J got me to reserve this book out of the library a few weeks ago, he’d seen a mention of it somewhere & when he finished he said he thought I’d like to read it. It’s an overview of the first 18 months or so after the start of the Arab Spring in late 2010/early 2011, as told by Jeremy Bowen who is a journalist with the BBC. The book is a combination of overviews of the political situation before, after & during the various revolutions and also of more personal anecdotes from Bowen as he travelled through the countries to report on the revolutions & their aftermath. So it’s very much one man’s account – it’s what he’s seen, what he’s been told & what he thinks it means. But it’s also one man’s expert account, so worth the read.
One of the themes he draws out is that the growing discontent wasn’t just because the ageing autocratic leaders were starting to pass power down to their children, it was also because the population was growing and changing. In these countries something like 60% of the population is under 30, and a large number of those people have never had jobs and had no sense that this could change. They were also more connected to each other than people would’ve been in the past. The internet & mobile phones opened up communication between people across a country & across the region. So the discontented no longer felt isolated, and with being able to see they weren’t alone came organisation & action. And the security services & the regimes were slow to catch on. Not only to try & stop people using modern ways to talk to each other, but they also failed to realise that modern technology makes it harder to brutalise people into pretending nothing happened – if the video of the beating/killing/whatever has already gone viral then the world knows you did it.
Bowen also didn’t shy away from detailing the many ways the West had caused the problems in the first place – not just the leftovers of the colonial era, but much more recently. The propping up of various regimes as part of the Cold War, for instance. Also the later propping up of the same regimes as they fought on the “right side” of the “War on Terror”. For all the preaching about democracy and human rights the reality of the situation was that a secular but brutally autocratic dictator was considered preferable to risking an Islamist government. Just ignore what he’s doing to his people … Even Gaddifi got rehabilitated towards the end, forgiven for his own sponsoring of terrorist activities because he was useful for the new anti-terrorism.
How nothing happens in isolation is another of the threads running through the book. The uprisings took off one after the other in part because with a common language & global communications people in one country could look at Tunisia or the following countries and imagine themselves doing the same thing. On the other hand, leaders like Gaddafi & Assad took away the lesson that if they wanted to squash their own revolutions they needed to be more brutal than, for instance, Mubarak. On a brighter note Bowen says that the NATO intervention in Libya grew out of the fact that some of the key players were in junior positions or on the sidelines during the 1990s and witnessed the non-intervention in the genocides in Bosnia or Rwanda. And so they were determined not to stand by & let Gaddafi get away with war crimes in their turn. But then that had the knock-on effect of influencing Russia’s veto over intervention in Syria, because they felt they’d been misled about the level of proposed intervention in Libya …
An interesting & thought provoking book. Reading it now when the coup? second revolution? in Egypt is in full swing was also a slightly odd experience – the Egyptians Bowen talked to who said “we know the way back to Tahrir Square” feel prescient now.