Robert Worth, A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil,
From Tahrir Square to ISIS
The upheaval known as the Arab Spring began on December 17, 2010, when a Tunisian street fruit vendor, Muhammed Bouazizi, doused his body with gasoline and burned himself. The 26-year old had been distraught over confiscation of his cart and scales by municipal authorities, ostensibly because he lacked a required work permit. Pro-democracy protests throughout Tunisia began almost immediately after Bouazizi’s self-immolation, aimed at Tunisia’s autocratic ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Bouazizi died 18 days later, on January 4, 2011. On January 14, 2011, Ben Ali, who had fled to Saudi Arabia, resigned the office he had held since 1987.
In less than two weeks, pro-democracy demonstrations against Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s strongman president since 1981, took place on Cairo’s Tahrir Square. On February 11, 2011, Mubarak too resigned his office. By that time, protests against ruling autocrats had broken out in Libya and Yemen. On March 14, 2011, similar protests began in Syria. Before the end of the year, Yemen’s out-of-touch leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, President of North Yemen since 1978 and of Yemen since the North’s merger with South Yemen in 1990, had been forced to resign; and Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, who had ruled Libya since 1969, was driven from office and shot by rebels. Of the region’s autocrats, only Syria’s Bashar al-Assad still clung to power, and his days too appeared numbered.
The era of dictators and despots was over in the Middle East, or so it seemed. The stupefying departures in a single calendar year of four of the Arab world’s seemingly most firmly entrenched autocrats prompted many exuberant souls, myself included, to permit themselves to believe that finally, at last, democracy had broken through in the Middle East. Some went so far as to compare 2011 to 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and countries across Central and Eastern Europe were suddenly out from under Soviet domination.
But, as we now know, 2011 was no 1989: the euphoria and giddiness of that year have turned to despair. Egypt’s democratically elected president, Muhammad Morsi, was deposed by a military coup and the current government seems as ruthlessly autocratic as that of Mubarak. Assad holds on to power in Syria amidst a ruinous civil war that has cost hundreds of thousands lives and shows few signs of abating. Yemen and Libya appear to be ruled, if at all, by tribal militias and gangs. Only Tunisia offers cautious hope of an enduring democratic future. And hovering over the entire region is the threat of brutal terrorism, represented most terrifyingly by the self-styled Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS.
For those wondering how such high initial hopes could have been so thoroughly dashed, and for those simply seeking to better their understanding of what happened, Robert Worth’s A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, From Tahrir Square to ISIS, should be prescribed reading. A former Middle East correspondent for the New York Times, Worth takes his readers on a personally guided country-by-country tour of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria, places that seemed so promising in early 2011, with roughly half the book devoted to Egypt. As his title indicates, Worth also addresses the rise of ISIS to become what he terms the “great menace of a new age . . . capable of inspiring people as far away as France or even California to murder in the name of God” (p.231).
Not least among the many virtues of Worth’s perspective upon the various iterations of the Arab Spring is that he does not seek to wrap them into a grandiose overall theory that would explain how the hopeful vision of 2011 unraveled. Although the early message of the Arab Spring now “appears to have been wholly reversed,” Worth writes, each country he treats “fell apart in its own way” (p.4). Worth focuses on the indigenous forces that propelled the uprisings of 2011, rather than the “mostly secondary” (p.12) role of the United States and European powers. His book is not intended to be a comprehensive history of the Arab Spring but rather, as he puts it, a “much more selective effort to make sense of the fallout”(p.12). He argues that the Arab world had “never built a peaceful model for political succession” and that the pro-democracy activists of 2011 were “spectacularly unprepared for upheaval” (p.8).
Worth’s perspective sustains its momentum through personal stories of individuals who experienced the Arab Spring, in a manner reminiscent of Adam Hochschild’s account of the Spanish Civil War, Spain in Our Hearts, reviewed here last month. But unlike Hochschild, Worth portrays men and women he had met and worked with: his professional contacts, acquaintances and, in some cases, personal friends. Their stories humanize the regional upheaval, underscoring its complex and tragic character.
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Worth was present almost from the beginning of the January 2011 anti-Mubarak demonstrations on Cairo’s Tahrir Square, and he writes about them more as a participant than as a journalist observer. He recounts his experience through the eyes of Pierre Siaufi, a 49 year old, 300 pound “slacker and bohemian . . . a benevolent Arab version of Allen Ginsberg” (p.17-18). Siaufi turned his disheveled apartment near Tahrir Square into “ground zero,” the nerve center of the largely leaderless anti-Mubarak protests. The demonstrators included groups and classes that had previously viewed one another with distrust: Facebook and social media savvy youth, middle class liberals and intellectuals, secularists, Christians and Muslims – including the long suppressed Muslim Brotherhood – even, Worth notes, street vendors from Cairo’s slums and some notorious soccer hooligans.
For a short period, the unlikely grouping on Tahirir Square seemed almost impossibly united:
There was an emotion in the air that encompassed all of us, made us feel we’d shed our old skins and the past was irrelevant . . . [There was] a sudden shift in perspective, as if Earth had tilted on its axis, allowing you to miraculously see truths that had been hidden from you all along. The tyrant, once vast and august, was now revealed as a laughable old fool . . . Most of all, there was the passionate insistence that the revolution would triumph, that justice would replace injustice, that the country’s problems – its sectarian hatreds, its corruption, its terrorist gangs – were all artificial, trumped up, the cynical props of the old regime. All of it would fade away now that the people were empowered (p.19-20).
Yet Worth’s gut feeling was that this exuberance could not last. He summarizes in italics the views of those around him, which seem to be his own as well: “I know these things are not true. But perhaps, if we will them with enough conviction, they will come true someday” (p.20).
Worth’s gut proved right. The heady moment on February 11, 2011, when Mubarak stepped aside, led to an Islamic ascendancy, resulting in the election and disastrous presidency of Muhammad Morsi. Morsi represented Egypt’s infuriatingly complex Muslim Brotherhood, a “religious movement seeking democracy” but including a “more secretive element – with radical spin-offs – bent on implementing Islamic law” (p.132). Under Mubarak, the Brotherhood operated in a “legal shadowland” (p.132), subject to periodic mass arrests.
After Mubarak’s resignation, the Brotherhood indicated that it would not proffer a candidate for president. But with unexpected success in parliamentary elections in late 2011, it reversed itself. Morsi, a stubborn organization man with few political skills, was elected president in June 2012. Worth contrasts Morsi with Brotherhood member Muhammad Beltagy, a thoughtful medical doctor in Cairo’s slums, with skills at mediation and conciliation far exceeding those of Morsi. Beltagy “always looked as if he’d been up all night negotiating a truce and emerged victorious at dawn” (p.128), Worth writes. He suggests that Beltagy might well have avoided the catastrophic consequences of the Morsi presidency had he been willing to serve.
A decree which Morsi issued in November 2012, granting him broad powers above the courts as the “guardian of the revolution,” precipitated large scale protests and set the stage for the bloody military coup orchestrated by General Abdelfattah al Sisi that deposed Morsi in July 2013, with the support of many secularists and liberals who had previously joined with the Brotherhood in opposing Mubarak. Once in power, Sisi brutally suppressed pro-Islamist demonstrations and arrested most of the Brotherhood leadership. Almost overnight, the Brotherhood went from the “summit of power to the status of a terrorist group” (p.167). Many Brotherhood members fled the country, with some joining ISIS to fight in Syria and Libya. Beltagy’s daughter was killed in one of the demonstrations and Beltagy found himself jailed and sentenced to death under the military regime.
Worth places responsibility for the failure of Egypt’s democratically elected government squarely upon Morsi and his “pigheadedness” (p.152), which alienated even his own cabinet ministers. When faced with organized opposition to his regime, Morsi “sounded as brittle and intransigent as any ancient regime tyrant. He blamed it all on a ‘fifth column’ and refused to give any ground. He wrapped himself in the flag just as Mubarak had, warning against hired thugs and saboteurs, never acknowledging the depth of the anger he had provoked” (p.147).
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By mid-2011, Tunisia, where the Arab Spring had begun, appeared to be heading in the same calamitous direction as Egypt. In the first parliamentary elections since the uprising, Ennahda, an Islamist party led by Rached Ghannouchi, won a plurality of seats. As in Egypt, the Islamist ascendancy in Tunisia caused alarm throughout the country. But Ghannouchi was the polar opposite of Egypt’s Morsi, a “philosopher-king” (p.207) within Tunisia’s Islamist movement who had lived abroad, spoke several languages, and was reluctant to demonize his political opponents. In August 2013, Ghannouchi began meeting secretly in Paris with the primary opposition leader, Beji Caid Essebsi.
Essebsi was Tunisia’s “ remaining elder statesman” (p.200), a rigorous secularist who had served as Interior Minister under Ben Ali’s predecessor, Tunisia’s post-World War II anti-colonialist leader Habib Bourguiba. Worth provides an affecting fly-on-the-wall account of the discussions between Tunisia’s “two grand old men” (p.221) — Ghannouchi was then 72, Essebsi 86. Although from opposite ends of the social spectrum and opposite sides of Tunisia’s sectarian divide, Ghannouchi and Essebsi found common ground and a way forward. By September 2013, they agreed that Ennahda would cede power to a caretaker government, while a new constitution could be considered.
In January 2014, Ennahada suffered major loses in parliamentary elections, with Essebsi’s secularist party winning a parliamentary majority. Essebsi was elected president and formed a coalition government with Ennahda. Two deadly terrorist attacks later in 2014 all but destroyed Tunisia’s critical tourist industry and threatened the coalition government, which bent but did not break. By mid-2015, the coalition government was “coalescing and planning reforms, albeit slowly. Most of the Islamists seemed to have come around to the belief in compromise and reconciliation. Leftists spoke optimistically about a working relationship with the people they’d once hoped to eradicate” (p.221).
The legacy to be granted to Tunisia’s two grand old men, Ghannouchi and Essebsi, remains to be determined, Worth concludes: “The idea that they achieved a historic synthesis, a reweaving of the country’s Islamic and Western ancestries, is an appealing one. And in many ways, Tunisia did seem to have pulled back from the crater’s edge in mid-2015” (p.221). But, five years after Mohamed Bouazizi’s death had set the Arab Spring in motion, most Tunisians “still hoped that their small country could be a model, spreading its dream of reconciliation across a region troubled by war and tyranny. They also knew the same winds could blow in reverse and smash everything they had built” (p.221).
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Protests against Yemen’s leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, began in the summer of 2010, but gained momentum after the events in Tunisia and Egypt in the winter of 2011. Saleh was a ruler who, as Worth puts it, brought corruption and manipulation to a “whole new level of cynicism and mastery” (p.98). In the Arab world’s poorest country, he managed to “rake off tens of billions of dollars in public funds for himself and his family” (p.98), becoming richer than Hosni Mubarak. Elevating blackmail into a “tool of the state,” Saleh’s greatest talent was for “corrupting other people . . . He made sure that every potential opponent had dirty money or blood on his hands, or both” (p.98-99).
By June 2011, anti-Saleh rebels had captured large portions of the country. When Saleh himself was injured in a bombing at a mosque, he fled to Saudi Arabia for treatment, leaving the country rudderless. In November, he officially resigned his office in exchange for a diplomatically brokered agreement providing him with immunity from prosecution. But the agreement failed to end the fighting among tribal factions. Tribal warfare, “widely viewed as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran” (p.240), continues to this day. Worth tells the story of Yemen through the eyes of Saeed, a grizzled and battered activist who had been fighting the Yemeni regime for four decades and provides the book’s best single line quotation. “I don’t want an Islamic state, I don’t want a Socialist state, I don’t want a one-party state,” Saeed said. “I just want a modern state” — which Worth defines as a “state where citizenship meant something, where the rule of law was respected” (p.100). Yemen is not there yet.
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Protests against Muammar Qaddafi in Libya began on February 15, 2011, four days after Mubarak’s fall. The protestors were “met with truncheons, and then with bullets; they picked up weapons almost at once” (p.38-39). Within days, the rebels had driven Qaddafi’s forces out and laid claim to almost half the country. By August 2011, Qaddafi was forced to flee Tripoli. He was captured and killed in October 2011. In a country where clan solidarity and the tradition of blood feuds run deep, Qaddafi left his countrymen with a void: “no army, no police, no unions, nothing to bring them together” (p.38). ISIS filled part of the void, founding a mini-state in portions of the country, amidst a civil war between competing militias that Worth describes as “so fragmented and mercurial that it defied all efforts to distill a larger meaning” (p.226-27). Libya had become an “archipelago of feuding warlords” (p.38).
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With Saleh’s resignation and Quaddafi’s death, Syria’s Bashar Assad was — and remains to this day — the last tyrant still standing, with a shaky hold on power amidst a civil war that has destroyed his country and produced one of the 21st century’s most severe humanitarian crisis. Anti-Assad demonstrations in Syria began after both Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia had been forced out of office, but was triggered by police mistreatment of teenagers arrested in the southern Syrian town of Daraa for writing antigovernment graffiti. Assad determined early on that he would not go down as easily as his Egyptian and Tunisian counterparts.
Worth presents the sectarian underpinnings to Syria’s civil war through the pairing of two bright women, both in their 20s from opposite sides of the country’s sectarian divide: Naura Kanafani, a Sunni Muslim; and her long-time best friend Aliaa Ali, an Alawite, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and supporter of fellow Alawite Assad. Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority, approximately 70% of its population, looks down on the impoverished Alawais as heretics and crude mountain people, Worth explains. But Assad’s father, Alawi military officer Hafez al Assad, became Syria’s autocrat-in-charge in 1971. When Hafez died in 2000, his son Bashar, described by Worth as “tall and angular. . . with a birdlike watchfulness and an elongated neck and head that made him look as if he’d been painted by El Greco” (p.67), succeeded him.
Bashar responded to the March 2011 protests by unleashing his “foot soldiers,” essentially Alawi thugs from the mountains, to counter the protesters. By the end of 2011, forces loyal to Assad were “using tanks and fighter jets to pound whole neighborhoods to rubble. . . [They were] massacring Sunni civilians in the their homes and leaving scrawled sectarian slogans on the doors” (p.68). Best friends Naura and Aliaa, for whom religious differences had previously been irrelevant, began to see the same events differently. Naura was aghast that the regime appeared to be killing innocent people wantonly, while Aliaa attributed such reports to “fake news.” Little by little, Naura and Aliaa began to define each other as the enemy. Their prior friendship “belonged to a world that no longer made sense” (p.95).
Throughout 2012, the Syrian conflict “spun outward. . . drawing in almost every country in the region and many beyond it” (p.86). The Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah and Shiite Iran supported Assad, with Russian backing. ISIS came into its own in Syria fighting Assad, and seized control of substantial portions of Syrian territory. Western-backed factions also fought Assad, finding themselves uncomfortably on the same side as ISIS. The first wave of anti-Assad rebels, the “urban young men and women who spoke of democracy,” gave way to “legions of young zealots who slipped across the border with holy war and martyrdom and on their minds” (p.80). These zealous migrants, including eager volunteers for suicide missions, helped ISIS become what Worth terms the “most powerful jihadi group in history” (p.175).
In mid-2013, Worth returned to Syria, where he had previously spent considerable time and nurtured numerous contacts. This time he barely recognized the country. “Half the country was behind rebel lines, in a zone where Western hostages were bought and sold and beheaded. Most of my Syrian friends had fled and were living in Europe or Beirut or Dubai” (p.87). By the end of 2014, the death toll in Syria exceeded 200,000, with huge waves of migration out of Syria, making their way through Turkey on “rickety boats to Greece and onward to Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, and Germany” (p.230). As a Sunni Muslim, Naura Kanafani was among the hundreds of thousands forced to flee Syria, escaping into Turkey on foot with her mother.
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Readers convinced that democracy cannot take hold and flourish in the Arab world – or in the Middle East, or in Muslim-majority countries – will have to dig deeply into Worth’s book to find support for their convictions, and they are unlikely to come up with much. Despite the dashed expectations of 2011, Worth’s dispiriting yet riveting account leaves his readers thinking – or maybe just hoping – that the yearning expressed by his Yemeni contact Saaed for a modern state is unlikely to recede across the Middle East.
Thomas H. Peebles
September 26, 2017