While over three years have passed since the self-immolation of the Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, which marked the beginning of the so-called Arab Spring, the outpour of literature on the subject continues at a rapid rate. New books across a multitude of disciplines continue trying to document and analyze the cataclysmic events that are reshaping the Middle East: from historical overviews on resistance movements to photographic volumes on Tahrir Square. One of the latest additions to this eclectic and ever-expanding genre is Carnegie scholar Marwan Muasher’s The Second Arab Awakening and the Battle for Pluralism.
Unlike many of its counterparts, this book does not treat the Arab Spring as a “soundbite, oxymoron, spectacle, a screen on which to project abstracted hopes and fears,” to borrow a phrase from Maria Golia. Instead, Muasher offers a concise and practical treatise from the perspective of a policymaker-turned-scholar, which puts the events in their important historical—and regional—context while making critical recommendations for enhanced state-society relations in the Middle East.
The title alone is deep in scope. The first phrase—the second Arab awakening—is a nod to George Antonious’ 1938 classic on what could now be considered the first Arab awakening (it’s also the title of a less succinct work published last year by the Washington-based Iraqi scholar Adeed Dawisha). It immediately places the events in the context of a longer—and significant—history of independence and revolutionary movements in the Middle East. More specifically, it interprets them as a continuation of the 19th century intellectual “awakening” that sparked a wave of independence movements in the 1940s and 1950s, ultimately falling short of its protagonists’ aspirations. That initial liberal promise was aborted when foreign despots were replaced by homegrown ones who went on to rule the region for more than half a decade. As Muasher rightly points out, the first awakening laid the groundwork for the wave of uprisings that broke out across the region in 2011; “many of the same issue are at stake,” he says, “many of the same dangers loom.”