Dispatches from the Arab Spring: Book Review

Dispatches from the Arab Spring: Understanding the New Middle East. Edited by Paul Amar and Vijay Prashad. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013. Pp. 391, with bibliography and index. $22.95. ISBN: 9780816690121.

Dispatches from the Arab Spring: Understanding the New Middle East, edited by Paul Amar and Vijay Prashad, is comprised of fourteen chapters, each covering a country in the Middle East and their varying degrees of participation in the Arab Spring of 2011 and beyond. Amar and Prashad have gathered essays from scholars, journalists, and activists that highlight their intimate knowledge of the country they are covering. The aim of Amar and Prashad is to “offer a comprehensive reintroduction to the entire region” (Amar, viii) and not just countries that were most discussed by mainstream media. To that end, they cover countries not typically thought of as Middle Eastern, such as the Sudan. The work of the book is also to acknowledge the scope of the Arab Spring beyond those initial moments of 2011 to emphasize the continual change happening in the region. They posit this scope is made up of three moments: Arab Spring, Arab Winter, and Arab Resurgence (Amar, xi). These moments happen at different times and ways, depending on the country in question. Most importantly, Amar and Prashad selected authors who would highlight “the stories from below that give us a sense of where these revolts came from, nudged on in the conjuncture by each other but driven by the structural forces that affect each society and each nation differently” (Amar, xiii). In doing so, several of the authors use interview material collected on the ground for their arguments. The book covers the countries in order of their entrée into the Arab Spring. In order they are: Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, and Sudan.

As one might expect, the chapters vary in length and detail that often times correlates to the level of uprising that happened in each country. One finds lengthy chapters on Egypt, Libya, Syria, and, interestingly, Sudan. Each of these chapters would be an excellent primer on these countries for those not intimately familiar with their rich histories.

While the shorter chapters tend to cover countries that had small, easily quelled uprisings or no uprising at all, that is not true of the chapter on Tunisia. The chapter on Tunisia, the first in the book, is an excellent way to introduce the reader to this book and its aims. This chapter is the most hopeful in the book and clearly lays out why Tunisians turned against Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

As one reads the book certain themes about the reasons behind the Arab Spring begin to emerge. None of these themes are particularly groundbreaking but they do bear repeating for those who believe the uprisings are only to usher Islamists into power. In fact, one of the more powerful themes that emerge is that elevating Islamists to positions of power is often not what the people want. Other themes on why Arabs revolted include: dissatisfaction among younger generations across the Middle East, lack of access to education, lack of access to jobs, rampant corruption amongst leaders often too strongly tied to the West, the desire of those in power to do whatever it takes to maintain power, and lack of democratic elections. A very powerful theme that emerges is one in which certain Middle Eastern countries, such as Saudi Arabia, involve themselves in the uprisings of other Arab countries in order to quell uprisings. An additional theme worth noting is that of groups previously opposed to each other, such as women’s groups and Islamists, working together to overthrow their repressive governments. Often these mergers were short-lived but that they happen at all and in several different countries is often pivotal to the success, or lack thereof, of the uprising. A final theme that is touched on revolves around the influence of social media on the Arab Spring. Many essay authors address social media in different ways. However, the general consensus is that while social media was important, it was not a determining factor in most Arab Spring uprisings. Social media was used as a tool to spread messages and gather support but it is not the reason behind uprisings across the Middle East.

The one shortcoming of the book is that it is a snapshot of a very specific period of time. This book, published in 2013, is already out of date in terms of many of its predictions for the Middle East. There is no mention of ISIS and the chapter on Syria, while excellent for 2013, is in need of an update. In fact, I would enjoy reading an updated version of this book. I recommend this book for any academic library. This collection of essays could be incredibly useful to undergraduates, graduate students, and scholars in need of a well-written secondary source.

Jaleh Fazelian
John Carroll University