What inspired you to write The Future of the Arab Spring?
The Arab revolutions, which began in December 2010, were my most obvious inspiration.
As someone who had worked on and long been obsessed with the region, the revolutions demonstrated what I always believed about the Middle East—namely, that various indigenous dynamics made regional countries infinitely more complex than Western biases suggested.
It is this intuition that led me to found Muftah.org, a digital magazine on the region, in May 2010. Through my work with Muftah, I came across countless new organizations, from artistic collectives to political movements to NGOs to tech startups, which had emerged from the revolutions with a decidedly civic mission. This phenomenon was unlike anything that had happened in the region over the intervening decades.
But, no one was telling the story of these grassroots initiatives in a holistic way—while various organizations were receiving media attention, the coverage was piecemeal. There was also little effort to understand why these groups were significant and what they revealed about the legacy of the Arab Spring. My book attempts to fill these gaps.
What’s the most important take-home message for readers?
Over the last year or so, the euphoria that greeted the revolutions’ early days has turned into disappointment and despair for many people inside and outside the region. This is understandable, given the political and economic crises that continue to grip Arab Spring countries.
At the same time, there are also reasons to be hopeful. Much of this hope lies in the grassroots, which has come alive over the last two and a half years. Through countless initiatives, people in the region have joined together to address issues affecting their local communities and countries in ways that are inclusive, innovative, and forward thinking.
These instances of civic entrepreneurship include organizations mobilizing against sexual harassment in Egypt, local citizen councils that are filling the vacuum left by the Syrian regime in cities liberated by the opposition, artistic collectives bringing beauty to the streets of Yemen, and Tunisian startups revolutionizing the green energy industry. Through these and other groups in the region, individuals have invested themselves in bettering their societies. They have refused to allow government officials to dictate the terms of political engagement, pushed cultural and social norms, and created a vibrant public arena that was long absent from the Arab world. I hope people come away from this book appreciating the inroads made by these grassroots initiatives, as well as their importance to the future of the region’s revolutions.
Is there anything you had to leave out?
Because I was operating under a strict word-limit, I was unable to include images or other visual examples of the work being done by the organizations I profiled. To compensate for this, I created a supplement for the book, which is available online and includes relevant photos and videos.
The word limit also restricted the book’s scope. If I had more space, I would have profiled more organizations (there are so many) and provided additional detail on the initiatives I did include. Some of the groups in this book have incredible histories that mirror the tumultuous events in regional countries. While we so often view history from the top down, many of these stories give an eye-opening, on-the-ground view on recent events in the Arab world.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?
Quite a few people have written off the revolutions. In fact, many would hesitate to describe recent events in the Arab world as “revolutionary,” pointing instead to the persistence and continuing influence of old power structures. But massive, national-level political changes take time, and do not unfold according to a set playbook. Indeed, revolutions are as much about changes on the micro level as they are about macro political shifts.
On the way to creating better, more open governments and healthier economies, revolutions also transform individual expectations and perceptions about one’s local community and broader society—it is this sort of change that is currently taking root in various Arab Spring countries. A failure to appreciate these realities has largely blinded people to the multi-faceted nature of events unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa.
Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?
I wrote this book hoping that anyone interested in the region, from the hobbyist to the expert, would find value in it. I worked hard to keep my writing clear and easy to follow, while presenting arguments I hope are still nuanced and insightful.
Are you hoping to inform readers? Entertain them? Piss them off?
I think most people who work on the region see the word “Arab Spring” and automatically get pissed off. So, I guess that reaction to my book is inevitable. As an aside, I deliberately chose to use this descriptor, which has admittedly been misappropriated by many people. I did this for reasons clarified in the book—in short, the term “spring” captures the sense of newness that accompanies all forms of public action, especially “revolutions.”
Actions taken in the public sphere also form the core of civic entrepreneurship and the backbone of the grassroots. Natality or newness is, as such, a critical element of the story I am telling about regional events. This brings me to the real purpose of the book, which is to challenge conventional thinking about developments inside the Arab world. Unfortunately, certain narratives have long held sway over popular understandings about the Middle East. Right now those narratives paint the Arab Spring as a failure.
This book is meant to challenge those perspectives by presenting a view that is fact-based and rigorously defended through primary and secondary sources
What alternative title would you give the book?
The Arab Revolution Is Happening at the Grassroots
How do you feel about the cover?
Don’t judge a book by its cover. That’s all I’ll say about that.
Is there a book out there you wish you had written?
I would have loved to write Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition. Arendt was a political theorist who came of age in Germany during the 1920s. Trained as a philosopher (she was a student of Martin Heidegger and also his lover), Arendt, who was Jewish, was forced to leave Germany in the early 1930s, as Hitler rose to power. World War II was an important influence on Hannah Arendt, and is reflected in her writings, which focus on topics like totalitarianism and violence.
In The Human Condition, which is arguably her greatest work, Arendt examines human existence and argues that involvement in politics, which is achieved through public speech and action, is among the highest achievements in life. I have a Master’s degree in political theory and have been a long time admirer of Arendt’s theories on people and politics. Her work, particularly in The Human Condition, was a major influence on my thinking about the Arab Spring and forms a substantial part of the theoretical section of my book.
What’s your next book?
That’s like asking a person when she’s going to have her next child. I’m pretty focused on raising this one right now. But, I definitely wouldn’t rule out number two at some point.