By Scott Anderson
The New York Times Magazine
History never flows in a predictable way. It is always a result of seemingly random currents and incidents, the significance of which can be determined — or, more often, disputed — only in hindsight. But even accounting for history’s capricious nature, the event credited with setting off the Arab Spring could hardly have been more improbable: the suicide by immolation of a poor Tunisian fruit-and-vegetable seller in protest over government harassment. By the time Mohamed Bouazizi succumbed to his injuries on Jan. 4, 2011, the protesters who initially took to Tunisia’s streets calling for economic reform were demanding the resignation of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the nation’s strongman president for 23 years. In subsequent days, those demonstrations grew in size and intensity — and then they jumped Tunisia’s border. By the end of January, anti-government protests had erupted in Algeria, Egypt, Oman and Jordan. That was only the beginning. By November, just 10 months after Bouazizi’s death, four longstanding Middle Eastern dictatorships had been toppled, a half-dozen other suddenly embattled governments had undergone shake-ups or had promised reforms, and anti-government demonstrations — some peaceful, others violent — had spread in an arc across the Arab world from Mauritania to Bahrain.
As a writer with long experience in the Middle East, I initially welcomed the convulsions of the Arab Spring — indeed, I believed they were long overdue. In the early 1970s, I traveled through the region as a young boy with my father, a journey that sparked both my fascination with Islam and my love of the desert. The Middle East was also the site of my first foray into journalism when, in the summer of 1983, I hopped on a plane to the embattled city Beirut in hopes of finding work as a stringer. Over the subsequent years, I embedded with a platoon of Israeli commandos conducting raids in the West Bank; dined with Janjaweed raiders in Darfur; interviewed the families of suicide bombers. Ultimately, I took a five-year hiatus from magazine journalism to write a book on the historical origins of the modern Middle East.
In my professional travels over the decades, I had found no other region to rival the Arab world in its utter stagnation. While Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya set a record for longevity in the Middle East with his 42-year dictatorship, it was not that different elsewhere; by 2011, any Egyptian younger than 41 — and that was roughly 75 percent of the population — had only ever known two heads of state, while a Syrian of the same age had lived his or her entire life under the control of the father-and-son Assad dynasty. Along with political stasis, in many Arab nations most levers of economic power lay in the hands of small oligarchies or aristocratic families; for everyone else, about the only path to financial security was to wrangle a job within fantastically bloated public-sector bureaucracies, government agencies that were often themselves monuments to nepotism and corruption. While the sheer amount of money pouring into oil-rich, sparsely populated nations like Libya or Kuwait might allow for a degree of economic trickle-down prosperity, this was not the case in more populous but resource-poor nations like Egypt or Syria, where poverty and underemployment were severe and — given the ongoing regional population explosion — ever-worsening problems.
I was heartened, in the Arab Spring’s early days, by the focus of the people’s wrath. One of the Arab world’s most prominent and debilitating features, I had long felt, was a culture of grievance that was defined less by what people aspired to than by what they opposed. They were anti-Zionist, anti-West, anti-imperialist. For generations, the region’s dictators had been adroit at channeling public frustration toward these external “enemies” and away from their own misrule. But with the Arab Spring, that old playbook suddenly didn’t work anymore. Instead, and for the first time on such a mass scale, the people of the Middle East were directing their rage squarely at the regimes themselves.
Then it all went horribly wrong. By the summer of 2012, two of the “freed” nations — Libya and Yemen — were sliding into anarchy and factionalism, while the struggle against the Bashar al-Assad government in Syria had descended into vicious civil war. In Egypt the following summer, the nation’s first democratically elected government was overthrown by the military, a coup cheered on by many of the same young activists who took to the streets to demand democracy two years earlier. The only truly bright spot among the Arab Spring nations was the place where it started, Tunisia, but even there, terrorist attacks and feuding politicians were a constant threat to a fragile government. Amid the chaos, the remnants of Osama bin Laden’s old outfit, Al Qaeda, gained a new lease on life, resurrected the war in Iraq and then spawned an even more severe and murderous offshoot: the Islamic State, or ISIS.
Picture: Frank Schulenburg (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons