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Reviewed by Matthew Goldman, Swedish Research Institute-Istanbul
St. Martin's Press, 2016. 384 pages, $18.54, hardcover.
During Richard Nixon's visit to China in 1972, Premier Zhou Enlai famously declined to answer a question about the historical impact of the French Revolution, protesting that it was still too early to draw firm conclusions. Unfortunately for lovers of a good anecdote, the myth that emerged around Zhou's respect for the longue durée has recently been challenged by Chas Freeman, an American foreign service officer present at the meeting. According to his account, the question was mangled by the translator: Zhou apparently thought Nixon was asking about the 1968 Paris demonstrations that had taken place a mere four years earlier. If this version is true, then Zhou's answer was far from overly cautious. Four years is, in fact, a short period of time to properly evaluate the historical impact of a revolutionary political movement.
The Arab Spring protests began about four years before Shelly Culbertson undertook the research to produce The Fires of Spring. Although many pundits had already declared the Arab Spring a failure, Culbertson instead prefers to treat it as a work in progress. The book narrates the author's journey through the changing societies of the MENA region in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, mixing travelogue, personal reflection, historical digression, and descriptions of meetings with activists. The tour takes us through Tunisia, Turkey, Iraqi Kurdistan, Jordan, Qatar and Egypt to explore the impact of the Arab Spring protests and take stock of the present in order to better understand what may lie ahead.
The Fires of Spring is not an attempt at academic scholarship, polished professional journalism or (although the author has years of experience working on education and public policy with the RAND Corporation in Qatar) wonkish policy analysis. Rather, it is an informal and personal account of a trip through the post-Arab Spring region, reading more like a travel blog or a work of citizen journalism. In discussing the problems of MENA, the author speaks from a place of passionate engagement, producing a sympathetic narrative voice that could connect well with younger people. Readers of Middle East Policy might be most interested in this work as a possible assignment for a high school class or an undergraduate course on the Arab Spring. However, there are serious flaws in the text that prevent me from enthusiastically recommending this book.
First, some good points about Fires of Spring: Large sections of the text offer direct access to the words of local actors who had been at the forefront of the Arab Spring. The range of figures interviewed is impressive, including Sayed Ferjani from the Tunisian political party an-Nahda, Egyptian organizer and Google executive Wael Ghonim, Al Jazeera director Ibrahim Helal, Jordanian entrepreneur Fadi Ghandour, Egyptian journalist Lina Atallah from Mada Masr, and Egyptian novelist Ala al-Aswany of The Yaqoubian Building fame. Despite the varied contexts in which they speak, we hear these voices articulate many of the same sentiments: The region is changing culturally, politically and socially. New media groups like Al Jazeera and the social media are exposing people to fresh ideas, stimulating debates over formerly taboo political issues. The old models of governance are unsustainable. The reform process will take some time and has hit many setbacks, but is bound to progress in the long run even if it stumbles in the short term. One must weigh the benefits of demanding change against the dangers of political instability and proceed cautiously.
A number of these interviews are informative and engaging. Particularly interesting is Wael Ghonim's explanation of how his frustrations with the polarizing impact of Facebook during the Egyptian uprising led him to develop Parlio (recently merged with Quora), an online forum to promote evidence-based debates and political deliberation. The section on Jordan is also a good read, exploring how many activists felt themselves caught between the promise of reform and the threats of social instability and political Islam (dynamics covered in depth in Amaney Jamal's 2012 book, Of Empires and Citizens). The Tunisia chapter has strong points, although I wish that the author had posed sharper questions to the members of the new Tunisian government. However, it is still welcome to hear participants in the Arab Spring express themselves in their own words, and, on the whole, the interview sections are the strongest parts of the book.
Unfortunately, these strong points are offset by at least as many flaws. Those interested in the Arab Spring may find themselves frustrated by the book's willingness to stretch the concept almost to the breaking point. Consider this expanded definition: "If we consider the Arab Spring broadly to include replacing ineffective governments with optimistic investments for the future, even outside of the 2011 to 2013 years of protests, then the Arab Spring in Qatar might have started 20 years ago, in 1995, when Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, father of the current amir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, overthrew his father in a bloodless coup" (p. 195). While it is true that economic issues were a big motivation for the Arab Spring protests, to identify a palace coup from the 1990s in Qatar as part of the Arab Spring is to dismiss what was distinct about the actual Arab Spring. It was a citizen-driven protest movement that demanded political accountability and respect for the rights of citizenship in countries where such politics had long been harshly repressed.
This conflation of the Arab Spring with economic growth is particularly problematic given the impact that oil rents seem to have on political rights and state accountability. While there may be certain elective affinities between economic development and democratization, we possess too many examples — Qatar among them — of wealthy states successfully buying off citizens through the redistribution of rents rather than submitting themselves to political accountability at the hands of their people. Here the author should have at least briefly engaged with rentier-state theory, the old idea that revenue from oil or other natural resources grants such states a unique ability to resist democratization. Culbertson even reports this idea briefly during a conversation with Qatari poet Maryam al-Subaiey, who describes how the Qatari state provides services but does not also offer democratic rights. The author mentions that this argument reminds her of something Jordanian politician Marwan Muasher had once told her and leaves it at that (p. 212).
In addition to such analytical shortcomings, there is also a surprising abundance of factual errors, such as this mischaracterization of recent Turkish politics: "Turkish citizens rejected movements toward authoritarianism through their 2013 protests and later by denying the AK Party the majority in 2015 [sic] parliamentary elections. While the AK Party later regained the parliamentary majority, the message had been sent that the government is accountable to the people" (p. 297). Here she implies that the Gezi Park protests successfully led to a strengthening of Turkish democracy, accountability has been restored, and today all is well in Ankara. Unfortunately, this was far from the reality at the time of writing. The November 2015 elections to which she refers actually led to the further consolidation of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's power within the AK Party and the AK Party within the Turkish state. If the Gezi Park protests sent a message that the government is accountable to the people, it is a message that the AK Party leaders seem to have been happy to ignore in the wake of their victories in November 2015.
In discussions of history, we also encounter misinformed statements, such as the claim that the Young Turks and the "Committee on Union and Progress" [sic] were "youth movements" "not so different" from "events today" — by which the author apparently means the Gezi Park protests (p. 51). The Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), like the broader Young Turk movement with which it was identified, was not a youth movement in the contemporary sense of a youthful social movement but rather an elite military clique that took control of the Ottoman state after 1908 and oversaw the destruction of hundreds of thousands of innocent lives during World War I, including most of the Ottoman Empire's Armenian population. The adjective "Young" in "Young Turks" refers to their commitment to political modernization, not necessarily democratic, and not their actual physical youth. The difference between the CUP and the nonviolent protesters in Gezi Park could not be greater. This claim comes in the context of a conversation with a Turkish activist, and it is unclear whether the author is reporting his words (which seems highly unlikely) or is providing her own contribution. Whichever is the case, it is the author's responsibility to explain who is speaking (the author or an interviewee) and whether the claims put forth are accurate, so that the reader is not left misinformed.
A steady stream of more trivial mistakes mar sections that should simply give local color and will irk readers familiar with the places Culbertson describes. Her tour of Istanbul mistakenly claims that the Süleymaniye Mosque, like the Aya Sofya, is now a museum (p. 49), that there has been a bridge for pedestrians crossing the Golden Horn between Galata and Eminönü for 1,500 years (the first permanent bridge was built in 1845 [p. 49]), and that the author Orhan Pamuk grew up in the rough-and-tumble Istanbul neighborhood of Beyoğlu (he actually grew up in the upscale neighborhood of Nişantaşı [p. 62]). This last mistake is more troubling, as it appears in a section describing Pamuk's memoir Istanbul, a work that exhaustively discusses growing up in Nişantaşı. Although mostly minor, these and other factual errors take a cumulative toll and impede the quality of the reading experience.
The author is, no doubt, highly competent in her professional fields and, as her writing reveals, deeply concerned with the wellbeing of the people of the Middle East and North Africa. Unfortunately, despite these qualities, The Fires of Spring remains a flawed work. I suspect this speaks less to the author's ultimate limitations as a writer than to the editorial neglect that allowed this book to come to press in its current form. This dereliction of editorial duty is, I fear, a sad symptom of a distressed publishing industry that rushes books on hot topics to market while seeking to cut corners on reviewers, fact-checking and editing. This not only does a disservice to readers and authors, but even threatens to undermine the very status of the publishing industry itself. If readers are going to continue to spend their money on books instead of consuming free content online, it will be because publishers maintain certain editorial standards, not because they have beaten free online content in a race to the bottom.