By Roger Cohen
May 12, 2016
A little 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 law.
Bearded 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.”
Those were 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.
After the 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 uprisings.”
Who should 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?
Worth does 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.
Leadership 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.
But, with 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.”
This 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?