The authoritarian’s favorite play is to keep people divided and afraid for as long as possible. Now the United States has its own burgeoning authoritarian in Trump.
The Arab Spring of 2011 feels forgotten. The sense of hope and possibility that filled the faces of the thousands in Tahrir Square has been blighted by the post-revolution aftermath. Egypt underwent a military coup to replace its democratically elected, albeit incompetent, Islamist president. Libya remains in utter chaos. War and humanitarian crises reign in Yemen and Syria. Refugees drown in the Mediterranean. And ISIS has risen to offer angry, young dissidents what peaceful protest could not: power and immediate gratification.
The factors that caused people to march in the streets are not a mystery. The people had grown tired of their dictators. Opportunities had evaporated. Strongmen like Hosni Mubarek and Muammar Gaddafi spent decades promising egalitarian futures but created bad economies and corrupt governments staffed by cronies. An explosion of protest was due. Events in 2010 provided the fuel: in Egypt, police beat a young man named Khaled Saeed to death, sparking a social media awareness campaign; in Yemen, peasants established a protest camp in Sana’a, the country’s largest city; in Tunisia, street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest the confiscation of his fruit cart.
The Jasmine Revolution happened. Tahrir Square happened, and Mubarek stepped down. Rebels murdered Gaddafi with the help of NATO airstrikes. To escape Gaddafi’s fate, Bashar al-Assad gassed his own people in Syria to subdue revolution in that country and sparked a civil war. The region remains in chaos with new and sometimes familiar strongmen emerging to replace the fallen despots.
“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,” writes Robert F. Worth in the introduction to A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, from Tahrir Square to ISIS, his excellent history of the protests and the resulting instability.
Worth served as The New York Times’ Beirut bureau chief from 2007 to 2011 and had no interest in returning to his post before the protests began. He thought he was out, but they pulled him back in, as the line goes. His beat had grown too violent thanks to suicide bombers and was steeped in fatalism before the protests in Tahrir Square revived him. From 2011 to 2013, Worth returned to the Times, publishing articles for the daily paper and the Sunday magazine while working out of Beirut and Baghdad. He crossed many borders following the story of the Arab Spring and its postscript. A Rage for Order is the result of those journeys.
The book is structured episodically, progressing from Egypt to Yemen, from the first days of protest to the descent into chaos and war, before closing in Tunisia. Worth avoids long overviews of the geopolitical and social landscapes of these countries, preferring to let the stories of the region unfurl through the people he chronicles. It is a masterstroke because he makes the issues that drove the revolutions more digestible by focusing on the people who grappled with them due to either deprivation or privilege. He also eliminates the Western tendency to exoticize the Middle East and make its people“the other.” The most powerful examples of this appear early on.
In the chapter entitled “Revenge,” the deification of Gaddafi by his military cronies and the tribal interests in control of Libya is told through the story of Nasser Salhoba, the chief interrogator at a rebel-held prison in Benghazi. One of the prisoners is the man who killed his brother, a former guard at the prison who stayed on executing prisoners after Gaddafi fell. Nasser is trying to find the murderer’s humanity and return to a system of laws even though there is no government. He wants the other man dead but is waiting for a system of justice to render a verdict.
In “Sects,” the history of Syria’s two main Muslim sects is told through the friendship between two women, Noura and Aliaa: one a Sunni, the other an Alawite. Before the revolution, their sectarian differences were barely a thought, but Bashar al-Assad is an Alawite, and Sunnis come under suspicion as the revolution escalates. The fracturing of the country is reflected in the erosion of their friendship until they only speak about each other through paranoid revision of their personal histories.
Worth seamlessly moves between the moral dramas of the present day and the greater history of the region. He recounts the history of strongmen, most propped up by the United States government. Our war machine makes subtle appearances in almost every chapter. We helped sow this chaos for decades, whether through unflinching support of Mubarek or the Saudi royalty or the dalliance in Iraq that created ISIS. These were our despots, and they all used the same plays to suppress and divide their people until chaos became inevitable:
“In all of these countries any semblance of a political middle ground disappeared, and you got this sense of a battle over the most basic aspects of the social order. Everybody felt that this was an existential fight: ‘If we lose, we lose everything. We lose the state, we lose our religion, we lose our sense of people.’”
The authoritarian’s favorite play is to keep people divided and afraid for as long as possible. Now the United States has its own burgeoning authoritarian in Trump. A Rage for Order is a brilliant book that should be read for the work it does clarifying the story of a region caught in an endless nightmare of violence and war. But it could also be read as a guide for recognizing and surviving despots. Worth writes that Egypt has “the ever-present atmosphere of nostalgia for a lost greatness.” With a little tweaking, that might fit on a red baseball cap.