The "Arab Spring" shook the world in 2011, revealing profound dissatisfaction throughout the Middle East and North Africa, as people throughout the region took to the streets demanding dramatic political change. The uprisings have been analyzed by scholars, journalists, and other observers of the region from many angles, but the ideas of the revolution have received comparatively less attention. In her pathbreaking book, Enlightenment on the Eve of Revolution: The Egyptian and Syrian Debates
(Columbia University Press, 2019), Elizabeth S. Kassab shows her readers that the demands for human dignity, freedom, and political participation had been robustly discussed by intellectuals in Syria and Egypt during the 1990s and 2000s. She examines how debates about tanwir
, or “enlightenment” in English, unfolded under the thumb of powerful, omnipresent states. By exploring the rich intellectual and cultural contexts of these tanwir
debates, Kassab firmly and persuasively rebuts the notion that calls for democratic reforms in the Arab world can be reduced to western mimicry. Instead, she argues that tanwiris
were in tune with a public that had grown increasingly dissatisfied with the status quo. Sadly, the same crucible that spurred calls for a renewal of civil society and political participation in Egypt and Syria has made achieving those goals extremely difficult. Enlightenment on the Eve of Revolution
is a timely account of an ongoing struggle for freedom and justice in the Middle East and an invaluable contribution to a growing literature on Arab intellectual history.
Dr. Elizabeth Suzanne Kassab
is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies in Qatar, where she also heads the philosophy program. In addition to her teaching, Dr. Kassab has written extensively about Arab Intellectual History, including her previous book, Contemporary Arab Thought: Cultural Critique in Comparative Perspective
Joshua Donovan is a PhD candidate at Columbia University's Department of History. His dissertation examines national and sectarian identity formation within the Greek Orthodox Christian community in Syria, Lebanon, and the diaspora.