Upheavals in the Middle East: The Theory and Practice of a Revolution
by Ronen A. Cohen
(Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2014) 318 pp.

Reviewed by Gianni Del Panta, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Siena, Siena, Italy

The uprisings that swept through the Arab world in 2010 — Eleven have triggered an endless cascade of studies on the region. This is not surprising, considering that not only these events took the world by surprise but also represented the greatest political shift on the international scene since 1989. However, for several and obvious reasons, writing while events are still ongoing is never wise. Seen in this light, the first and important merit of Ronen Cohen’s book is exactly to avoid the tempting just-in-time mantra, which has rapidly spread from economic markets to universities in the last years.

The book aims to analyze succeeded and failed revolutions in the Middle East during the twentieth century. As is often the case, the first part of the text is dedicated to review the findings of previous researches and provide the theoretical framework to examine the single case studies. In this regard, two elements pointed out by the author deserve the attention of scholars and revolutionaries alike.

Firstly, a revolution is never carried out by a single force. In order to succeed it requires the coming together of several groups that, although they can agree on little more, are animated by the profound desire of “toppling the current regime, by any means” (p. xii). Furthermore, as soon as the uprising is successful, the various groups composing the so-called negative coalition usually start fighting each other to take control of power. As brilliantly underlined by Cohen “a revolution cannot avoid this situation and its success depends more and more on the relative power of the parties that have brought about the revolution” (p. 30). In particular, the presence of a cohesive party is often crucial to lead the country towards a new political era. Secondly, while the social-structural tradition that emerged as dominant in the discipline in the 1970s and 1980s has highlighted that revolutions happen and are not made, diminishing therefore the role played by leaders, Cohen, on the contrary, believes that no revolution can take place “without the spiritual guidance” provided by intellectuals and clericals (p. 35). This is not to say that economic crises and their social consequences are not important for the author. Actually, they are often the structural trigger of a revolution. Yet, we should also try to find other elements that “together with economic fragility, will help us reveal the other catalysts of social change” (p. 12).

In the second section, seventeen case studies from a range of Muslim and Arab States are analyzed in full detail, providing a sophisticated investigation of the reasons that have determined the outburst – and often the failure – of many revolutions in the Middle East in the last decades. Consulting many sources, some of these also in Hebrew and Arabic, Cohen’s research is impeccable and all those interested in the region will certainly find value in the volume. In particular, whereas the bulk of the studies, especially after the recent Arab upheavals, has been concentrated on some pivotal states (first and foremost, Egypt), Cohen’s book is also able to take into account not only less investigated cases (for instance, Sudan), but also non-Arab countries (from Turkey to Iran, up to Afghanistan). The result is a broad and convincing picture of (nearly) all the Middle East.

Having said that, this does not mean that the book is completely empty of problematic aspects. Arguably, the extraordinary complexity of the theoretical framework adopted is the most serious one. In the first part, Cohen introduces sixty-eight parameters, which are then reduced to sixteen and split into two tables in the conclusion. Nevertheless, readers can easily find themselves lost in dealing with dozens and dozens of abbreviations throughout the book. Moreover, this leads to the lack of a clear identification of those elements that are necessary to the development of a successful revolution. The absence of theoretical parsimony is probably the effect of a too generic definition of revolution, which is restricted to the political field without including the social sphere. In other words, exactly because “fundamental and drastic changes within the political code” can be brought about by “revolts, coups, protests, and rebellions” Cohen deals with a wide range of events that, in turn, forced him to introduce an astonishing number of elements (p. 23 e 247). However, these critical aspects do not invalidate the high quality of a research that offers a new way to look at the Middle Eastern revolutions of the twentieth century and provides valuable insights to understand a region that remains problematic and fascinating like no others.