University of Oslo
Noah Feldman aims to demonstrate why conventional wisdom about the popular uprisings frequently referred to as the Arab Spring 'is wrong,' and, in his own words, to 'save the Arab Spring from the verdict of implicit nonexistence' (p. x). Focusing on the events in Syria, Egypt, and Tunisia since 2011, Feldman argues that the protests were important in spite of the disappointing and often tragic developments that followed in most Arab countries; that these developments were not inevitable; and, both surprisingly and unconvincingly, that the fall of ISIS signals the end of political Islam. While Feldman does make some interesting observations, these are seldom unconventional or new, and it is not always clear whose 'conventional wisdom' he aims to refute. Except for one chapter on the transitional process in Tunisia, he does not present new empirical material, but mainly relies on his own interpretation of events that have taken place. Frequently, this discussion is based on what the author argues should or should not have happened rather than understanding the how and why of what actually took place. While Feldman often returns to the question of agency, he tends to refer to those belonging to a particular sect or religion as a homogenous group acting in unison. Moreover, the author makes use of problematic descriptions in these discussions, stating at one point that 'secrecy came naturally' to Alawites in Syria (p. 81). There is much to uncover and discuss about the processes of change that began with the popular uprisings of 2010/2011, but Feldman's contribution is, unfortunately, quite modest. Events of genuine popular political action, as he argues that the protests were, hardly need 'saving.'