the Arab world when Israel failed to defeat the Islamic resistance groups in the 2006 war against Hezbollah, and the 2008-2009 war against the Hamas government in Gaza. Although Israel caused massive deaths and destruction in both wars, it could not exact a political price on its nemeses. In both conflicts it was demonstrated to peoples across the region that Israel, which imposed its policies by force on most of the impotent Arab regimes, could not dictate its ultimatums against these popular movements.

The Arab Spring: Its Genesis and Resilience

By the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, frustrated citizens across the Arab world had had enough: corrupt and weak regimes stealing billions while relying on a ruthless security state to protect them, Western humiliation overflowing in Iraq and central Asia, untamed Israeli aggression and arrogance peaking, economic stagnation spreading, and senseless violence by al-Qaeda-like groups that did not represent the aspirations of the people erupting across the region. Meanwhile, countries in the region such as Turkey, Iran, and Israel were developing economically and progressing in many fields while their societies either stagnated or even drifted backwards.

Furthermore, the political horizons across the Arab world were closed shut. In November 2010 the Mubarak regime in Egypt even brazenly held parliamentary elections that resulted in no seats to any opposition group. In many countries regimes that supposedly came through “free and fair” elections were so dismissive of their citizens’ aspirations and concerns that they even started preparing their societies for their sons’ succession or family rule including in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Tunisia (the countries of the Arab Spring), just like the other monarchies in the Arab world. In Syria, this succession had already taken place as it was imposed a decade earlier without much opposition because of its sectarian nature, while it prided itself as a regime that resisted Israel and the West as it supported the resistance movements.

As the Arab world boiled, all that was needed was the flame to make it even hotter. It came when a frustrated Tunisian vendor was prevented from selling his goods and suffered humiliation by a police officer and set himself on fire in December 2010. Within days, a revolutionary spirit engulfed the country and resulted in Ben Ali, its dictator of twenty-three years fleeing the country after twenty-eight days. Soon the same spirit inflamed Egypt as millions took to the streets forcing the ouster of Mubarak, its dictator of twenty-nine years after only eighteen days. By February 2011 tens of thousands of people in Yemen, Libya, Morocco, Jordan, and Bahrain were in the streets demanding freedom and change, and were soon to be joined by thousands of Syrians in March of that year.

What was once unthinkable became routine. Within eighteen months, four regimes were toppled and democratic elections were taking place. […]

Key Challenges Facing the Arab Awakening Movement

The revolutions and transformations taking place in the Arab world are nothing short of remarkable. Although generally they have been following a positive trend, it is too soon to predict the course that they would follow. There are seven key challenges facing the Arab Spring. How the political players in the region deal with these challenges will ultimately seal the fate of the greatest phenomena the Arab world has witnessed in half a millennium. These challenges are:

1) The Challenge of Legitimacy […]

2) The Challenge of Identity […]

3) The Challenge of Independence […]

4) The Challenge of Sectarianism and Ethnocentrism […]

5) The Challenge of Social Justice and Economic Development […]

6) The Challenge of Modernity […]

7) The Challenge of Geography (and Israel) […]

Within the next decade there will be shifting alliances within the region and with forces outside it including not only the NATO countries but also China, Russia, and other emerging international powers. Such alliances will determine the future of this region as well as of the whole world. As the countries of the Arab Spring continue to develop and assert their power, it is very difficult to see how Israel can remain viable in its current state of affairs. It will have to either give up the entire territories it occupied in 1967 to the state of Palestine or yield to the bi-national one-state solution.

In his groundbreaking study “Orientalism,” Edward Said captured the essence of imperialism when he spoke of the French enterprise in Egypt from the perspective of the colonizer as it was “To restore a region from its present barbarism to its former classical greatness; to instruct the Orient in the ways of the modern West.”

But from the standpoint of the colonized, Middle East historian Juan Cole perceptively concluded in his book “Napoléon’s Egypt,” that the West’s colonialist enterprise ended because “Middle Eastern politicians and public ceased being willing to cooperate with it, and because they had gained the tools to stand up to it.”

And there lies the real potential of the Arab Spring.

As relatively new phenomena, the Arab Spring holds tremendous promise to the hopes and aspirations of the people across the region. But with this promise comes enormous challenges. How the new Arab democrats and Muslim patriots deal with the internal and external challenges will ultimately seal the fate of the Arab Spring and determine its place in the annals of history: either as an asterisk of a potential historical moment that quickly dissipated, or as one of the most significant events in the history of mankind, a new renaissance for the Arab people.

[Excerpted from The Arab Awakening Unveiled: Understanding Transformations and Revolutions in the Middle East, by Esam Al-Amin, by permission of the author. © 2013 by Esam Al-Amin. For more information, or to order this book, click here,]