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Springtime for Empire

A new history of the Arab Spring is blind to American imperialism

The Arab Winter: A Tragedy by Noah Feldman. Princeton University Press, 192 pages.

The wave of protests that hit the Middle East nine and a half years ago was met around the world with empathy and enthusiasm. All of the affected societies were autocracies in which the mass of the poor were treated to the spectacle of inexplicable squandering of national resources by a contemptuous elite. After decades during which the last names of heads of government had not changed, popular movements appeared to sweep aside a succession of leaders. A collection of aging autocrats—Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Gaddafi, and Ali Abdullah Saleh—all died out of, rather than in, office. Yet the Arab Spring, which began in late 2010 in Tunisia, also had terrible consequences. Libya, Yemen, and Syria fell into civil wars which remain unresolved. Egypt is now ruled by a military dictatorship more miserable than any in its recent history. It is not that nothing has changed; plenty has changed, just not much of it has been for the better.

Feldman believes that the Arab Spring and the counter-revolution it met with should be understood strictly domestically, without reference to broader geopolitics.

One of the difficulties in writing about the Arab Spring is that the term really refers to a series of mutually inspired but quite different national conflicts. Yet in his new book, Noah Feldman—a Harvard Law professor, former fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and former adviser to the U.S. occupation forces in Iraq, of late caught up in the farcical attempt to impeach Donald Trump—has tried to outline a unified theory. For Feldman, the protests marked the very “first time” that Arabic speaking peoples were pursuing local self-determination. He acknowledges that Arab generations past had taken part in anti-imperialist struggle, but maintains the Arab Spring was qualitatively different, as “the people were acting on their own” in domestic political struggles where foreign empires played no part.

On the face of it, his argument is unconvincing. In the first place, struggles for self-determination are not new in the region: Algeria and Palestine have long histories of activism, and in Tunisia and Egypt, the initial Arab Spring demonstrations were based on years of civil organization. But it is Feldman’s point about imperialism, which runs through The Arab Winter: A Tragedy, that makes the book worth analyzing in depth, offering as it does an insight into the peculiar world of the American foreign policy establishment. Like his colleagues in Washington, Feldman believes that the Arab Spring and the counter-revolution it met with should be understood strictly domestically, without reference to broader geopolitics and certainly not to the machinations of the United States. The fault rests solely with the citizens of Arab countries, who did not challenge their dictators the right way. 

In any popular movement, it is worthwhile to ask who is counted among “the people.” As Feldman notes in his opening chapter, a representative cross section of society took part in the initial uprisings across the Arab World. Consider the Tahrir Square protests in Egypt. Contrary to the widespread belief that it had something to do with Facebook, the practical organization at Tahrir was provided by labor unions, who had formed a temporary alliance with urban left-wing dissidents, unemployed university graduates, and poor slum dwellers. Later, these groups were joined by the Muslim Brotherhood. It was this coalition that created the iconic images in Cairo and precipitated the end of Hosni Mubarak’s thirty-year presidency.

But the Tahrir movement soon splintered and lost the initiative. The army, which had always held the real power behind Mubarak’s presidency and had forced his resignation, took direct custodianship of the government. Within two and a half years, all signs of democratic participation in Egyptian politics had been erased, replaced with a military junta headed by general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

For Feldman, the blame for this calamity lies squarely with the Egyptian protesters. “If you believe the Egyptian people acted through the January 25 revolution to replace Mubarak, the dictator,” he writes, “then you should also believe that the Egyptian people acted through the June 30 revolution to replace Morsi, the democratically elected president.” This argument is based on a false equivalence. Feldman takes the fact there were large public demonstrations in Tahrir square both in 2011 and just before the military coup, in June 2013, as a mark of popular continuity. Yet while the January 2011 demonstrations were organized by the civil opposition, the 2013 Tamarod protests were organized by the state—the Interior Ministry, General Intelligence Service, and the Army—with the intention of legitimating a coup. Feldman appears to be unaware of this.

By omitting the role of the military, Feldman evades the U.S. government’s culpability in producing the Sisi regime, now one of the most repressive states on earth.

The two years between Mubarak’s resignation and the military coup that brought Sisi to power are often made out in the Western press as a period of delicate, semi-democratic balance, when authority was shared between the Muslim Brotherhood and the army. It was anything but. Days after Mubarak stepped down, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF)—praised by Barack Obama for its “professionalism and patriotism”—set about trying many of the uprising’s participants in military courts and dissolved the elected parliament. The army did, for a time, allow the Muslim Brotherhood to play the part of a civilian facade; Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi was elected to the presidency in 2012. But in the middle of that election, the SCAF declared the powers of the presidency curtailed, allowing the army to take over decisive control while Morsi remained president in name. In due time it ousted him in a classic coup which involved Morsi’s arrest, imprisonment, and death in detention.

Seen in this light, Mubarak’s ouster and the coup that followed no longer seem to represent the will of the “the Egyptian people,” or even the protesters at Tahrir, but the interests of the army high command, who exploited public discontent to solve the problem of Mubarak’s succession and cut out his son Gamal.

By omitting the role of the military, Feldman evades the U.S. government’s culpability in producing the Sisi regime, now one of the most repressive states on earth. He hardly dwells on the fact that the United States—which has backed the Egyptian army for forty years and remains the dictatorship’s most important supporter today—had foreknowledge of every step the generals took and even gave their tacit approval to the coup. The wealthiest U.S. allies in the region, the Arab Gulf states, supported the military takeover to the tune of tens of billions of dollars. These details are not suggestive of a purely domestic political struggle. It is thus unacceptable for Feldman to claim that the Egyptian people made a “historic error” in electing a ruthless junta that killed thousands of protesters on the streets and imprisoned tens of thousands more. The coup was manifestly not “a legitimate expression of Egyptian popular will.”

Ismail Shammout, “Arab Guerillas” (1970). | National Portrait Gallery

In Syria, the Arab Spring movement quickly turned into an armed rebellion against the state and eventually a civil war. Activist networks committed to non-violent organization were overtaken by the brutal logic of the standoff. As with his analysis of Egypt, Feldman places responsibility for the bloodbath squarely on Syrians. For him, it is story of a brutal regime and hotheaded rebellion that failed to compromise.

It was clear from the earliest days of the uprising that the nature of the Syrian regime made sectarian conflict a distinct possibility. The government’s configuration—in particular its denominational power base, alliance with Iran, and penchant for brutal militarized repression—made a large portion of the opposition see armed overthrow as the only way forward. But any such uprising would have been impossible without external sponsorship. Support came in the form of financial backing: arms (and later, direction) from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, all regimes keen to see Assad fall. 

The overriding factor in favor of the Tunisian protesters was that their country was just not considered important to U.S. power.

If the Gulf sponsors bear the brunt of responsiblity for encouraging the jihadist turn, as Feldman rightly observes, it is also true that the United States, Britain, and France knew exactly what was happening and went along with it. Believing the anti-Assad proxies could succeed, Western powers, which were dead set on regime change, went so far as to sabotage efforts, including those made by UN envoys, to find a political resolution to the crisis. Hugh Roberts has termed this a “hijacking” of the original popular movement, a notion with much merit. In the end, the extent of the jihadist rise—both in conjunction with and exemplified by the Islamic State, itself a product of the U.S. destruction of Iraq—and Libya’s descent into chaos gave the United States second thoughts. As it stalled its support for the rebels, Russia exploited this opening to decide the matter in the regime’s favor. In a way, it is fortunate that Syria was not considered strategically important enough to U.S. power to risk an even more dangerous escalation.

Of course, the dominant view among American think-tankers and journalists is that Obama was at fault for being insufficiently committed to assuring Assad’s demise. Feldman recognizes that U.S. actions prolonged the war and bloodshed, but he elides further American responsibility on the grounds that it did not start the conflict and had few good options. The fault, he says, “rests with Syrians”: another tragedy of Arab politics.

The results of the Arab Spring have been more positive in its country of origin than elsewhere. The structural changes that have been achieved in Tunisia —in particular its consensus constitution and a general transfer of power from the presidency to a representative parliament—may not be guaranteed to last, but they do provide some degree of hope. What made the country different? In the first place, Tunisian politics was not as militarized as that of its neighboring states; the army itself was much smaller in proportion to the population. The pragmatism of the Tunisian Islamist movement under the leadership of Rached Ghannouchi is also often stressed, and with good reason.

I tend to think the most important factor was the survival of the organized labor movement, which proved critical both during and after Ben Ali’s fall. As for Feldman, following his usual themes, he argues that the major difference was that in Tunisia, “people took political responsibility for the consequences of their actions rather than seeking help from outside.” Rather than settling the matter, this begs the question: Why did the Tunisian protest movement not “seek help from outside”? And why was Ben Ali not kept in place by external contrivance? The answers have to do with geopolitics and empire, subjects Feldman is unwilling to broach.

The overriding factor in favor of the Tunisian protesters was that their country, far as it is from the Gulf’s hydrocarbon reserves, was just not considered important to U.S. power. This neglect looks like mercy when the country is compared to its neighbors, where the results were in large part determined by foreign interests. Yet for Feldman, Tunisia’s relative success simply sharpens the “tragedy” of the Arab Spring because it shows that failure was not inevitable.

The Arab Spring uprisings were domestic in their expression, but they occurred in a place where politics is subject to the overwhelming influence of foreign powers, in particular the United States, which considers the region central to its strategic interests. U.S. hegemony over the Middle East and its oil reserves is an invaluable source of imperial power, granting it control of the hydrocarbon based international energy system and leverage over the developed Far East, which is dependent on Persian Gulf oil. As I have argued elsewhere, by regulating Arab oil, the United States essentially runs “the most profitable protection racket in modern history.”

 In principle, the Arab Spring might have been a challenge to an order the United States had spent decades maintaining. But this dream ended as soon as the Obama administration, in a predictable move, set about turning the uprisings into an opportunity to dispense with the dictators it disliked (Gaddafi and Assad). Indeed, the extent of American hegemony in the region can be gauged simply by tallying the outcome of the Arab Spring uprisings. Where the rebellions affected American allies, as in Egypt and Yemen, the United States supported the dictatorships for as long as possible before sponsoring minimal, superficial changes. In Yemen, this policy led to American (and British) responsibility for massive atrocities in a civil war. In Bahrain, which possesses enviable hydrocarbon reserves, the uprising was crushed two days after Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited the country. Why is it that American culpability still remains simply absent from most of the analysis of the Arab Spring in United States?

The strategic reasons for U.S. predominance in the Middle East are unchanged.

Feldman’s book purports to challenge the conventional wisdom on the Arab Spring by taking the region on its own terms and setting aside the simplifying lens of imperialism. In fact, he follows the main principle set down by the foreign policy establishment: namely, that the role played by the United States should be ignored or excused. (Was the total collapse of Yemen more the fault of the Yemeni people than the U.S. and British backed bombing and destruction of the country?) Feldman does recognize the existence of an American empire, but for him it is either past or passing. He even makes the bizarre claim that before the Arab Spring there was a “retreat of the U.S. imperial presence in the decade of the 2000s”—when this decade actually marked the expansion of the U.S. presence everywhere from Afghanistan to Libya. Someone who was part of the U.S. occupation of Iraq might be expected to have a finer understanding of the realities of the Middle East.

The conventional wisdom today in the United States is that America is finally disengaging from the Arab World. Successive American presidents have professed such a desire: Obama advocated a confused “pivot to Asia” and Trump has declared that America should disentangle itself. In my view this is mostly rhetoric. The strategic reasons for U.S. predominance in the Middle East are unchanged. This is precisely why a reinvigoration of civilian politics in the region remains very difficult.