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The Arab Spring, and After

If there is such a thing as a pinnacle in the landscape of international journalism, Robin Wright surely stands atop it. The Washington Post‘s chief diplomatic correspondent has braved thirty-five years of wars, crises, and famines, not to mention bureaucratic sniping in Washington, to illuminate the world’s darker interstices. She has scored many scoops, captured a stack of awards, authored a half-dozen books, and accumulated a star-studded Rolodex that must be the envy of every hack within the Beltway.

When a journalist of this caliber descends on some dusty capital, she is sure to have her path eased by the most capable local dragomen, and by the eagerness of media-savvy people to communicate with the Superpower. And when she sets her sights on a topic as weighty as the future of the Middle East, that most tiresomely troubling corner of the globe, it should be time for armchair analysts to take cover and policymakers to listen.

Wright’s latest book, Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East, elaborated out of a year-long series of articles for the Post that looked into prospects for political reform in the region, delivers plenty of what one would expect from so experienced an observer. Roaming through Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Palestine, she recounts her impressions with wisdom, clarity, and a sharp critical eye. Her favored access to top officials, as well as to the dissidents opposing them, is put to good use. Wright lets her varied interlocutors speak in their own words, but also sets the scene helpfully.

We discover for instance that Hassan Nasrallah, the charismatic but reclusive leader of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia party-cum-militia, proves to be a thoughtful and voluble host. He annoys aides by prolonging an interview with Wright late into the night. And he surprises her with the sometimes disturbing turns of his logic, as when he fulsomely denounces the September 11 attacks on New York, but hints that the Pentagon may have been a legitimate target—just the sort of unappetizing yet intriguing view that American audiences are seldom exposed to.

Wright can be an engaging guide. It is amusing to be reminded that the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat drove a two-tone pink Thunderbird convertible in the days when he was a successful engineer in Kuwait, before the career change to gritty guerrilla politics. We are told of an exquisitely crass exchange of gifts during his visit to Libya’s ruler, Muammar Qaddafi. The erratic Bedouin strongman received from the Palestinian an antique camel saddle, and he gave in return a set of Samsonite luggage to Arafat, the peripatetic refugee. Those who think of Iran as a grim place will be heartened to hear that people joke there about their fanatical but endearingly disheveled president parting his hair and ordering male lice to the left, female lice to the right. His predecessor, the dapper, charming, but ineffectual Mohammad Khatami, was referred to as the “Armani mullah.” Moroccans, we are told, relish calling their youthful king, Mohammed VI, “Sa Majetski,” in reference to his fondness for waterbikes.

Wright’s anecdotes can be poignant as well as funny. Riad al-Turk, a survivor of decades in Syrian political prisons, relates how he kept his sanity while in solitary confinement by picking seeds out of his soup and using them to draw elaborate pictures on the floor of his tiny cell. Wright observes that Iran’s dour Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has to let his guards cut his food for him. His right arm was damaged in 1981 by a bomb disguised as a tape recorder, making him what acolytes describe as a Living Martyr.

Yet this book is not another rambling rehash of an intrepid reporter’s notes. Wright deftly weaves in much useful historical background, thus adding the sort of perspective that is all too often missing from daily press coverage. The fact, as she points out, that the region’s population has grown fully sevenfold within three generations, for instance, is surely crucial to understanding the underlying stresses its societies face. In closer focus, Wright’s concise account of the creation of Iran’s peculiar constitution three decades ago, with its uncomfortable pairing of theocratic and democratic institutions, explains the Islamic Republic’s current malaise more effectively than would any blow-by-blow account of its politics. Her summary accounts of the genesis of Hezbollah and of how the split between the Palestinians’ secular Fatah and Islamist Hamas parties has evolved are concise and informative.

Wright also escapes the format of a correspondent’s travelogue by composing the book around a central leitmotif, echoing the dichotomy announced by her title of an elemental struggle between youthful dreams of freedom and enlightenment, and the shadows cast by power and tradition. Wright’s conjecture is that the region’s long-entrenched autocratic regimes face a groundswell of pressure for change that they are increasingly ill-equipped to fend off. She argues as follows:

Islamic extremism is no longer the most important, interesting, or dynamic force in the Middle East….

In the early twenty-first century, a budding culture of change is instead imaginatively challenging the status quo—and even the extremists. New public voices, daring publications, and increasingly noisy protests across two dozen countries are giving shape to a vigorous, if disjointed, trend. It includes defiant judges in Cairo, rebel clerics in Tehran, satellite television station owners in Dubai, imaginative feminists in Rabat and the first female candidates in Kuwait, young techies in Jeddah, daring journalists in Beirut and Casablanca, and brave writers and businessmen in Damascus.

For all, peaceful empowerment has become the preferred means of making political decisions and producing change.

It is a matter of time, she seems to imply, before autocratic and extremist forces are forced to adapt, or get swept away. “The despots in the Arab world are on their last gasp,” she approvingly quotes the Egyptian dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim. “History is moving,” he continues. “The moment is ours.”

In the year Wright carried out most of the research for this book, 2006, it was easy to envision momentum gathering for such a dramatic transition. The same democratic tide that had swept away dictatorial regimes in Latin America, Eastern Europe, and much of Asia and Africa seemed at last to have reached the Middle East. New forms of communication such as satellite television and the Internet were making rapid inroads into state control of information. New political forces had emerged, such as citizens’ rights groups and parties espousing a milder, more inclusive brand of Islamism, partly in reaction to the violent excesses of al-Qaeda. External pressure for democratization had mounted, too, with the Bush administration signaling to its autocratic allies that it was time to change, because repression breeds terrorism.

In 2005, a popular uprising in Lebanon appeared to have cast off thirty years of Syrian dominance. Activists in Morocco had recently pressed for, and won, greater rights for women. A truth commission had, with government backing, exposed past abuse against the monarchy’s opponents. A burgeoning protest movement in Egypt, the most populous Arab state, was challenging the quarter-century rule of President Hosni Mubarak with the simple slogan Kefaya—“Enough!”

Both the Palestinians and Iraq had overcome severe political turbulence to hold free and exciting legislative elections, with voters turning out in enthusiastic force. The surprise capture of a parliamentary majority by the Palestinian Islamist party Hamas looked like a harbinger of regionwide change, because, whatever the peculiarities of the Palestinians’ predicament, their political polarization very much mirrored the state of other Arab societies. Notwithstanding the party’s violent methods in opposing Israel, Hamas won the contest against a long-entrenched and corrupt ruling party, Fatah, on a platform based on honesty, integrity, and social justice. Iraqi voters provoked dismay by backing narrow sectarian groups, yet this choice, while distressing for Iraq as a nation, reflected the empowerment of the eternally disenfranchised.

In 2006, however, the reformist trend in Syria and Iran appeared already to have been blunted. Syria’s young president, Bashar al-Assad, had quickly turned the brief Damascus Spring that followed his accession in 2000 into a more familiar winter for dissidents. Iran’s unelected institutions—the Supreme Leader, the Guardian’s Council of senior clerics, and varied militias—had first blocked the progress of the reformists who won control of the country’s parliament and presidency in 1997, and then ousted them. Yet the reformists in both Syria and Iran had scored some gains, and scared both countries’ autocrats. Their hopes and courage were not yet dimmed.

Besides, for a journalist visiting the region, these brave and, conveniently often, English-speaking activists made for pleasant company. It is hardly surprising that Wright should find herself cheering on an Egyptian soccer-mom-turned-agitator such as Ghada Shahbender, creator of a Web site promoting clean government, who named her dog Lazoghli after the Cairo square where the feared Ministry of Interior is headquartered; or Asma-Maria Andraos, a businesswoman in East Beirut who conducted a successful petition to force Lebanon’s pro-Syrian government to resign, and whom Wright describes as the “mother superior” of the country’s protest movement; or Fatima Mernissi, the flamboyant Moroccan feminist.

Wright is captivated by the youthful glamour of what she calls the pyjamahedeen, the desk-bound Internet warriors whose intrepid exposure of regime crimes, she claims, is likely to be a force for change as powerful as the violence of the mujahideen on Islam’s radical fringe. She found the avuncular leaders of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Morocco’s Party of Justice and Development to be open-minded people and committed democrats. Saadedine Othmani, the PJD’s chairman, described his party as an Islamic version of Europe’s Christian democrats, to the point of hinting that ideally, religion and the state should be separated.

Someday, bright and energetic citizen-activists, or progressive Islamists, may indeed tip the scales against repressive states in the Middle East, just as their counterparts have elsewhere. But it is a pitfall of books such as these, which draw mostly on current events, that trends have a way of shifting course, or actually reversing. Even by the end of Wright’s tour d’horizon, the light is clearly fading. If 2005 and 2006 were years of hope, the intervening period has been one of almost unremitting gloom for the region’s would-be reformers.

As one of Wright’s sources, the Syrian commentator Sami Moubeyed, notes, part of the trouble lies in semantics. The Arabic term for reform, islah, can equally mean change, “as in improving or overhauling,” as well as to fix something that is broken. “The conflict here is that people want reform, while the government is thinking repair,” he says. By and large, it is this latter understanding that has prevailed. Most of the region’s governments have sought to repair their systems of control and coercion, at the expense of any meaningful broadening of political franchise. Other governments, such as those of Lebanon, Iraq, and the Palestinians, have failed to further consolidate their rule, not for want of trying but simply because they are too weak to do so.

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