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Book Review: Unfinished Revolutions: Yemen, Libya, and Tunisia after the Arab Spring by Ibrahim Fraihat

Book Review: Unfinished Revolutions: Yemen, Libya, and Tunisia after the Arab Spring by Ibrahim Fraihat

During the Arab Spring uprisings, people in various Arab countries succeeded in overthrowing their authoritarian leaders. But, as Ibrahim Fraihat notes in the introduction to his book Unfinished Revolutions: Yemen, Libya, and Tunisia after the Arab Spring, “[w]hat [these populations] did not foresee…was that the removal of power structures in this fashion – even though they were dictatorial and repressive – would open a Pandora’s Box.”

Focusing on Yemen, Libya, and Tunisia, Fraihat’s book aims to illuminate the transitional process in post-Arab Spring states. The book examines the constitutional reforms pursued by these three countries, as well as the resurgence of unresolved conflicts. The book’s main assumption is that post-Arab Spring countries must undertake a comprehensive reconciliation process, in order to achieve lasting stability and peace. While Fraihat acknowledges that Tunisia is, at least, a temporary success story, it has, along with the other two countries examined in his book, been been beset by ethnic, regional, and religious divisions that reemerged following the Arab Spring.

Divided into three sections, Part I of the book provides background information on the three countries and summarizes political and social divisions particular to each. Part II, which is the main section of the book, explains the various approaches to national reconciliation these nations should follow. Finally, Part III describes the actors, domestic and international, that could help with the transition process.

While Fraihat’s book provides some valuable insights, it ultimately fails to fully grasp or solve the deepest challenge facing these transitional countries: the nation-state model.  

Democracy Need Not Be the Sole End Goal

At the outset, Fraihat notes that democracy need not be the end goal for post-conflict states, observing that “democracy is certainly one option, but not the only one.”

In this sense, Fraihat is at odds with mainstream thought on post-revolutionary transitions, which treats “democracy” as the prime objective of political revolutionaries. Professor Patricia Bauer’s collected volume Arab Spring Challenges for Democracy and Security in the Mediterraneanfor example, describes the Arab Spring upheavals as “revolutions for democracy.” Similarly, Professor Ahmed Abushouk’s essay on the Arab Spring, for the Digest of Middle East Studies, presents the post-revolutionary transition process as the “fourth wave of democratization.”

In Fraihat’s view, these accounts inaccurately present democracy as the zenith of all human progress. When it comes to the Arab Spring, these theories, he argues, ignore the fact that the uprisings “were leaderless, motivated at the grassroots level, and lacked a theoretical framework to guide their progress.” In most of these cases, he posits, democracy was not the primary end goal of the uprisings. Nevertheless, he concedes that, since the ousting of their dictators, Arab Spring countries, like Yemen, Libya, and Tunisia, have sought to establish some kind of representative government, suggesting that democracy was an objective among many others.  

The remainder of the book focuses on how these countries can successfully move from their authoritarian pasts to a more representative future.

Fraihat’s Prescriptions

Fraihat’s book is based on four years of field research in Yemen, Libya, and Tunisia, including interviews with key individuals including “government officials, heads of political parties…militia leaders, tribal leaders, … former regime loyalists,” and representatives of civil organizations. The book’s primary contribution to existing work on transitional justice is in exploring these indigenous experiences with reconciliation.

Fraihat argues that, in post-conflict societies, the unraveling of the social contract has exposed tensions that had been inadequately addressed, which threaten political reform. The three countries Fraihat examines confirm his hypothesis. In Yemen, the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who unified North and South Yemen in 1990, has exposed existing polarizations and discord within the country. The increasing importance of Yemen’s North-South split has made it difficult to institute necessary political, social, and economic reforms. Indeed, the ongoing civil war is, in part, a direct result of the North-South divide.

In Libya, Muammar Qaddafi’s ouster unleashed tribal factionalism, which had previously been suppressed or, at least, controlled, sending the country into civil war and dividing it into several, self-governing regional enclaves. Attempts to hold former regime members accountable for past crimes have developed into a drive for revenge and retaliation against anyone affiliated with the Qaddafi regime, further dividing the country.

In Tunisia, a relatively stable transition following the removal of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali made the country a “beacon of hope.” As Fraihat points out, the country’s two national dialogues helped “leading political parties forge compromises on its constitution and transitional justice law,” and the resulting 2014 constitution “was hailed as the most progressive in the Arab World.” Nevertheless, these successes were tenuous. As Fraihat notes, violent clashes between extremist groups and the army have exacerbated divisions between ultra-conservative Salafis and secular liberals in recent years, creating fear of a possible security crisis.

National Reconciliation to Achieve a Comprehensive Solution

Fraihat argues that a post-revolutionary, transitional process must include a substantive national dialogue that aims to establish the “truth” about the past, redresses the grievances of victims of state violence and repression, ensures members of the ancien régimeare held accountable for their crimes, and restructures the institutions of government to ensure that the abuses of past dictators are not reproduced. To succeed, Fraihat argues that civil society groups, including women’s organizations and tribal factions, must participate in the transitional process.

To remedy the failures of transitional justice in Libya, Yemen, and Tunisia, Fraihat recommends that rival political factions be brought together to establish a new social contract. To achieve this, past grievances that have divided these groups must be addressed. Once reconciliation has been achieved, national priorities must be demarcated and ranked, and a constitution that embodies the new social contract must be ratified. Fraihat believes this process will ensure the new social contract benefits most sectors of society, ensuring that political reforms enjoy support from the population.  

Frahait concedes that these new political arrangements will not satisfy all groups, most notably, members of the ancien régime. While he acknowledges there are no objectively good remedies for this problem, he suggests the best solution “is to find a balance between the draconian Nuremberg process and national amnesia.”

Limitations of the Prescriptions

A key limitation of Fraihat’s book is its failure to convincingly explain how Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen can actually resolve the internal issues dividing their populations. While he insists transitional processes must be sensitive and specific to each country, Fraihat remains focused on conventional Western-centric models of conflict resolution, which reduce and oversimplify the realities of post-revolutionary states.

In his analysis, Fraihat also assumes that all parties in the states he examines are seeking a stable, inclusive nation-state. This, however, ignores arbitrary national borders produced by colonial legacies. In his book, A History of the Arab People, Albert Hourani explains that attempts at national reconciliation in the Arab world must grapple with how demarcations of colonial geography have made a shared sense of nationhood hard to achieve. Similarly, veteran war correspondent Scott Anderson succinctly argues that the “lack of an intrinsic sense of national identity” in the “fractured lands” of Libya and Yemen is not simply a consequence of the Arab Spring, but a genuine socio-political problem that must be addressed on its own merits.

Insisting on a “comprehensive reconciliation process” to forge an “inclusive” identity ignores the complex tribal, ethnic, and communal intricacies that existed in Arab Spring countries before colonialism’s arrival, as Professor Nazih Ayubi observes in his bookOver-Stating the Arab States. “Warlord politics” in Libya, as discussed by Professor Philippe Droz-Vincent, as well as “kinship networks” in Tunisia, described by former President of the American University in Cairo, Lisa Anderson, pose challenges for Western conflict resolution theory. Non-state actors in these states may want a more substantial governance role than the nation-state model can accommodate. For these reasons, development consultant Helen Lackner argues that post-conflict transitions must shift away from a narrow emphasis on state institutions and electoral antagonism to more indigenous forms of governance.

Fraihat’s treatise on national reconciliation offers a remarkable addition to the literature on transitional states. Few researchers have delved so deeply into examining post-conflict reconciliation in the context of the Arab Spring, let alone conducted extensive, on-the-ground research with a robust theoretical foundation. Nevertheless, Fraihat’s proposed solutions for transitional Arab Spring states would have benefited from a deeper understanding of the enduring colonial legacies in these countries and the ways in which the nation-state model may, like democracy, be but one amongst a series of possible end goals.

This article originally appeared in (@MuftahOrg) and can be found here. It has been republished with permission.

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