My interest is partly due to the influence of a brother in law, Ali Bouanba, a Muslim from Morocco. He married my sister who I always thought the most independent minded of all my siblings. One Christmas I asked my sister what would be a good present for him and she suggested a particular book. I bought the book a few weeks ahead of time and decided to read it. It was about Palestinians and although I had been a bit sympathetic this opened my mind. I didn't get to know him until years later when on trips to Halifax I took a stop on the south shore of Montreal where my sister's family lived and over years went out of my way to drop by. He illustrated Arab hospitality at its best. On one trip I remember meeting some friends that had come from Ali's birth place, Safi, Morocco. The friend was a banker working in Quebec. I enjoyed the conversation. Like Ali, Abdul was at least tri-lingual speaking Arabic, French and English. Their five year old son seemed surprised I didn't speak French. On another trip Ali made a suggestion that changed my life. He pointed out that a Quebec francophone trying to sell in Ontario would not do very well, but an Anglophone like myself could make a go of it in Quebec and he proved to be correct. Read: http://www.therealjohndavidson.com/2012/07/travels-of-salesman-part-3-quebec.html
Noah has an understanding of Arabic and spent a few pages to point out that there was a feeling of Arabness that were part of the thinking, but that the dynamics broke down to national boundaries. In most cases the underlying goal was merely to get rid of an autocratic ruler. Essentially the Arab populace was looking for jobs, freedom and social welfare, not necessarily democracy. American failures in Iraq weakened its image in Arab world.
Egypt, the largest Arab country was successful in ridding itself of the dictator Mubarek, but then two years later threw out his replacement and returned to a military dictatorship. Noah identifies a number of the population that played a role: Islamists, military and the Egyptian liberal elites. He claims the Muslim Brotherhood played little in the initial protests, but that in fact they were the most organized of any political faction. In effect the liberals were the major part of the Tahrir Square protests of 2011 after which the military decided in their best interests to force Mubarek out as it turned out they resented his son who was slated to take over the dictatorship. Elections were forced and Muslim Brotherhood were best suited to win control of the government. Unfortunately although they won by only a slim margin they were not inclined to involve other political factions and in turn infuriated the liberal elites. Although democratically elected, Morsi had lost the support of enough Egyptian people that the army felt confident enough to replace Morsi with their own choice, Sisi. My summary is admittedly over simplified but in essence is what happened.
Syria has been ruled for several decades by two members of the Alawite sect. Alawites are only 15% of the population and thus they have been careful to maintain control. France when it ruled over Syria played one ethnic group against another. Syria gained support from the Soviet Union and later Russia and when Israel attacked the P.LO. in Lebanon they had American support, making the battles a proxy war. Not willing to make concessions to the majority Sunnis. Assad was able count on support of Russia and Iran when he turned the conflict into the Syrian Civil War.
The Syrian Civil War freed up Sunni areas and elements organized into ISIL or ISIS to capture this area and later expand into Iraq. They attracted Muslims and Arabs from all over the world who saw their goals as a sort of Arab Utopia. Violent elements controlled the movement, but eventually attracted opposition from the Russians, Americans and Kurds. They too failed at least in part as they were unwilling to consider the wishes of the people already living in the conquered areas.
Tunisia where the Arab Spring originated when Mohammed Bouazizi burned himself to death in protest the circumstances were more favorable. Tunisia lacked oil wealth that concentrated wealth to particular individuals and had traditions that favored both democracy and secularism. Different elements sought consensus. Two assassinations shook the situation, but in some ways spurred the search for consensus. By 2014 Tunisia became the first functioning democracy in the Arab speaking world. It is still precarious because the economy did not significantly improve, meaning unemployment was still a concern.
The author has told us the failures of the Arab spring, but feels although discouraging there was one success (as of the writing). Examining the differences to suggest future efforts. He thinks the winter may last a long time, but eventually another spring will come. The rest of us need to reflect on the fragile Tunisian success and do what we can to nurture it. This is only a crude summary of what Noah Feldman wrote.