Bader Alnutawa reviews The Political Economy and Islam of the Middle East: The Case of Tunisia, by Hayat Alvi, which focuses on the country’s political transition after the Jasmine Revolution. 

Cover for The Political Economy and Islam of the Middle East: The Case of Tunisia, by Hayat Alvi

The book, The Political Economy and Islam of the Middle East: The Case of Tunisia, by Hayat Alvi revolves around the context in the Middle East before and after the Arab Spring, with an emphasis on the author’s idea of the most successful Arab uprising. One can say that the book takes a constructivist approach by treating the Arab Spring as a series events that were led up to by a distinctive set of processes defined by a political economy bounded by Islam.

Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, there have been extensive studies on the historical perspective. A lot of literature analysed potential turning points that were overlooked, and they were mainly economic stagnation in countries with dictators leading them after coming to power in a post-colonial fashion. What Alvi does differently with her book is dismissing the usual thought that leaders who are secularists and authoritarians have no option but to repress the Islamic population at hand. Instead of what happened being an inevitable conclusion, Alvi’s argument is that the region’s political economy was due to an affiliation between dictators and Western governments that preferred them over Islamist alternatives.

At the beginning of the book, the hypothesis of Alvi is that the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia was somewhat positive in resolving a national conflict in a nonviolent fashion. She thinks that Tunisia was unique with that success due to being liberal before the revolution as opposed to other Middle Eastern states. In fact, there is heavy discussion in the first three chapters of the book about how Tunisians welcomed secularism deliberately compared to other states in the region. According to Alvi, this is an important difference as secularism made room for Islamic beliefs outside of legal limits that meant that protesting was not polarised violently. That is crucial since Alvi knows that Ben Ali’s 2011 collapse did not lead to a disturbing spike in fundamentalist Islamist groups like in other places in the Middle East since there was already room for regulated Islam and secularity established.

Alvi’s main argument is that Tunisia being peaceful was primarily because Tunisia already accepted the fact that religion and secularity can co-exist peacefully, which made Tunisia ready for the challenge that was yet to come shortly after that. What makes this argument very important is that it goes against the grain of what the literature leans towards, which she did by basically looking at Ben Ali’s demise as a political economy of the alliance of authoritarianism with the West instead of being a mere religious struggle against secularity. Because of that, the book dismisses theoretical convention, constructivism, and realism by considering the Arab Spring a grassroots movement that transformed into political strategy. Alvi also does something that is not usually heard of, which was commenting on the role of Tunisian women in the revolution and gender in the Middle East in general. The main effect of Alvi’s comments is showing how Middle Eastern women do have the capacity to make a change.

As a result, Alvi’s book gives the reader a breather from the incessant description of Middle Eastern women as repressed and powerless. In fact, the book states that women structured the Jasmine Revolution, making them crucial to its success and promoting women’s rights. Alvi’s theoretical framework is social choice theory in addition to qualitative and quantitative data analysis regarding Arab development. Alvi also refers to democracy theory to explain Tunisia’s one-of-a-kind situation within the Middle East. She is also not shy to discuss the importance of her work regarding how Tunisia can be taken as a model for success post revolution in the Middle East.

Alvi’s research on the Middle East was well done, especially because it went against the general consensus about the Arab Spring’s causes and the transition that came after. Eventually, the book displays the importance of balancing religion and secularity to avoid violence post revolution.

Bader Alnutawa is a postgraduate Politics student at the London School of Economics.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the International Development LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.