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What The Arab Spring Can Teach Us About America’s Populist Revolution


The Arab Spring began in Tunisia in December 2010 and by August of 2011, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and Libya had all experienced revolutions that called for the ouster of their respective leaders. The people of these countries were spurred by a desire for more freedom, stability, and a new way of life, free from government corruption, torture and the police state. Robert Worth’s new book on the Arab Spring, A Rage for Order, takes us through each country’s revolution, examining what sparked it, what life was like before and during the revolt, and the struggles to maintain the goals of the revolution.

He tells the story of the Arab Spring in the same way that excellent historical fiction is told, by following individual stories, with the political scene in the backdrop. His informants range from two young Syrian women, one Sunni and one Alawi who had been best friends before the civil war, to a man who has been fighting the regime in Yemen for more than 40 years. He follows the story of a Muslim Brotherhood figure who began as a unifier during the 18 days in Tahrir Square and ended as a staunch Islamist who was sentenced to death. He spent time with the leader of one of the many militias in Libya that emerged after Qaddafi fell, a man who showed him videos of the torture performed under the deposed dictator and then allowed him to interview one of the torturers, whom he was keeping prisoner.

Worth himself has spent years in the Middle East and North Africa, working for four years as The New York Times Beirut bureau chief. He was on an apartment balcony looking over Tahrir Square the night Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down from power, and he drove into Libya in the weeks after the protests began there. He was on the ground not just during the revolutions, but before and after them.

Islamism Versus Secularism

Through the stories he collected, Worth highlights the deep sectarian and tribal tensions of the Arab world that are responsible for centuries of violence, decades of dysfunction in the post-colonial era, and the difficulties the Arab Spring faced. In Syria, the Alawi and Sunni sects have been in opposition for hundreds of years. Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh had long pitted rival tribes against one another to maintain power. In Libya, after Gaddafi fell, dozens of militias formed with no real government or army in power. In all of these countries, Islamists took advantage of the chaos.

In all of these countries, Islamists took advantage of the chaos.

These internal divisions were ignored during the colonial era and after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, when borders were drawn in the living rooms of European diplomats, forcing warring groups to live as one nation. Whenever one group was in power, the other was hounded by the intelligence apparatus, tortured, or disappeared. These fissures have been the downfall of most of the region’s revolutions, and contributed to the difficulty they’ve had in unifying themselves in the wake of the Arab Spring.

In Egypt and Tunisia, the tension lies not between tribe or sect, but between secularism and Islamism. And yet, these two countries saw very different outcomes after the Arab Spring. They both held elections after their respective revolutions, placing Islamists into power. After less than two years (21 months for Tunisia, 13 months for Egypt), the tides turned. The people grew fearful of the Islamists and concerned about radicalism and strict enforcement of Sharia Law. But the reactions of the Islamists and secularists in the two countries couldn’t have been more dissimilar.

Egypt’s Mohammed Morsi doubled down on his rhetoric of legitimate rule, refusing to give any ground when protestors began gathering again in Tahrir Square in reaction to increasing Islamist violence and repression. This led to a military coup, the massacre of nearly one thousand Islamist protesters in Rabaa Square in 2013, and the arrests of most of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership.

One Good Man

Contrast this with Rached Ghannouchi, the figurehead of the Islamist Ennahda party in Tunisia. When protests began against Ennahda in 2013, he convinced his party that they needed to step down from power and move toward a coalition government with the secularist Nida Tounes party. His greatest concern at the time was national unity and avoiding a civil war. To accomplish his goals, he met in secret over the course of months with Nida Tounes leader Beji Essebsi, with whom he eventually forged a friendship. They were able to successfully steer their way through a peaceful transition of power.

Maybe it ultimately comes down to one thing: the difference one good man can make.

So why was Tunisia so much more successful than Egypt? Perhaps it’s because they had just watched Morsi’s violent ouster. Or perhaps it’s because of their particular history of French colonialism, which was known for its thoroughness in implementing French bureaucracy. But maybe it ultimately comes down to one thing: the difference one good man can make. Or if not good, at least reasonable, patient, and thoughtful. Ghannouchi was more concerned with saving his country from civil war than with “winning.” He put his country above his political party.

Worth’s book illustrates the dangers of how quickly mob-mentality can sweep people up into a revolution—and how quickly they change their minds. After the ouster of Mubarak, Egyptians elected a Muslim Brotherhood member, Mohammed Morsi, as president. But after little more than a year, the people had already decided he had to go. With no other institutions to fall back on, the opposition joined forces with the military and other Mubarak-era politicians, the very people against whom they protested in 2011, to push Morsi out and put the Islamists back on the defense.

When Abdel el-Sisi and the military took power, the Egyptian people praised him as a savior. The absoluteness with which they gave themselves over to him is astonishing. There were pictures, flags, pins, portraits, and editorials that praised him in the most flowery and poetic language. They saw him as a savior, this man, who was the head of the armed forces and allied with Mubarak, whose ouster only two years earlier protesters had demanded unequivocally. When Al-Sisi’s government massacred hundreds at the MB camp in Rabaa Square there were no protests from the people. He could do no wrong.

How Revolutions Happen

It’s easy to look down on the people in these countries for their naïveté in believing that a single man could provide all the answers and being so easily carried from one extreme to the other. But, it would be unwise to throw the first stone at a time when this is truer in America than many of us are comfortable admitting.

It’s easy to look down on the people in these countries for their naïveté in believing that a single man could provide all the answers. But it would be unwise.

This election year, a large majority of Americans are calling for a revolution. Bernie Sanders’ supporters want an overthrow of our economic system and to usher in an unprecedented expansion of government. As for Trump, many Republicans have convinced themselves that he is some sort of quirky redeemer who will right all of the wrongs in America, both real and imagined. He, more than Sanders, represents a cult of personality in whom people are putting all their hope. Many Republicans say the most important thing is for their party to win the election, regardless if it means gutting the GOP of its principles.

But whenever a party, or a people, put their hopes in one man, the promises of democracy begin to fade into the background. Of course, we’re nowhere near as unstable as any of the Arab Spring countries. And there’s little chance that our upcoming elections will produce violence. But it’s a fool who thinks we are somehow above or beyond all that, and a greater one who doesn’t bother to understand why and how revolutions happen.

The Fragility of Power

The rhetoric, rallies, and protests this election season echo the mass hysteria that grips a people in revolt. The Republican party has gone from the fervor of the Tea Party movement a mere five years ago to the brink of nominating a non-conservative populist. Sanders is calling for a revolution. The kind of radical change people are calling for, on both sides, is not supposed to be a part of our democracy. We’re meant to understand that government must move slowly, that we don’t want revolution. Our government is set up with its checks and balances and now-waning limits on executive power to prevent exactly that. By betting on a populist or a revolution we’re falling prey to one of the things that undid the Arab Spring.

By betting on a populist or a revolution we’re falling prey to one of the things that undid the Arab Spring.

Worth’s book underscores the fragility of parties and power. The will of the people is a mighty thing that can take down a government one minute and restore it the next. When that will shifts, it can carry a country far off course if it doesn’t rest solidly on a foundation of democratic ideals and institutions. These reflections may seem premature and full of fire and brimstone, but without constantly checking ourselves against countries that survive and those that fall, we will be condemned to repeat their mistakes.

The lessons of the Arab Spring for America are clear. Be wary of rapid and superficial change, and of cults of personality—and look to solid institutions and good men to lead us.