over five years ago I was with my colleague Robert F. Worth in Pierre Sioufi’s
rambling apartment overlooking Tahrir Square in Cairo. We watched as the
Egyptian people rose to overthrow the 30-year-old dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak
and stake its claim to citizenship, representation, dignity and the rule of
members of the Muslim Brotherhood, their skin scarred by the torture of
Mubarak’s security state, embraced secular Egyptian liberals and declared
common cause. Young men and women, their eyes burning with conviction,
proclaimed that the 18 days in Tahrir had given their lives meaning for the
first time by demonstrating the power to effect change. They had discovered
agency; they would build a better Egypt. Alaa Al Aswany, an Egyptian novelist,
told the crowd: “The revolution is a new birth, not just for Egypt but on an
individual level. It’s like falling in love: you become a better person.”
heady days. It was impossible not to suspend one’s disbelief. The army was
impassive, the Brotherhood restrained and Twitter-empowered Arab youth
ascendant. Liberation unfurled in a wave unseen since 1989.
fall less than a month earlier of the Tunisian dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben
Ali, it seemed the frozen, decades-long Arab confrontation of cynical dictators
and repressed Islamists — fecund in the incubation of Jihadi terrorists — had
given way to the possibility of more inclusive societies. If Egypt, home to
about a quarter of the world’s Arab population, could see the birth of
meaningful citizenship, festering Arab humiliation would be replaced by
empowering dignity. The West might escape its conspiracy-fuelled place in the
Arab mind as the hypocritical enabler of every iniquity. That would be a more
powerful boost to its security than any far-flung war in Muslim lands.
It was not
to be. Five years on, Tahrir has the quality of a dream. Read Worth’s
remarkable new book, “A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, From Tahrir
Square to ISIS,” and weep. The chasm between the civic spirit of the square and
the brutal theocracy of the Islamic State reveals the extent of the failure.
The book is
a beautifully written chronicle, told through the struggles of ordinary people,
of shattered hopes, lives, families and societies. Worth excavates the personal
wounds revelatory of larger betrayals. Everywhere outside Tunisia, sect, tribe
and the Mukhabarat (secret police) prove stronger than the aspiration for
institutions capable of mediating differences and bringing the elusive
“karama,” or dignity, that, as Worth notes, was the “rallying cry of all the
be blamed for this epic failure? The Muslim Brotherhood for reneging on its
promise not to contest Egypt’s first post-uprising presidential election? The
Egyptian army and corrupt “deep state” for never giving the Brotherhood’s
Mohamed Morsi (“the country’s first democratically elected president in six
thousand years of history”) the means to govern? Morsi himself for his foolish
power grabs, inept rigidity and inability to realize that he had to demonstrate
he was everyone’s president, not merely the Brotherhood’s? Egyptian liberals
for so quickly abandoning the idea of democracy to side with the military
strongman Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and his bloody coup that the United States never
called by its name?
Or was it
Syria’s Bashar al-Assad for burying the Syrian uprising in rivers of blood? Or
Saudi money cynically deployed against every agent of liberalizing
transformation? Or a wavering Obama administration that, as in Iran in 2009,
and Syria since 2011, has wrapped itself in righteous caution as the winds of
change coursed through the Middle East? Or the feckless West that intervened in
Libya only to abandon it? Or, simply, the impossibility of delivering more
liberal, representative societies to a region where political Islam invokes not
the power of the people but the all-pervasive authority of God?
not judge. He reveals. He notes the remarkable compromises in Tunisia between
the Islamist party, Ennahda, and the old secular guard that has enabled this
small country, alone, to realize something of the hopes of 2011.
counts; Tunisia found a leader in Rached Ghannouchi, an Islamist whose long
exile in Britain taught him the life-saving wisdom of democratic give and take.
Elsewhere in the Arab world, there has been nothing resembling leadership.
equal force, Worth demonstrates how the failure of 2011 led many who had sought
but not found dignity to seek it anew in a border-straddling land controlled by
the Islamic State. When the dream of the uprisings evaporated, he writes, “Many
gave way to apathy or despair, or even nostalgia for the old regimes they had
assailed. But some ran headlong into the seventh century in search of the same
prize” — a place “they could call their own, a state that shielded its subjects
from humiliation and despair.”
shocking last sentence of “A Rage for Order” is the measure of the world’s
dilemma in the bloodstained ruins of the Arab Spring. How, after all, can
anyone see the barbaric practices of ISIS in those terms?