Rising Up in the Mideast

Voices of the Arab Spring by Asaad al-Saleh Columbia University Press, 2015

What It's About

This volume of short personal narratives, each penned by a different author, chronicles the hope-filled beginnings of the Arab Spring movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria. Some storytellers offer their thoughts on the history and circumstances that pushed their people to revolt; others simply take the reader through the swelling demonstrations, the brutal police crackdowns, and their own slow recognition of the moment's gravity. Through the accumulation of personal stories, the reader begins to experience the larger narratives of the Arab Spring. Tahrir Square in Cairo, February 2011. (PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images )

Target D.C. Audience

Secretary of State John Kerry, congressional foreign relations committee members, think-tankers, and any reader interested in how revolutions begin.

Best Line

From "The Moment the Barrier of Fear Broke Down," by Adel Abdel Ghafar, a 32-year-old activist from Cairo: "Revolutions are not hatched in smoke-filled rooms or by activists armed with Twitter and Facebook accounts; rather, revolutions are made by everyday people who are no longer afraid. That is the profound change that happened in Egypt on January 25. Egyptians, who had bowed down to their pharaohs for seven thousand years, simply said, no more."

To Be Sure

Of the five revolutions featured, only Tunisia's now seems to hold any hope of lasting, positive change. The stories in this book cover only the first year or so of each movement, however—so the writers don't know what's in store. This makes the optimistic tone of the tales heartrending in a way their authors likely did not anticipate.

One Level Deeper

Those who favor an interventionist U.S. foreign policy will note that a number of Libyan storytellers wrote about the importance—both strategic and moral—of the 2011 NATO operation there. In addition to dealing a heavy blow to government forces, they say, the intervention sent a powerful message to activists in that country and the entire region.

The Big Takeaway

Under the right conditions, a small spark can set off a political movement of unimaginable scale, pulling even the most apolitical into public squares.