A solid primer on the Arab Spring.
While stressing that it is “still too early to gain the distance from events that historians need to render judgments,” Gelvin (Middle Eastern History/UCLA; The Modern Middle East, 2004, etc.) offers insights into the popular uprisings that have swept Tunisia, Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries since late 2010. His background on the Arab world will certainly help non-experts better understand the region. Most of the population consists of Arab-speaking Muslims. While lacking homogeneity, they share a sense of history; live in poor political, economic and social conditions; get news from a vastly expanded Arab-language media, such as the satellite TV channel Al-Jazeera; and generally oppose U.S. activities in the region, especially the invasion of Iraq and support for Israel. States, which control oil and other resources, are the main economic actors. During the Cold War, the U.S. supported strong, authoritarian regimes to hasten regional economic development and prevent the rise of communism. Using a Q&A format (the book is an installment in the publisher’s What Everyone Needs to Know series), Gelvin traces the various uprisings, beginning with Tunisia, noting that no one could have predicted the popular protests; that they had no single cause; and that the “true heroes of the uprisings” were the participants, who acted on their own and put their lives on the line. He writes it is not possible to pinpoint where the initial demands for democracy and human rights came from. “Certainly, the claim that the uprisings confirm the historical inevitability of democratic transformation worldwide reflects little more than wishful thinking,” he writes. Although Western media often called early protests a “Twitter Revolution,” social media only played a role. The region’s monarchs uniformly responded to the protests by distributing benefits (cash bonuses, jobs) and making promises for the future. It remains to be seen, writes Gelvin, whether the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt will mean the end of autocracy.
A useful attempt to understand a still-unfolding story.