The Big Comedown

Late in the autumn of 2014, a prominent Yemeni politician was out taking a walk near his home in the capital city of Sana’a when two men on motorbikes shot him to death. Muhammad Abdelmalik al Mutawakel was a professor of political science who had long been advocating for a strong, democratic state in an otherwise fractious, feudal place. Mutawakel was the leader of a liberal party and an architect of the uprisings that had deposed Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s autocratic former president; he had been negotiating a peace deal behind the scenes among Houthi rebels, the opposition, and the new(ish) regime. The day before he died, he scored a major breakthrough: Rival political factions agreed to form a transitional, technocratic government.

Of all the countries swept up in the early euphoria of the so-called Arab Spring, Yemen was arguably the most baffling to global audiences. Certainly it was poorly understood. News broadcasts of competing demonstrations populated almost exclusively by qat-chewing men in skirts and daggers made it clear that this wasn’t the same telegenic expression of hopeful, youthful dissent that viewers saw in Cairo’s Tahrir Square or on Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis. To this day Yemen gets little international news coverage compared to Egypt, Syria, Libya, or Tunisia. Al Jazeera put the word assassination in quotation marks in its initial reporting of Mutawakel’s death. He wasn’t a household name. The New York Times didn’t write about his killing until two months later, when the country was suffering a spasm of violence too sizable for Western media to ignore.

However obscure Mutawakel may be in the annals of Middle East politics, he now belongs to a slightly more familiar list—the long, sad, utterly dispiriting roll call of artists, intellectuals, and other figures who have been killed in the wider Arab world since the end of the colonial era and the mid-twentieth-century rise of the republics, many of which were born of revolutionary promise but quickly turned despotic. The men in this lineage (and they are almost all men, including the Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali, shot in the face in London; the Algerian novelist Tahar Djaout, gunned down by religious extremists in Algiers; the Lebanese journalist Samir Kassir, blown up in his car in Beirut; and the left-wing Tunisian lawyer and politician Chokri Belaid, shot, like Mutawakel, outside his home) were targeted for more than just their ideas. They were eliminated out of the fear that they might set real change in motion and reform some of the region’s most repressive political systems from within.

American journalist Robert F. Worth is no stranger to this history, nor to the allure of turning to men of ideas for insight in times of great crisis. In the years he was a New York Times correspondent in Baghdad, a bureau chief in Beirut, and then a staff writer for the New York Times Magazine, Worth was always an anomaly. He had a Ph.D. in English literature from Princeton. He described himself as an Arabist (a “Pseudo-Arabist” on Twitter) at a time when the term was all but extinct, with the old analysts who spoke the language and knew the culture mostly retired, purged, or dead. Worth dutifully covered the daily grind of the Middle East’s political intrigues and humanitarian disasters, but he also wrote about the refurbishing of the Islamic wing at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, about novelists such as Hisham Matar and Mathias Énard, about the British travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor and the popular French author of espionage thrillers Gérard de Villiers. Toward the end of 2011, Worth published an especially prescient essay asking why Arab intellectuals had been so thoroughly sidelined; why no Václav Havel had emerged from the revolutions of the Arab Spring.

Could Mutawakel have been such a figure? It’s a question that lingers on the edges of A Rage for Order, Worth’s first book, which is dedicated to him. Worth doesn’t dwell on Mutawakel’s story at length. He tells it briefly, with enough verve and detail to make it stick. But the loss of a man who was brave and wise, a thinker and a doer, filters onto every page. Worth admits up front that by the end of 2010, after seven years of living and working in the region, he had come to loathe it. In his introduction, he writes that the notorious fatalism of the Arab world—that sense of total hopelessness, of history repeating itself dumbly, of there being no point in trying to change anything because nothing will change—was making him physically ill. The roller-coaster ride that follows, then, as demonstrations surge and dictators fall, is all the more effective for Worth’s own jaded outlook at its outset. He never believed Egypt would change. When popular protests brought down Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship, solidified over three decades, it was, writes Worth, “as if earth had tilted on its axis, allowing you to miraculously see truths that had been hidden from you all along. The tyrant, once vast and august, was now revealed as a laughable old fool. Your own countrymen, your own city, so degraded by soot and misery and fear, were delivered back to you and became beautiful.”

Of course, the comedown after that was hard and cruel. The Arab Spring toppled three republican strongmen (Saleh, Mubarak, and Tunisia’s Zine el Abidine Ben Ali), but it never returned dignity, employment opportunities, or economic power to the young protesters who risked their lives demanding precisely those things. The beauty that washed over Worth and so many others in Cairo quickly degenerated, leaving Egypt more authoritarian than ever and plunging Syria, Libya, and Yemen into a tide of extreme violence. Worth’s book is divided into two parts, which mirror this surge of popular hope and political disillusion. The first, titled “Revolts,” offers a breakneck tour of Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen as the uprisings began, regimes fell, and states showed signs of splintering. The second part, “Restorations,” returns to three of the four states to find the Arab Spring turned to winter, its optimism hardened by sectarian loyalties that were easily manipulated. Then, in the last chapter, Worth reports on a flicker of possibility for reconciliation in Tunisia.

From left: Muhammad Abdelmalik al Mutawakel, Chokri Belaid, Samir Kassir, and Naji al-Ali. All images Wikicommons.
From left: Muhammad Abdelmalik al Mutawakel, Chokri Belaid, Samir Kassir, and Naji al-Ali. All images Wikicommons.

What is striking about A Rage for Order is, well, two things. The first is that Worth isn’t so much writing a recent political history of an incredibly tumultuous time as he is telling the intimate stories of a dozen or so mostly ordinary people who were picked up, dragged along, and battered by events as if by bad weather, desperate for some traction to determine their own fate. The second is the range of Worth’s characters, from Saeed, an affable Yemeni campaigner for peasants’ rights, to the man he despises, Sheikh Muhammad Ahmed Mansour, a sadistic Yemeni strongman with a private army and the president’s ear who has been reciting seductive poetry, delivering votes, and oppressing his people for decades in the rugged mountain region of Ja’ashin.

Worth tells the story of the Syrian civil war through the estrangement of two women, best friends in their twenties, inseparable since high school. That Aliaa is Alawi and Noura Sunni never mattered much before. But as rebel operations and regime reprisals slowly wreck the country, Aliaa and Noura are pulled apart. They retreat into closed communities, clinging to ever more delusional sectarian narratives. Noura becomes religious and marries a man sympathetic to Al-Qaeda. She lives the grim life of a displaced Syrian refugee in southern Turkey. Aliaa, meanwhile, insists that reports of Bashar al-Assad’s brutality are exaggerated or false. The two women’s “friendship belonged to a world that no longer made sense,” Worth writes. “They had redefined each other, little by little, as enemies.”

In Egypt, Worth takes the pulse of the revolution in the apartment of Pierre Sioufi, “a forty-nine-year-old slacker” who provides an essential refuge for protesters with a ninth-floor balcony opening directly onto Tahrir Square. He meets a group of hardcore Islamists who have befriended a tattooed young man with no beard. Mistaking him for a member of the Sunni Islamist faction Gamaa Islamiya, Worth is confused and asks him when he joined. “Me? Join the Gamaa Islamiya?” says the young man, incredulous.“I’m a liberal,” he says. “I’m very liberal. I am corrupt! I’m a DJ!” Tahrir made such hopeful alliances possible. What finally tore them apart, Worth notes, was the Rabaa massacre following Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s military coup, which marked the gruesome end of the Muslim Brotherhood’s disastrous term in power. Worth tells that story through the rise and fall of Muhammad Beltagy, a doctor in the working-class slums of Cairo who had once been a rising star in the Muslim Brotherhood but was brought in line by party elders. Beltagy’s daughter was killed at Rabaa. He was jailed for incitement. By the end of Worth’s book, he was still in solitary confinement with little to no legal counsel, a broken man.

Perhaps the most memorable of Worth’s characters is Abu Ali, a short, bald, middle-aged Jordanian who had lost his job as a paper pusher in Aleppo and was having a hard time with his wife when he decided to join ISIS. Staggeringly naive, Abu Ali doesn’t want to fight—his knees are bad. He just wants a desk job and to “make himself into a good Muslim.” His new commanders are sufficiently flummoxed by his uselessness as a soldier. Abu Ali gets quite a scare but manages to escape. His wife even takes him back. “I forgive you,” she says. “But don’t fuck up again.” He plays the fool, but Worth extracts a rueful lesson from him nonetheless. “The regime may end,” Abu Ali tells him. “ISIS may end. But the war? Never.”

And so it goes, one story after another of hope and disillusion. What saves Worth’s effort from despair, and justifies the book’s dedication to Mutawakel, is the last chapter, a feat of in-depth reporting that offers a cinematic account of the delicate, dance-like negotiations between Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia’s Ennahda movement and a moderate Islamist, and Beji Caid Essebsi, head of the Nidaa Tounes party and now the country’s precarious president. The two men come from completely different worlds. Essebsi is aristocratic, elitist, and fiercely secular—a man groomed for politics all his life. Ghannouchi is the son of a farmer who grew up in “a village with no electricity or paved roads.” Worth pieces together a riveting account of how they meet, circle each other warily, but come to form a real bond, taking great risks that threaten to ruin them politically and tip the country into the same divisive horror that has overtaken Egypt and Syria. Their alliance works, if only just. Worth holds to his skepticism, but he leaves his readers with a glimmer of chance and change.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a writer based in Beirut and New York.