This timely and wise book arrives just as many observers are beginning to conclude that the so-called Arab Spring has turned out to be a great failure. The evidence is found in Syria, in Egypt, in Libya, in Bahrain and elsewhere. Hopes that soared in early 2011 for real change and decent governance have been followed by disappointment, leading one of my Egyptian friends to say recently: "We tried democracy. It doesn't work for us. It's best that the army takes over."
Marwan Muasher, a former Jordanian diplomat and close observer of Arab politics, does not share this gloomy assessment, although he is quite clear in his warnings that what he calls the second Arab Awakening has thus far not turned out very well. Published just after the ouster of Egypt's Muslim Brethren government in mid-2013, the book was not able to do justice to this very important setback to Egypt's transition toward a more democratic system. Given how rapidly events are unfolding in various parts of the Arab world, the book is bound to seem dated in many of its particulars, but its overall themes still resonate clearly.
Muasher seems to be writing primarily for a Western audience. He states bluntly that most people in the West did not understand the Arab Spring phenomenon and were too impatient for quick results. One of the key messages of his book is that the second Arab Awakening, like the first, will play out over a generation or more. This leads him to a brief overview of the first awakening in the early twentieth century, the one that produced a strong sense of nationalism and, eventually, calls for Arab unity. The partial success of this movement was the achievement of independence almost everywhere in the Arab world; the failure was that independence led almost everywhere — Lebanon being an important exception that does not get its due here — to authoritarian governments that saw pluralism as a sign of weakness and division. In some places, the "resource curse" of oil meant that governments could do without popular support and became expert in using rents from oil and gas to buy acquiescence if not loyalty.
The second Arab Awakening, which began in Tunisia in December 2010, was, in Muasher's view, the inevitable result of the combination of economic discontent, a reaction against despotic governments, and a frustrated younger generation that was well aware of what was happening elsewhere in the world. Muasher sees the success of political Islam in the first wave of elections held after the toppling of governments in Tunisia and Egypt as understandable and not a reason for panic. The Islamists were organized in a way that the liberal youth were not. He estimates that Islamists in most countries cannot command more than about 20 percent of public support, but that is often enough to win elections. Once in power, however, as seen during the brief Muslim Brethren rule in Egypt, they are likely to lose support in the face of economic decline and poor governance. (A fuller account of the ouster of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi would have to consider the deliberate sabotage of his governing efforts by the "deep state" — the police, the military and the judiciary — and the role of elements of the old Mubarak regime, including wealthy businessmen, in financing a wave of youth opposition in early 2013.)
Muasher is evenhanded in his treatment of political Islam, insisting that it is not a monolithic phenomenon. On balance, he seems to believe that inclusion of Islamists will lead to their moderation. Many Egyptians would contest his view that the Freedom and Justice party (the party of the Muslim Brethren) was relatively moderate (p. 55). Indeed, the post-Morsi regime has labeled it a terrorist organization and has banned both the party and the Muslim Brethren.
Chapter 4 makes the case that time will be needed for the second Arab Awakening to produce pluralistic and democratic politics. He sees Tunisia as doing better than other states so far, and, indeed, Tunisia's success in drafting a consensus constitution early in 2014 seems to validate this judgment. The reasons for this unique success story deserve more analysis than they receive here. Elsewhere in the region, it is hard to see that time is working in favor of pluralism. Egypt, Libya and Bahrain are all discouraging cases. Worst of all is the Syrian disaster. Even Jordan, which Muasher knows well, is not treated very generously here. He concludes that reform from above has not succeeded (p. 112).
So how is time to be turned to best advantage? Here the book is suggestive, but the argument could have been made more strongly. Muasher is hopeful that "third forces" — neither old-regime nor Islamist — will emerge to produce a pluralistic new order, but only after inevitable missteps. Central to their success will be educational reform, the topic of a very good Chapter 5. I wish he had examined these "third forces" more carefully. So far, the young liberal reformers have not played much of a role beyond street politics. And, as Muasher rightly says, it is easier to spark change than to see it through to new functioning institutions.
Perhaps inevitably, the Arab-Israeli conflict must be taken into account. In the author's view, it has had the effect of impeding reform efforts. If it is to be solved, as he hopes, it must be soon and must be based on an equitable two-state solution. He does not seem very optimistic that this will happen.
I finished the book with a feeling of admiration for the author's sensible observations, but I also felt that a version of this book is needed more in the Arab world than in the West. After all, pluralism and democracy are not going to come to the Middle East thanks to Westerners. It will have to be essentially home grown.
Pluralism, as Muasher correctly notes, is the missing ingredient in most Arab political agendas. I might add, it is not intuitively obvious to most people that pluralism per se is a good thing. It can produce weak governments and deadlock, as we see in contemporary Washington, D.C. It does not automatically go hand-in-hand with the arts of compromise, which seem to be necessary to turn pluralism from a source of possible weakness to a source of strength.
This, then, leads to two final observations. First, leadership can make a difference, as we saw in pluralistic, but dangerously divided, South Africa. Nelson Mandela made a virtue of pluralism. Nuri al-Maliki in Iraq did not. Second, the story of democratization elsewhere suggests that a phase of prolonged and inconclusive conflict may be the necessary precondition before large numbers of people accept the need for institutions that prevent any one group from monopolizing power. Those conflicts are part of what may be happening with the second Arab Awakening. If that is the case, we should expect a prolonged period of intense political contestation. Muasher is probably correct in saying that this will play out over decades, not years, much as it did in Western Europe, in the Americas, in Turkey and elsewhere.