Tag Archives: Saudi Arabia

Women Pressing For Seditious Ideas


Shirin Ebadi, Until We Are Free:

My Fight for Human Rights in Iran 


Manal Al-Sharif, Daring to Drive:

A Saudi Woman’s Awakening 

             Anyone with an elementary understanding of today’s world knows that there is a major geopolitical tug of war going on between Saudi Arabia and Iran, two regional powers competing for influence across the Middle East.  That same anyone knows that Saudi Arabia and Iran represent home bases for the two major branches of contemporary Islam: Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran.  And of course our anyone knows that Saudi Arabia is a close ally of the United States, whereas Iran is considered to be among the world’s rogue nations, a member of an “axis of evil,’ to use President George W. Bush’s memorable phrase.  Iran is the seat of the ancient and venerable Persian Empire; it became known officially as Iran only in the 1930s.  Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam’s two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, was carved out of vast tribal areas in the 1930s. Iran shocked the world in 1979 when it overthrew Shah Reza Pahlavi to establish what is formally known as the Islamic Republic, where ultimate power rests in the hands of a theocratic Supreme Leader. Saudi Arabia is ruled by the House of Saud, the “last significant absolute monarchy on earth” (p.12), to quote from Karen House’s incisive study of Saudi Arabia, reviewed here in October 2014.

          Within the last year, a woman from each published a noteworthy memoir detailing her struggle on behalf of human rights in her country: Shirin Ebadi, Until We Are Free: My Fight for Human Rights in Iran; and Manal al-Sharif, Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening.  Ebadi is a human rights lawyer who won a Nobel Prize in 2003 for her human rights work in Iran, especially on behalf of women, children and refugees. She was both the first Iranian and the first Muslim woman to receive the coveted award – and later became the first recipient to have her medal confiscated by the state.  Al-Sharif won international acclaim in 2011 for leading a campaign in Saudi Arabia to allow women to drive. That campaign landed the divorced single mother in a Saudi jail, arrested for what Saudi authorities termed, with no sense of irony, “driving while female.”  Just last month, the Saudi government announced that women will be immediately eligible to apply for drivers’ licenses, and will actually be permitted to drive on Saudi roads a mere nine months hence, in June 2018.

        The two authors are a generation apart: Ebadi was born in 1947, al-Sharif in 1979.  But they have much in common. Each is a devout, practicing Muslim. Throughout as-Sharif’s memoir, references to the Prophet Muhammad are invariably followed by PBUH in parenthesis, “peace be unto him.” Each has a deep love for her home country. “The story of Iran is the story of my life,” Ebadi writes at the outset of her memoir. “I am so attached to my country. . . [and] feel a duty to my nation that outweighs everything else” (p.3).  Al-Sharif expresses similar sentiments throughout her memoir.  Yet, today both live in exile far from home, Ebadi in Great Britain, al-Sharif in Australia.

        The two memoirs are of almost identical length. Although they tell very different stories, each author must confront the inescapable reality that in her home country, religion and the state are inextricably intertwined.  Shite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia may be fierce geopolitical rivals, with religious clerics in each dismissing the other’s brand of Islam as heretical.  But in both countries, Islamic law, norms and customs are the touchstone for governance, with individual rights and the rule of law brutally subordinated to perceived national interests.  Neither offers a hospitable environment for resourceful, independent women pressing for seditious ideas like human rights and full equality for all citizens.

* * *

          During the regime of Shah Pahlavi, Shirin Ebadi became a high-ranking judge in Iran, one of the country’s few female judges, even though she had opposed the regime.  Initially a supporter of the 1979 revolution, Ebadi quickly ran afoul of the new, radical Shiite regime. When ruling clerics determined that Islam prohibits women from serving as judges, she was stripped of her judgeship and demoted to the position of court clerk.  She then embarked on a far more perilous career course as a human rights lawyer, a niche within the legal profession which, to put it mildly, was destined to displease Iranian authorities.

          Ebadi used the money from her Nobel prize to found the Defenders of Human Rights Center, a focal point for work on human rights within Iran.  She led a movement to remove landmines remaining from Iran’s eight-year war with Iran, and to provide assistance to victims injured by the mines; she defended religious minorities facing discrimination in the fiercely Shiite republic: and she helped organize a movement termed the One Million Signature campaign, which focused on demonstrating how Iranian laws hurt women of all social classes and religious beliefs.  Her memoir gains momentum when one of its two major villains, Mohammed Ahmadinejad, was first elected president in 2005.

           Ahmadinejad freely used and abused religion to consolidate power. He unleashed religious extremists who filled the ranks of the state’s voluntary militias, “encouraging their most intolerant attitudes and giving them subtle signals that should they wish to punish those who deviated from their strict view of Islam, the state would not get in their way” (p.59). These extremists broke up anti-state lectures, set up check points to harass youth listening to Western music in their cars, and raided private parties where people might have been daring to have fun. At some point during Ahmadinejad’s first term, Ebadi went from being a thorn in the government’s side to what it considered an enemy of the state, part of a global conspiracy to undermine the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

           The task of following Ebadi and seeking to silence her fell to the memoir’s other major villain, Mr. Mahmudi, a particularly enterprising intelligence agent.  Mahmudi began watching Ebadi’s every move with an obsession that never waned. Because she was too visible and too powerful for the state to target directly, Mahmudi and his colleagues systematically undercut all the constituent pieces of her professional and personal life.  Hounded by Mahmudi, the Defenders of Human Rights Center was forced to shut down, closing the “main intellectual and social hub for those in Tehran working on civic activism” (p.103).

             When state authorities took away her daughter’s passport, it became clear to Ebadi that the state had started going after her family. “It wasn’t just content with me anymore. I had witnessed this over the years with many of my clients, dissidents and activists whose relatives suffered state intimidation, were hassled and threatened and sometimes blackmailed or imprisoned, all ‘collateral damage’ in the quest to get the original target – the dissident or activist or journalist in question – to drop their activities. It was the dirtiest of the methods the security agencies used, exploiting these families and their emotional ties” (p.126).

            The 2009 presidential election, pitting Ahmadinejad against reform candidate Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister, and one other candidate, proved to be a fateful turning point for Ebadi. Ahmadinejad’s popularity prior to the elections had “sunk abysmally; Iranians widely reviled him for ruining the economy and for the repressiveness of his rule” (p.131). Mousavi seemed to have a genuine chance to replace Ahmadinejad.  Yet, in an election widely considered to have been plagued with irregularities, Ahmadinejad was declared the winner after the first round with 62% of the vote.   Huge numbers of Iranians took to the streets to protest the results.

           Ebadi happened to be in Majorca at a conference in the immediate aftermath of the elections. Her husband and professional colleagues counseled against her returning to Tehran amidst the civil unrest and ensuing government crackdown.  As the crackdown continued, Ebadi came to the realization that should she return to her native country, her passport would surely be confiscated, she would likely be jailed, and perhaps even executed.  She therefore elected to stay abroad, relocating to London with her daughter, who had taken a job there.  But the attempts of Mr. Mahmudi and fellow state intelligence agents to destroy Ebadi intensified rather than diminished while she was out of the country.

          Most heartbreakingly, her husband of more than thirty years was the victim of a state sexual blackmail plot to place him in a compromised position with another woman, a former girlfriend prior to his marriage to Ebadi. The plot marked the beginning to the breakup of what had been a solid, loving relationship.  Disappointed that her husband had succumbed to the state-manufactured temptation, Ebadi writes that she was “even more furious, more floored, by the depth of evil of the intelligence agents. Their malice and cunning truly had no limit: they were prepared to do anything – crush people’s children, their marriage – to achieve their ends.”  She asked herself, “How much could they take away from one person? They had taken my judgeship, my entire life’s ambition; when I resurrected myself and built a human rights center, they took that too; with their violence and electoral fraud, I had lost my homeland.  And now they had tried to take away my husband” (p.166-67).

        Iranian tax authorities subsequently reinterpreted Iranian law to conclude that Ebadi owed taxes on her Nobel Prize, a matter that seemed clearly settled at the time the prize was awarded. This required Ebadi to sell what seems like a very comfortable Tehran apartment to pay back taxes, along with a rural property her family was particularly attached to. The amounts generated by the sale of the properties proved insufficient to satisfy the tax claims, and Ebadi became a formal debtor to the Islamic Republic. The secure family life Ebadi had known in Tehran was thus shattered beyond repair. She was hopelessly in debt to the state for alleged back taxes; she separated and then divorced her husband after 30 plus years of marriage; and state authorities briefly confiscated her Nobel medal, until the international outcry forced them to return it to her family.

            In London, Ebadi became active in the Centre for Supporters of Human Rights, supporting pro-democracy elements in Iran by working with other lawyers who had left Iran in the aftermath of the 2009 protests. The memoir ends with Ebadi in Britain, afraid that the intelligence services will target her directly for assassination there, something they had not quite dared to do directly while she was in Iran.  To this day, Ebadi has not returned to Iran.

        Although Ebadi’s memoir lacks detail on precisely why state intelligence services concluded that she was an enemy of the Islamic revolution, her outspokenness as an independent woman was clearly an affront to state authorities. Whether the state would have been quite so ferociously persistent with a male civil rights lawyer is left to the reader’s speculation, but the overall thrust of the 1979 Islamic Revolution has plainly been to try to redefine the status of women. Somehow, Ebadi emphasizes, Iran was able to retain a “burgeoning, vibrant women’s movement. . . [which] had managed to flourish, despite Ahmadinejad’s emergence” (p.68-69).  Literacy among Iranian girls and young women is nearly 99 percent, she indicates, and women make up over 60 percent of all university students.  “[I]f you walk the streets of any Iranian city at rush hour, you will see women streaming out of workplaces, boarding buses and subways alongside men. They are an active, engaged part of public life and they increasingly often serve as primary breadwinners in their households” (p.264).

        Iran has long suffered from honor killings, forced marriages, and domestic violence although, Ebadi notes, with “far less severity than many of its neighbors” (p.264). But the legal structure of the Islamic Republic, based on medieval interpretations of sharia law, “enshrines gender discrimination and violent punishments, including lashing and stoning . . . Iran remains a country where a man can marry up to four wives, where women face enormous challenges securing a divorce, and where a married woman cannot travel without the written permission of her husband.   The list of discriminatory laws that are unfit for Iran’s modern society is long” (p.254-55).  Ahmadinejad “singlehandedly snuffed out [Iran’s] women’s movement and, most dangerously . . . renormalized the idea that women should be open targets for the state and ordinary Iranians alike” (p.263).

           Consequently, the climate for women in contemporary Iran is “deteriorating by the day” (p.262).  Women can no longer work in Tehran’s cafés and restaurants; female musicians are no longer permitted to perform onstage; and female civil servants in Tehran are no longer permitted to work along side men, on the theory that “women working long hours outside the home in the company of male colleagues undermined family life” (p.262). Ahmadinejad instituted gender quotas in state universities, “making it impossible for women to study physics, chemistry, and tens of other subjects” (p.260).  In 2014, authorities in Tehran forbade women from watching the World Cup in public cinemas and cafés, particularly disappointing for young people. These moves were “part of a stealthy segregation plan, deployed piecemeal over time in and across different spheres, that threatened to remake public life in Iran and push women, who participated vibrantly despite the state’s myriad restrictions, to the margins” (p.262).  Treatment of women in Iran thus seems to be headed in a direction similar to that so firmly entrenched in its bitter geopolitical rival, Saudi Arabia.

* * *

          Manal al-Sharif’s memoir makes clear that the interdiction against driving is but one example of the almost unimaginable control and subjugation of women in Saudi Arabia. Saudi women need permission from male guardians to travel, obtain passports, enroll in school, sign contracts, or undergo medical procedures. Most public places, such as parks, beaches, and buses, are rigidly segregated, and public schools are both separate and blatantly unequal. In 2002, fifteen girls died inside a segregated girl’s middle school. The religious police, al-Sharif recounts, barred the girls from exiting through the front door because they were not following proper Islamic dress code. “When the school door was opened and they were finally carried out, it was as charred corpses” (p.66).  At another point in her memoir, al-Sharif describes how she was not allowed to board a public bus because she did not have a male guardian accompanying her. At that point, I screamed to anyone within earshot, using my most profane language, “At least they let Rosa Parks onto the bus, for crying out loud.”

            Yet, in a country ostensibly seeking to modernize, the Saudi ban on women driving stands out as both wildly inefficient and absurdly contradictory. Unless a husband or male family member is available, it requires women to rely upon a male taxi or hired driver for every trip of daily life, such as shopping, commuting to work or taking children to school, not to mention emergency trips to the hospital. Moreover, as al-Sharif points out:

[A] society that frowns on a woman going out without a man; that forces you to use separate entrances for universities, banks, restaurants, and mosques; that divides restaurants with partitions so that unrelated males and females cannot sit together; that same society expects you to get into a car with a man who is not your relative, with a man who is a complete stranger, by yourself and have him take you somewhere inside a locked car, alone (p.10).

            But al-Sharif’s memoir is about far more than her campaign to allow women to drive.  After beginning with her arrest and time in a Saudi women’s prison, it shifts back to tell her life story before finishing by focusing again on the driving campaign. Her story delivers powerful insight into the challenges of Saudi life, particularly for young and intelligent women.

         Al-Sharif grew up in Mecca, Islam’s holiest city, in sub-standard housing, without running water or a telephone. Her mother, born and raised in Egypt, attained only a fourth grade education. Her father was an illiterate Saudi taxi driver. Beatings were a regular part of her family upbringing, mostly by her father, occasionally by her mother. Her mother had a fiery temperament and late in life was diagnosed as a likely bipolar schizophrenic. Yet, she also had an uncommon belief in the value of education for her children, and instilled in al-Sharif a thirst for learning.  Al-Sharif excelled at the girls’ schools she attended.

            In one of the book’s most difficult passages, al-Sharif describes in gut-wrenching terms how she was “circumcised” at age 8, subject to female genital mutilation, a practice designed to protect girls from “‘deviant’ behavior by “removing her desire for sex” (p.57). It was a trauma from which she never fully recovered.  A few years later, when al-Sharif told her cousins about her first menstrual period, they “informed me that I could no longer talk to my male cousins, let alone play with them. If one of my male cousins wanted to a walk past where I was sitting, or even enter the house while I was there, I had to first be hidden out of sight” (p.88).  Saudi females, al-Sharif indicates, pass through two stages in their lives. “First, as young girls, they are supervised and monitored; then, as adult women, they are controlled and judged. Their first menstrual cycle is the abrupt turning point. There is no transition into adolescence” (p.89).

          Al-Sharif further complicated her adolescence through a religious conversion that lasted into her early 20s, becoming an ultra-devout, practicing Salafi Muslim. Even by Saudi standards, she stood out for her religiosity, upbraiding family and friends when they were insufficiently observant.  Although she had previously been “crazy over books” (p.73), she abandoned all but religious reading and urged her brother to give up his interest in decadent Western popular music.  At the heart of the Salafi religious ideology, al-Sharif writes, is a “deep belief in Hell,” which led her to an “all-consuming fear that I, as a Muslim, wouldn’t reach the level of righteousness and devotion required to escape condemnation from the eternal hellfires” (p.96).  But the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, led by young Saudi men of her age, transformed her religious convictions. “I could not believe that God would demand the killing of innocent people,” she writes. “I was done with Salafism” (p.133-34).

         After completing university, al-Sharif landed a job as a computer security specialist at Armaco, once Standard Oil’s Saudi outlet, today owned by the Saudi government. But Armaco remains a state within the state, as it as been since its beginnings in Saudi Arabia in the 1930s. Its huge compound, which al-Sharif compares to a “perfect Southern California town” (p.3), was set up to make Saudi Arabia more inviting to expatriate Armaco workers, with housing, shopping and amenities that are unavailable within the rest of the kingdom. Even though the Saudi state now runs Armaco, many of the severe norms and mores of Saudi life do not apply on its compound. For starters, men and women work together in the compound, side by side. Imagine that.

           While working at Armaco, al-Sharif met the man she would marry – and later divorce. Al-Sharif’s account of her courtship is a Saudi version of a more universal eye-on-the-guy tale.  She developed a mad crush on a man she had only seen briefly at work and knew almost not at all.  Somehow, they met and courted in a way that was well at odds with Saudi norms, not least because it was conducted without the initial approval of either family – for a while, without even the knowledge of the families.   But later, both families were brought on board and gave the relationship their blessing.  Al-Sharif and the young man married and had a child together. But they did not live happily ever after.

          Her husband proved to be more traditional than al-Sharif had anticipated in his views of the proper role for a married woman; by Western standards, he was plainly abusive. When the marriage broke apart, al-Sharif was able to maintain something akin to custody over her son. But she had to give him up when Armaco sent her to study in the United States.  Al-Sharif spent a year in New Hampshire, where she learned to drive and obtained not only a driver’s license but also a rental car, paid for by Armaco. It was “no small irony,” she writes, “to think that Saudi Arabia’s largest company was openly paying for a Saudi woman to drive abroad” (p.199).

           Al-Sharif’s year in the United States and her driving experiences there emboldened her.  Upon return to Saudi Arabia, she became active in a group termed Women2Drive, which used Facebook and other social media to attract potential women drivers. Women2Drive followed a 1990 Saudi women drivers’ protest, in which 47 women had driven on city streets for about one-half hour. That protest “stalked them for the rest of their lives” (p.210). The women and their husbands were banned from foreign travel; those who held government jobs were fired; and all became targets of religious condemnation, “denounced as immoral vixens, boldly seeking to destroy Saudi society” (p.210).

          In 2011, the comments on the Women2Drive Facebook page, mostly left by men, were “menacing, saying very directly that our campaign was designed to corrupt young girls and that we were ‘betraying Islam’” (p.214). Al-Sharif nonetheless “clung to the belief that if I could just show Saudi society that no harm would come if a woman drove, many of the other issues surrounding the campaign would simply vanish” (p.221).  She studied the Saudi traffic codes and other relevant legal instruments and concluded that there was no formal legal interdiction against women driving; it was simply a matter of custom.

         In preparation for Women2Drive’s national driving campaign, al-Sharif allowed herself to be filmed driving, with the intention of posting the film on YouTube. She describes her mixed feelings of fear and fearlessness as she pulled out behind the wheel onto a Saudi road in the town of Khobar:

My heart began to beat faster as I turned the key, heard the engine catch, put my foot on the brake, and switched the car into reverse. My decision to drive had been made in a moment of anger, but now I felt pure calm rise up inside me. I was committed to driving because I was convinced, after having read and understood the traffic code, that there was nothing actually forbidding me from doing so (p.224-25).

           Shortly thereafter, however, in the middle of the night, Saudi authorities came to her house to arrest her. She spent nearly two weeks in a Saudi women’s prison, not a pleasant place for women transgressors of Saudi custom and order.  Her imprisonment attracted huge attention within Saudi Arabia and internationally.  The Saudi press accused her of operating as a traitor and spy on behalf of foreign enemies.  Saudi religious clerics denounced her for blasphemy and for seeking to destroy Islam, describing her as a whore.  She was released from prison when her father, two of his cousins, and their tribal chief traveled to the Royal Palace to meet 86-year-old King Abdullah.  Although the King made no commitments at their meeting, al-Sharif was released later that day. By this time, she had become an international celebrity.

          Al-Sharif was named to Time Magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people of 2011 and received the Oslo Freedom Forum’s first Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent. She resigned from Armaco when it refused to allow her to travel to Oslo to accept the award.  Notwithstanding her international celebrity status, official Saudi Arabia gave no ground on the issue of women driving. The government endorsed a report in the fall of 2011 warning that if women were allowed to drive, “prostitution, pornography, homosexuality, and divorce would ‘surge,’” and “within ten years, there would be no more virgins” in Saudi Arabia (p.270).

         When death threats against her became too ominous, al-Sharif fled Saudi Arabia for Dubai with her new husband, a Brazilian national whom she had met at Armaco.  She left without her son, whom she had to leave in the custody of her first husband.  In 2014, she gave birth to a second son. She lives today in Sydney, Australia, where her second husband relocated for his work, but returns periodically to Saudi Arabia to see her son from her first marriage.

* * *

          Only the most hard-hearted readers will fail to be stirred by these two valiant women and their stories of overcoming oppression and resisting the bullying of religious and state authorities.  But each has been forced into exile, required to work for change from outside her home country.  Although women behind the wheel may be commonplace in Saudi Arabia by this time next year, I finished the two memoirs thinking that women in both countries seeking full rights as citizens still have a long, uphill drive ahead of them.

Thomas H. Peebles

Bayonne, France

October 24, 2017







Filed under Biography, History, Middle Eastern History, Religion

Exuberance That Failed to Last

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.

* * *

         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).

* * *

         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).

* * *

            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.

* * *

            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).

* * *

          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.

* * *

         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

Aubais, France

September 26, 2017



Filed under History, Middle Eastern History

Unwrapping the Saudi Mummy


Karen House, On Saudi Arabia:
Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines – and Future

           Karen House is one of the most knowledgeable Western observers of Saudi Arabia. In “On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines – and Future,” she uses her experience and insight to provide a perceptive description of the country, peeling back the “bindings of tradition and religion that wrap the Saudi mummy to explain how the society works, how Saudis think and live, and how events in the desert kingdom may unfold” (p.x). What emerges is a generally frightening picture of a close American ally that seems in almost every way to be the “antithesis of open, individualistic, Western societies,’ (p.iii), a closed, rigid, tribal society with glaring economic inequalities, where oppressive Salafi religious clerics play an outsized role, women probably face more obstacles to fulfillment of their potential than anywhere else on the planet, and Saudi youth foresee few realistic possibilities for a prosperous future.

         Whether Saudi Arabia can meet the diverse challenges which threaten to unravel it depends in large measure upon its ruling Al Saud family. House describes Saudi Arabia as “fundamentally . . . a family corporation” (p.10) and the “last significant absolute monarchy on earth” (p.12). Because of multiple wives and large families, Saudi Arabia’s royal family is said to include about 30,000 people, a scale unrivaled elsewhere. The family has stayed in power through a divide and conquer strategy, cleverly using money to “buy loyalty or to at least submission” (p.11), and cunningly exploiting division within a “deeply divided, distrustful and increasingly dispirited populace” (p.3). The ruling family “never promised democracy – and still doesn’t. Nor does it bother with sham elections to present the appearance of legitimacy, as do so many other Arab regimes” (p.3). House questions whether the Al Saud regime can reform itself in time to save itself. The “confluence of so many challenges coupled with the rigidity of the regime, the sullenness of the society, the escalating demands of youth, and most important, the instability inherent in generational succession” could, she argues, “prove fatal to Al Saud rule” (p.250).

          There are, to be sure, Saudi princes who seek change, but they are frustrated by their inability to bring it about. Up to now, the Saudi regime has been lucky never to have needed to resort to mass repression to maintain the status quo – conformity is too strong a strain in Saudi society to make a large-scale uprising likely. The Saudi people’s passivity and their willingness to live within their lot constitute the “ultimate gift to the Al Saud” (p.31). House compares the Saudi Arabia constructed by the Al Saud regime to an “earthquake building” whose rulers have “long had the wisdom to bend ever so slightly at the moment of greatest pressure and then later reclaim, over time, most of what they yielded” (p.30).

          Although Saudi Arabia is only a small part of the Arab world, and a tiny part of the Islamic world, it is the “spiritual center of the Islamic faith” (p.208), with its two most sacred sites, Mecca and Medina, located within Saudi borders. The ultra-conservative Wahhabi manifestation of Islam “hangs over Saudi Arabia like a heavy fog” (p.35) and remains a formidable obstacle to any sort of modernization within the country. Wahhabi Islam instructs Muslims to be “obedient and passive to their rulers, however imperfect, in pursuit of a perfect life in paradise” (p.27), an instruction that serves well the ruling Al Saud family.

          House nonetheless faults Saudi leadership for, again and again, seeming to make a strong stand against the Wahhabi clerics, only to back down. In 2011, for example, the government encouraged the hiring of women cashiers in a large supermarket chain. But religious leaders objected. “It is not permitted for a Muslim woman to work in a mixed environment with men who are not related to them, and women should look for jobs that do not lead to them interacting with men which might cause attraction from both sides” (p.173). The government quickly backed down. That the religious police were able to threaten female workers whose employment the government promoted constitutes, House argues, “clear evidence of the absence of rule of law and of a a country at war with itself, in which the Al Saud rulers are too insecure to enforce their own decisions” (p.174).

          House characterizes education in today’s Saudi Arabia as a “wholly owned subsidiary” of the Saudi religious establishment (p.143), for whom “controlling education is at least as important as controlling women because education is a key instrument for perpetuating a devout, conservative Islamic society” (p.142). Consequently, over most of the last three decades, Saudi education has been dominated by “fundamentalist, xenophobic religious indoctrination that encouraged young Saudis to see the West as decadent and Christians and Jews as infidel enemies of Islam” (p.129). Since the September 11, 2001 attacks, the government has been “under pressure to revise its education curriculum to eliminate condemnation of Christians and Jews and also to downplay religious education in favor of knowledge that helps the flood of young Saudis emerging from high schools adapt to a global economy and secure jobs in Saudi Arabia” (p.131).

          Yet, in Saudi education today, there is almost no stretching of young minds. Wahhabi Islam formally forbids questioning or asking “how” and “why.” The study of philosophy is banned. As a result, “most Saudi students, even university graduates, choose education in soft subjects like religion, sociology, and Islamic history rather than the academic disciplines and practical skills that would equip them to compete in the private sector, where real jobs are available . . . Worse yet, most Saudi students emerge even from college or university having learned how to memorize rather than how to think” (p.142-43). Saudi Arabia spends more per capita on education that the United States, but the results are “catastrophic” (p.140).

          House delivers a heartfelt account of the challenges facing contemporary Saudi women, showing how their second class status, “sheltered, subjugated, and frustrated” (p.5), deprives Saudi society of a large portion of the human resources which the country needs to meet its many challenges ahead. Paradoxically, Saudi Arabia is also a very maternal society, where women far more than men influence the upbringing of children. Although Saudi women remain dependent on men, “what is new is that increasing numbers of Saudi women so clearly resent it” (p.101). Jeddah in particular has a “considerable number” of activist women who have “led the fight for change in their city and, by extension, across the kingdom” (p.98). House describes the clash over women’s roles as a “proxy war” between modernizers and conservatives over “what sort of Saudi Arabia both sexes will inhabit and over the role and relevance of the omni-present religious establishment in Saudi society” (p.72).

          Saudi youth – and Saudi Arabia has one of the youngest populations on earth – is almost uniformly “alienated, undereducated and underemployed” (p.114), a huge challenge to Saudi stability. While young people in every society resent authority and seek to exert their independence, youthful alienation in Saudi Arabia poses distinct challenges. As a quintessentially authoritarian society, “there are many more restrictions and conventions against which you can rebel” and “any form of youthful rebellion stands in stark contrast to the unquestioning acceptance and unruffled conformity of previous generations of Saudis” (p.105). Unlike rebellious Western youth, young Saudis must struggle against the “thick walls of religion and tradition constructed brick by brick from birth by family, school, mosque and government” (p.113). Youthful rebellion in Saudi ranges from the most benign, wearing casual western fashions, to lawlessness and gang violence, to fundamentalist Islam as the “only acceptable means to confront authority both parental and governmental” (p.105). A minority of these young Islamists follow their faith to terrorism.

          Saudi Arabia was the birthplace of a high percentage of the September 11 hijackers and their boss, Osama bin Laden. As Islamic fundamentalism swept the region in the wake of the 1979 religious evolution in Iran, the Saudi regime, eager to burnish its religious credentials, supported the jihadists and imposed rigid religiosity in the kingdom. “Beyond subjugating women, young Saudis were pressured to attend after-school training in religious fundamentalism, and over the next decade, the government gave billions of dollars to aid jihadists fighting in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Bosnia, spawning the global jihadists who two decades later brought down the World Trade Center” on September 11, 2001 (p.29). Then, in 2003, the regime ruthlessly suppressed religious extremists when they began terrorist attacks inside Saudi Arabia itself, the worst of which a was a bombing killing 26 people at the Riyadh housing complex, where many Westerners live. While their background and motivations might differ, almost all young terrorists, House contends, share “contempt for the society they see around them in Saudi Arabia and a yearning for more meaning in the lives (p.192).

          Saudi Arabia remains one of the principal suppliers of oil to the world, including the voracious markets in Europe and North America, and enjoys an expanding share of Asian markets. Ironically, oil wealth has “actually inhibited economic development. Given its plentiful oil revenues, the kingdom has not, at least until very recently, seriously focused on becoming competitive in any other economic sphere” (p.162). House discusses the intriguing possibility that Saudi oil production may be declining, perhaps precipitously. This is a closely guarded state secret. Only the ruling Al Saud family knows for sure, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it might be the case.

          Iran poses a far greater threat to Saudi Arabia “than any other power in recent decades” (p.253). Many Saudis are convinced that Iran’s goal is to “occupy Islam’s two holiest sites and to declare a Shiite state in Saud Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province . . . where Shiites are a majority. For the Al Saud, the loss of either its oil or its religious legitimacy would spell the catastrophic end of the dynasty” (p.239).

          At several points, House compares today’s Saudi Arabian governmental institutions to those of the Soviet Union in its last stages, hopelessly sclerotic, and incapable of responding to anything resembling the people’s needs. As in the old Soviet Union, where leaders could pull the levers of power, but nothing much happens, the “new bureaucratic structures superimposed [in Saudi Arabia] upon the old networks are blocking rather than facilitating progress” (p.177). Like the Soviet Union in its dying days, Saudi Arabia has ossified leadership, with the line of succession leading to “more old men in their eighties” (p.178).

          House is clear that Western style democracy is not in the cards for Saudi Arabia any time soon. The Saudis, she declares flatly, “do not crave democracy” (p.9 ). Rather than seeking democracy, most Saudis seek some sort of more clearly defined constitutional monarchy. Increasingly educated Saudis want to modernize but they most surely do not want to Westernize, and they “resent the Western view that modernization means Westernization” (p.224). What most Saudis want, House argues, is a:

government that is more efficient in providing basic services and that is accountable for its decisions. They want transparency with the uses of the nation’s wealth and less corruption. They want rule of law, not of royal whim. They want to know that they are being treated equitably with others in society and that punishments and penalties meted out don’t change at the whim of authorities or with the status of the offender (p.224).

           House neither favors nor predicts the regime’s collapse, warning that the alternative is likely to be significantly worse – either some form of military or Wahhabi Islamic rule. The least worst option available for the country seems to be encouraging the evolution of a more egalitarian, secular and pluralist state, undertaken by some of the more forward-looking Al Saud princes. But this path can also be hazardous. House points to Alexis de Tocqueville’s admonition that a monarchy is at greatest risk when it acknowledges the need to reform and begins to offer small changes. “Only a great genius can save a ruler who is setting out to relieve his subjects’ suffering after a long period of oppression,” the forward-looking French aristocrat wrote in the mid-19th century. “The evils, patiently endured as inevitable, seem unbearable as soon as the idea of escaping them is conceived” (p.252).

          Whatever direction Saudi Arabia takes, the country appears likely to be a critical oil source for the foreseeable future, as well as a potential breeding ground for terrorism. Add to that Saudi Arabia’s role as probably the principal counterweight to Iranian ascendancy in the volatile region and Saudi Arabia becomes a country which the United States and the West ignore at their peril. For readers seeking to become more familiar with today’s Saudi Arabia, Karen House’s concise, comprehensive and well-written book sheds much light on the forces tugging from different directions on this retrograde kingdom.

Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
September 16, 2014


Filed under Gender Issues, Politics