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On a gray winter evening in late February 2011, I threw my bags into the back of a beat-up minivan in Cairo and climbed inside. I was joining a caravan of reporters and aid workers and ride-along Egyptians headed for Libya’s open border. We drove all night under a moonless sky, pulled along like driftwood on the great wave of revolutionary feeling that was crashing on the Arab world in those days.
I had just spent the most thrilling and bewildering weeks of my life in Tahrir Square. To say I had not expected them is ludicrously mild: I would have told you revolution in Egypt was impossible. I had been living in the Middle East on and off for more than seven years, and Cairo was a place that made me almost physically sick with its atmosphere of fatalism and decay. I had gone home to America that Christmas with no plans to return to the region: my tenure as The New York Times’s Beirut bureau chief was over. I’d seen too many suicide bombings in Iraq, too many assassinations in Lebanon, too many young men and women who lived sad, closeted lives. I thought I knew the Arab world too well to be surprised.
Seven weeks later, all this knowingness was gone. Cairo had proved me wrong again and again. As we drove westward across the Egyptian desert, I had a feeling in my chest I hadn’t known since childhood: a sense that the world was being remade before my eyes. Crossing the Libyan border at dawn, I saw graffiti spray-painted in black across the abandoned guard posts: MAY SAFETY BE WITH YOU, SONS OF THE JANUARY 25 REVOLUTION. A long-haired Libyan rebel waved us on, grinning ecstatically. Benghazi, on the road ahead, was in rebel hands. Everyone assumed that Tripoli could not last long. And after that? Yemen, Syria, Saudi Arabia? The dominoes were falling, and the tyrants would soon be gone. What would come afterward was less clear. In that moment, to be cold and reasonable felt almost like treason.
It was impossible to imagine that some of the young Egyptians who were with me on that ride would by year’s end be fighting each other in Tahrir Square, the revolution’s symbolic heart. They would divide into warring camps and ideologies, accusing each other of betraying the revolt that brought them together. Some would end up with ISIS in Syria, sawing the heads off rival soldiers in the name of God. Others would make common cause with the same military leaders they had fought in 2011 and applaud the massacre of more than a thousand Islamists in Cairo in 2013. The Libyans I’d met in those early days, so full of hope and laughter, would fragment into hundreds of militias, their country shattered by civil war. The same and worse was in store for many of the young rebels I met in Yemen, Syria, and Tunisia.
Five years after the outbreak of the Arab Spring, its original message appears to have been wholly reversed. The demands for dignity and civic rights have given way to conflicts that loosened the very building blocks of social and political belonging. The protesters who chanted for freedom and democracy in 2011 had found nothing solid beneath their feet, no common agreement on what those words meant. In some countries, the state collapsed, while in others it survived as a kind of parodic self-exaggeration, its popular base frayed and defensive. Each country fell apart in its own way. In Libya, the rebellion empowered local militias—whether tribal, ethnic, or regional—that saw no reason to relinquish their fiefdoms. In Syria, sect became the dividing line. In Yemen, it was often clan or tribe affiliation. Sectarian gangs cannibalized the state, echoing the rivalry of their Saudi and Iranian paymasters. More and more, it felt irrelevant to speak the language of sovereign nations, with so many people in the former Ottoman world living outside the control of any recognized government. The Kurds of Syria and Iraq were independent in all but name. Parts of southern and northern Yemen had cut all ties to their nominal rulers. Most notoriously, some ten million people were living at the mercy of the self-declared Islamic state. The bedrock of modern Arab societies—borders, governments, systems of law—was more vulnerable than anyone had guessed, or so it seemed.
Why did we not see it coming? Looking back, I think it was partly a willed refusal. It was the dictators and their agents who were constantly warning that the revolts would end in civil war and Islamist bloodlust. They’d been saying so for years—even before the uprisings—and all the while doing everything they could to make those predictions come true. Faced with such cynicism, it was natural to insist on believing in an alternative, no matter how unlikely. The protesters could rise above their own divisions only by believing it was possible.
This leap of faith was itself an achievement for a people who’d grown resigned to the cliché of Arab fatalism. You couldn’t help rooting for them. After living in the region for years, I too was sick of people invoking history as the Middle East’s great burden and scapegoat. When I told a Syrian friend in 2013 that I was preparing to write this book by reading more about the history of her country, she pleaded, “Please, just don’t make it seem as if we are always doomed to repeat the past.”
I promised I would not. But the past has a way of creeping back in at exactly those moments when you try to disavow it. I remember seeing maps in the hands of Libyan exiles who were on their way back home to claim property in 2011 and 2012. The maps were usually yellowed and creased, having been kept in a desk or file cabinet for decades, like buried treasure. Each seemed to describe a different country: Libya, it seemed, was a matter of perspective. Some of them were more than a century old, in Ottoman Turkish. Some were in Italian or English, from the colonial period. Some were more recent, in Arabic. The claims often overlapped, because the owners had left or been expelled from the country at different times, and the authorities who had created the maps—a city, a region, a colonial power—had succeeded each other with no sense of common identity. Some families were laying claims to huge areas where government buildings and courthouses now stood. Most were smaller, a house or a farm that had been stolen, a piece of family heritage that had never been forgotten. The owners saw no reason why they shouldn’t get them back. They didn’t seem to understand that their maps were a civil war in miniature, a palimpsest of clashing aspirations. There was no one to adjudicate any of their claims. So they began taking the law into their own hands, buying guns and evicting the people living in their villas.
Weak national bonds were part of the problem, as were tribes, but these things could not fully explain what made the revolts of 2011 slide into something so much darker. In a way, that larger question was the one people had been asking for centuries about Arab crises and defeats, and the answers themselves have become a vast literature full of its own factionalism and gall. You could begin the story more than a thousand years ago in the battlefields of Iraq. You could begin it in 1839, when the Ottoman sultan first began the reforms that would dissolve his empire and unmoor the Arabs. You could start in 1919, with the failed liberal revolution in Cairo. You could even go outside the Middle East—many people did—and say the Arabs were having their version of the Thirty Years’ War, or of the European revolutions of 1848. These analogies often said more about who was speaking than anything else. The combatants in the Arab civil wars have their own dates and starting points, and some of them have been contagious. In June 2014, shortly after declaring their new caliphate, the jihadi fighters of ISIS tweeted pictures of themselves using a bulldozer to crash through the earthen berm that forms the frontier between Syria and Iraq. They announced that they were destroying the “borders of Sykes-Picot,” the popular term for the map imposed on the Middle East by European colonialists a century ago.
For most Arabs, the most important context was more immediate. They had grown up with dictators whose birthright, as it were, came from the struggle for independence after the Second World War. The great standard-bearer then was Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose willingness to defy the West during the Suez Crisis of 1956 made him more popular, in all likelihood, than any other Arab leader since the Prophet Muhammad. But Nasser’s legacy was toxic: beneath his emotive speeches and egalitarian posturing, he built a brutal police state. And the confidence he had inspired in Arabs evaporated even before his death in 1970. Nizar Kabbani, perhaps the most celebrated Arab poet of the twentieth century, saw it early, writing in the wake of the disastrous 1967 war with Israel:
Friends, the ancient word is dead; the ancient books are dead; our speech with holes like worn-out shoes is dead … Our poems have gone sour; women’s hair and nights, curtains and sofas, have gone sour; everything has gone sour. My grieved nation, in a flash, you turned me from a poet writing for love and tenderness to a poet writing with a knife … Our shouting is louder than our actions; our swords are taller than us … Friends, smash the doors; wash your brains … Grow words, pomegranates and grapes; sail to countries of fog and snow … Write poems and proverbs; and pray to God for victory.
Nasser’s Arab heirs found themselves sitting in his chair but robbed of the popular legitimacy that had made him a beloved figure. It is no accident that the Arabic word for legitimacy, shar’eeya, is related to sharia, Islamic law. The nimbus of spiritual authority that had briefly clung to Nasser did not extend to the men who came after him. They knew they could stay in place only through fear, and they set about reinforcing the machinery of surveillance and repression that Nasser had started building. “No ruler in this region sees himself as legitimate,” I was told by Muhammad al Mutawakel, a wise old Yemeni political figure and friend. “So they all constantly look over their shoulders, scheming against their rivals, because they see no reason why their rivals should not be in their place.” Mutawakel was born when Yemen was ruled by a xenophobic thousand-year-old religious dynasty. He lived through its republican revolution and the subsequent descent into kleptocracy, only to be murdered by fanatics, like so many of the Arab world’s most tolerant and thoughtful people, outside his home in late 2014.
It has since occurred to me that Mutawakel’s observation about paranoid Arab tyrants was directed not just at Nasser and his imitators. In a sense, the Arab world has never built a peaceful model for political succession, and some say this is the key to its repeated agonies. The Prophet Muhammad tried to create such a model after he established the Arab world’s first real state. His seventh-century heirs were designated khalifa, meaning deputy or successor, and at first, the glow of association with the Prophet allowed these caliphs, known as God’s shadow on earth, to lead the community by popular acclaim. But eventually tribal and religious rivalry divided and weakened the Arab peoples. They became the subjects of Turkish and Mongol and Persian converts to the religion they themselves had founded. These usurpers struggled with the same demons: Ottoman sultans conscripted Christian slaves to help run their empire and had their own brothers ritually strangled with a silk cord on reaching the throne, all to forestall the risk of rival lineages. All these safeguards failed eventually. Even republican democracy, the great rallying cry of the postcolonial years, was finally unmasked as a pretext. One of the signal grievances that led to the uprisings of 2011 was the accusation of tawreeth, hereditary succession. The dictators of Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, who held themselves up as democrats to the world, were in fact forging dynasties, grooming their sons to follow them. The former dictator of Syria, Hafez al Assad, had already done so.
The protesters of 2011 believed they had a solution to the succession problem: genuine democracy. But even so, few of them plotted against their regimes in a serious way. Apart from a small group of activists in Egypt who had studied the work of Gene Sharp, an American theorist of nonviolent resistance to tyranny, they were spectacularly unprepared for upheaval. The Islamists had an underground movement, but it was a divisive one, and far from preaching revolution, many urged accommodation with the regime. They had no blueprint for translating their religious slogans into reality.
In fact, what happened in 2011 was not so much a beginning as an end. It was the final disintegration of something that had been rotting for decades: the Arab republican states, which finally collapsed of their own weight. By 2010, the Arab world’s police states were no longer meeting their own standards. Strongmen who had spent decades mastering the arts of divide and rule, of “balancing” local conflicts against each other, found themselves unable to cope with deepening economic crises, unemployment, rising food and commodity prices, the effects of drought, and corruption that had grown beyond their control. Demography intensified all these problems: by 2010, the vast majority of the Arab world’s people were under thirty. Most of them had slim chances of getting a decent job, despite the fact that they were more literate and better educated than their parents. In 1980, about half of Arabs could read and write. By the year 2000, that number had risen to 61.5 percent, and among people age fifteen to twenty-four, it was about 80 percent. These numbers translated into higher expectations. But in economies dominated by sluggish bureaucracies and patronage, the young saw no reward for initiative, and humiliation everywhere. Tentative efforts to liberalize the economy in Egypt and Syria in the early 2000s only increased the wealth gap between those with waasta—connections to the ruling elite—and those without. Young Arab men with no income could not marry or move out of their parents’ homes. They were tantalized by visions of a Western world of freedom and affluence. Starting in the 1990s, they had been hearing new voices, on al Jazeera and other satellite TV stations, that exposed the state-run propaganda of their childhood and mocked the pretenses of their rulers. The Internet amplified this new awareness while granting people a much greater ability to communicate with each other. All these things helped pave the way for what began in 2010: a slow groundswell of outrage. In country after country, martyrs were being held up, dead or maimed or humiliated men and women whose fates seemed to crystallize the indignity visited on an entire people.
In Egypt, the first hints of change came in early June 2010, with a pair of photographs. One of them showed a smiling, clean-shaven youth, with his name written at the bottom: Khaled Saeed. The second photograph showed the same face, now hideously mangled: teeth smashed out, jaw askew, blood spattered on the cheeks, dead eyes staring upward. Many Egyptians had been tortured and killed by the police before. But Khaled was not a typical victim; he lived on a nice middle-class street, not a slum or Islamist ghetto. His death quickly inspired a Facebook page, conceived and edited in distant Dubai by a young Egyptian Google employee named Wael Ghoneim. “We are all Khaled Saeed” spread beyond Facebook to become almost a movement, gaining hundreds of thousands of followers and generating protest rallies in a matter of weeks. The story of Khaled’s murder expanded and stretched, its contours shifting, like some vast air balloon. It exerted an irresistible attraction, drawing the attention of anyone who had viscerally felt the injustice and stifling pressures of Mubarak’s Egypt. The regime’s critics seized on it. In late June, Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, visited Khaled’s family and led a rally in Alexandria against police brutality.
Similar stories, sometimes embellished into myth, were rising in every Arab country, all of them driven by the same kinds of frustrations. Al Jazeera broadcast them relentlessly, using its red scrolls and banners and frantic crosscuts to insinuate a narrative of rising regional crisis. That autumn, I drove through drought-cracked fields in northeastern Syria and found peasants seething with anger. Some believed the government had deliberately withheld water supplies from them. It was the fourth year of drought, but people I met up north seemed less inclined to blame nature or God than the Syrian regime, which had quietly dropped its old Socialist commitments to the peasantry and poor, and did nothing for them.
In the suburbs of Damascus, tens of thousands of displaced farmers and their families were living in tent cities, surviving on handouts from foreign charities. Even in the country’s capital, with its array of boutique hotels and restaurants, its Benetton shops and its jeunesse dorée in Jaguars, the smell of fear was growing stronger in 2010. You heard telltale phrases, uttered in different variations: All it needs is a match to ignite. Just a spark and it will explode. The Syrian philosopher Sadik al-Azm, who was living in Damascus at the time, later wrote: “Beneath Damascus’ shiny surface a malignancy of hatred and oppression was growing and mutating into a winding mass of violent energies ready to spring. Practically every Damascene had one prayer on the tip of his tongue: ‘Please, oh Lord, inspire him to do something before it is too late.’” No one needed to be told that the man he referred to was Bashar al Assad.
In late November 2010, I was back in Egypt for the parliamentary election. Voting in Egypt always elicited cynicism and rage, but this time the fraud was especially flagrant. At one polling station inside a school, government-hired thugs burst in, fired guns into the air, and then roared off in a minibus. The police, who had watched the whole thing passively, closed the polling station, leaving hundreds of would-be opposition voters cursing on the sidewalk. The thugs had shot an old man in the leg, but one of the police officers was smirking at the whole charade. I spent the rest of the day going from station to station, and everywhere I found ordinary people screaming that they hadn’t been let inside, their votes were being stolen. At the same time, those who trumpeted their loyalty with Mubarak stickers on their shirts were often ushered graciously into the polls. Even by Egyptian standards, it was outrageous. Demonstrations began breaking out, small but telling. In Shobra al Khaima, a working-class district, I watched young men bravely risk arrest by climbing the iron gates of a shuttered polling station, banging on the metal with trash can lids and shouting, “Down with Mubarak!”
What happened next seemed, at first, like yet another futile gesture. On December 17, 2010, a twenty-six-year-old Tunisian vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi doused himself with gasoline at a dusty intersection in the southern farming town of Sidi Bouzid. Arabs had burned themselves to death in outrage before, but this time something was different. “How do you expect me to make a living?” Bouazizi shouted from the middle of a traffic jam, less than an hour after a local bureaucrat had confiscated his vegetable cart and scales. Then he flicked a lighter and set himself on fire. The protests began almost at once, before Bouazizi faded into a coma and died, and before the success of the Tunisian revolution transformed him from an obscure destitute fruit and vegetable vendor into the man who set off the Arab Spring. It took less than a month for the protests to evict Tunisia’s dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, on January 14. The Egyptian protests kicked off on January 25, and in eighteen days Hosni Mubarak was gone. The torch passed quickly to Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain, where the protests were more chaotic and less successful. In Syria, the first demonstrations began on March 15; they devolved in less than a month into a brutal campaign of repression.
This book is not a comprehensive history of the Arab uprisings that began in December 2010. Instead, it is a much more selective effort to make sense of their fallout: the collapse of political authority across much of the Arab world, whether through war or sheer disintegration, culminating in the establishment of the Islamic state in Syria and Iraq. The story is told through people whose lives intersected with the uprisings and their aftermath in five countries: Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Tunisia. I touch on Iraq only in passing, because the American invasion of 2003 imposed on it a somewhat different trajectory. I have avoided Bahrain entirely, despite its much-publicized popular uprising in the spring of 2011, because it does not share the same republican history, and because the revolt there was cut off so quickly and so decisively. I have little to say about the role of the United States and other Western powers, because I believe it was mostly secondary. There are certain clear exceptions to this rule, including the NATO bombing campaign in Libya. Much has been said about how American reluctance to engage in Syria changed the outcome there, but this remains largely hypothetical. The Arab political landscape was certainly changed by the American invasions of Iraq, but the forces that propelled the uprisings of 2011 were, in my view, indigenous.
The book originated with my own zigzagging efforts to follow the course of the uprisings and their aftermath between 2011 and 2013. Parts of it are adapted from my articles in The New York Times Magazine, where I was a staff writer at the time, and the daily editions of The New York Times, where I spent years as a correspondent based in Baghdad and Beirut.
The book is divided into two parts. The first deals with the outbreak of the revolts and their quick descent into war in three countries. The second is about the various efforts to build a new order, of one kind or another, on the ruins of the old regimes. It is an episodic story, encompassing many borders and characters, and there have been moments in the past five years when little seemed to unite the diverse outcomes in Tunis and Damascus and Sanaa beyond the presumed thread of a single regional insurrection. But time has bolstered the sense of a shared narrative, along with the shared contagion of ISIS. More benign infections may travel across the same borders: the success or failure of the democratic experiment in Tunisia will alter all views of what is possible in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen. It, too, will affect our understanding of what happened across the Arab world in 2011.
The uprisings spread in that year not just because of social media and a common language, but also because so many of the political dilemmas—and the tools people used to address them—were the same. In a sense, the thousands of young men and women flocking to the Islamic state were acting on the same impulse that drove the protesters of Tahrir Square: the need for a homeland where they are treated like citizens. It may sound perverse to invoke that word for both a utopian urban space and a violent theocracy where slavery is held sacred. But many young Egyptians traveled from one to the other, and one of their stories is in this book. Those journeys were fueled by a hunger for something they’d always been denied: order, harmony, a sense of belonging. They wanted a place where the cross-strands of their ethnicity and faith and tribe would not be cynically exploited against them—as so many divide-and-rule strongmen had done over the years, from the Turks to the British to Mubarak—but embraced and reconciled. When nonviolence failed to achieve those things, some of them sought the same goal through an orgy of killing.
Copyright © 2016 by Robert F. Worth