I like to think that I’m informed about world events, but I know I’m not. Last year, when news of the uprisings in the Middle East was all over the radio and Internet, I felt thoroughly clueless about the issues. I knew people were protesting government oppression and corruption (or something), but what set it off? What were their goals? And when the news dwindled, I wondered what became of the protestors and their countries.
The Battle for the Arab Spring, a new book by Lin Noueihed and Alex Warren, answered a lot of my questions and gave me a better understanding of the issues. Noueihed, a reporter for Reuters, and Warren, director of a North Africa and Middle East consultancy firm, have extensive experience in the Middle East, and they use that experience to give readers an overview of the forces that led up to the Arab Spring uprisings and to chronicle the events of 2011 in the Arab world, and to consider the potential long-term outcomes. They write in a straightforward journalistic style that doesn’t assume extensive knowledge among readers but also doesn’t dumb the material down. It’s just right for a reasonably intelligent reader with only a dim background on the Middle East.
The book’s first few chapters describe the social milieu in which the protests took place. The authors explain how the lack of jobs and the corruption and greed of government officials sparked people’s outrage and how the rise of social media empowered them to speak out. They then devote a chapter each to Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, and Syria. The book concludes with several chapters discussing of how the Arab Spring uprisings have affected the region as a whole and what the long-term consequences of these events may be. The authors provide extensive numbered end notes to show where they got their information (hooray!), and their approach toward some of the trickier issues is generally even-handed.
Noueihed and Warren describe the events as a “cacophony of overlapping battles,” and they do an admirable job of finding patterns amid all the noise. The fact remains, however, that it is a cacophony, and although I could follow what was happening as I was reading, upon putting the book down, I’m not able to recall exactly how the events in Yemen differed from those in Syria and what happened after the rulers of Bahrain were ousted. What I’m saying is that it’s a lot of information, and I forgot a lot more than I actually learned. (Whether near-immediate forgetting makes reading a book a waste of time is a topic for another day.)
Although I didn’t retain a lot of the details, reading this did give me a better appreciation of the complex dynamics of the Arab world. For example, some of the elections held after the uprisings led to the election of large numbers of Islamic party members, such as the Ennahda in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Does this mean that women and non-Muslims will face greater persecution? That’s unclear. Muslims do not all share the same beliefs about the interaction between religion and the state or about individual rights and sharia law. Noueihed and Warren speculate about what may be ahead, but only time will tell.
Right now, I’m feeling a strong case of information overload, but I hope that reading this will help me better understand the news out of the Middle East. Only time will tell about that too.