Small Wars Journal

Books to Read on the 2011 Arab Spring

The 2011 Arab Spring is one of those seminal events that could be compared to the 1968 riots, that gripped Europe and the United States, and which began to change the social consciousness of whole nations. But as events unfold there are many moving parts to the Arab Spring and this is not made any simpler by the rapid pace of Twitter™, Facebook™, and other forms of internet social media.  What is important is to immerse yourself in the intricacies and uniqueness of each country, including their leaders, despotic systems, centers of power, as well as external and internal influences before looking at regional and then geo-strategic impacts. As I write this review essay, there have been attacks on the Ba'th Party buildings by rocket propelled grenades, and in Egypt clashes between protestors and the Egyptian Army are on the rise.

Nikolaos Van Dam has written a highly sophisticated account of Syrian Ba’th regime under the Asad entitled, The Strugglle for Power in Syria: Politics and Society under Asad and the Ba’th Party, (New York: I. B. Tauris, 2011).  This 2011 edition is the fourth revised version of the book by the former Dutch Ambassador to Iraq, Egypt, Turkey and Indonesia.  Readers will understand that under the dictatorship of Syria’s Hafez al-Asad and currently of his son Bashar, the Ba’th Party is not monolithic, but has regional influences and party leaders in the Hama, Damascus, Latakia and the Ildib branches to name a few. Starting in March 1963 the book dissects a series of military coups and counter-coups balancing the points of view of Alawi (a Shiite minority sect) with non-Alawi (Sunni, Druze) officers.  By 1966, the purge of Druze officers from the Syrian Army was complete, leaving a struggle for control of Syria between the Alawis, represented by Hafez al-Asad, and Salah Jadid, a Sunni. This struggle had Jadid being undermined due to his rejection of pro-western Arab states, and Asad calling for a tahweel ishtiraki (socialist transformation) that would reintegrate Syria into the Arab world.  The book also highlights the rivalry between the Iraqi Ba’th and Syrian Ba’th with Radio Damascus referring to Saddam Hussein as “...the tribal tikriti, fascist clique!”  In the end Asad would develop a leadership cult balancing regional, sectarian, and tribal blocs using the Ba’th Party architecture to survive.  Page 145 contains an excellent bibliography of Syrian Ba’thist memoirs for the true specialist.

Steven A. Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations has published an excellent book that will help readers navigate the 2011 Egyptian Revolution.  The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012) was released early on in the revolution's timeline and provides an excellent introduction to the multi-dimensional nature of Egyptian politics. A political landscape long repressed by a series of military officers who rose to the presidency beginning with Muhammad Neguib in 1952, Nasser in 1954, Sadat in 1970, and finally Mubarak in 1981.  Readers will gain an appreciation for the leftist and liberal roots of the January 25, 2011 revolution and the events that brought this to a head.  Cook takes a multi-disciplinary approach to the revolution, discussing social, diplomatic, economic, political, and military factors that Egypt has faced since 1952. His section on the economy shows the erosion of a middle class, and a small minority of wealthy Egyptians completely isolated from the day to day suffering of the masses within Egypt. The section also highlights the rise of an alternative economy within the Egyptian military, which may control 40 percent of the country’s economy from military hardware and cell-phones to dairies and bakeries. When Sadat was President, bread riots were quelled only by the army baking bread to make up the demand.

The book contains an excellent synopsis of Gamal Mubarak, and the reasons he was let go from Bank of America for overt conflict of interest in the restructuring of Egyptian debt through Bank of America. His dismissal lead to the acquirement of commissions from his employer and the Egyptian state owned banks. Gamal Mubarak would be groomed to take over from his ailing father, a situation considered intolerable by large segments of the population including elements within the army. Cook explores the massive security apparatus of the state that has suppressed any real political and economic alternatives, leaving the perception that it is either the despotism of Mubarak or his cronies or that of the Muslim Brotherhood.  Businessmen allied with the Mubaraks would literally get away with murder, such as the 2006 sinking of the ferry Salam Boccaccio in which 1,100 people died, and the owner escaped a trial for gross negligence with the help of the regime and pay offs. The demonstrators in Tahrir Square would choose January 25th, 2011 specifically because this was Police Day, and the organizers wanted to highlight the hypocrisy of celebrating a police apparatus that tortures and humiliates its own people. Chapters in the book feature U.S.-Egyptian relations dating back from the Eisenhower all the way to the Obama administrations which correspond with Egyptian leaders from Nasser to Mubarak.  A highly recommended book.

Of note, in Spring 2012, Wael Ghonim will be publishing his account of the Egyptian Revolution in a new book, Revolution 2.0, (New York: Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt, 2012).  He is writing the book in Arabic and will be released in English on January 25, 2012, in time for the first anniversary of Tahrir Square. I look forward to reading about how the Google™ executive used technology to leverage the events of Tahrir Square and his experiences with the former Egyptian regime.