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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.

The regimes ruling Morocco and Egypt, both of which, a few years ago, seemed potential bellwethers for an Arab transition to democracy, have handily parried challenges. Not only have they retained much of their old arsenal of repression, they have invented subtler ways of quashing dissent. For instance Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the outspoken Egyptian liberal, has been hounded into exile, not by the old method of direct threats, which he might have braved, but by a bevvy of petty lawsuits, filed by government supporters and aimed at turning his life into a tiresome trial. Similarly, Morocco’s most exuberantly critical news editors have found themselves hit by libel suits carrying crushing fines. Both countries have in the past few years held legislative elections described as their freest and fairest to date; yet both polls were carefully circumscribed, either by police intervention, in the case of Egypt, or by a more delicate but almost as effective mix of gerrymandering and bribery in Morocco.

Rather than responding to Islamist extremism by “draining the swamps” of political repression that feed it, the region’s governments have used the violence as an excuse for more. Following the 2003 al-Qaeda bombings in Casablanca, Moroccan police responded with mass detentions and torture, in a throwback to old practices. Terrorist attacks on Egyptian resort hotels in 2004 and 2005 provoked a similar police crackdown. The Islamist bogeyman has also been useful in silencing Western critics. Whenever complaints arise about President Mubarak’s escalating harassment of the Muslim Brotherhood, hundreds of whom have been imprisoned in recent months, he simply points to Hamas, an ideological offshoot of the Brotherhood, and asks if supporters of his “moderate” regime would like Egypt to go the way of Gaza.

Internet blogs and chat sites, along with satellite television, now expose Middle Easterners to more critical views than ever before. But the sound of dissent is often mere background noise. Today, the ambitious people-power Web sites created by activists such as Shahbender in Egypt and Andraos in Lebanon appear sparse and ill-attended. In no Middle Eastern country has such activism produced anything like systemic change. Indeed, the more repressive governments of Iran and Syria crush dissent with renewed zeal: many of the people Wright interviewed in Tehran or Damascus—including Riad Seif, a Syrian businessman-turned-dissident, currently in prison, and Abdolkarim Soroush, the Iranian philosopher who can no longer teach in Iran and spends more of his time in the US—have since been jailed, exiled, or otherwise silenced. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has used his position as Iran’s president, with control of the legislature, the courts, the militias, and the support of the Supreme Leader, to try to frog-march his reluctant people back into the bunker mentality of the Islamic Revolution’s early years.

Egypt’s inspiring Kefaya movement has fizzled as quickly as it flared. In fact, its telegenic protests never attracted much more than an initial core of activists. The inertia and selective vindictiveness of Egypt’s extensive state apparatus, combined with the apathy of a public more concerned with bread than freedom, sucked away the oxygen of hope. One cannot help wondering if Wright would have been less enthusiastic about such movements if she had actually witnessed their impact on the street. It was often the case that in Kefaya demonstrations, where, typically, police vastly outnumbered protesters, passersby would comment disparagingly about the blocking of traffic on Cairo’s already congested streets.

Some Egyptians even seemed to think the demonstrators were paid government agents, staging protests as part of some elaborate plot to inveigle potential troublemakers and then arrest them. Such fear mixed with distrust explains why, as Wright reports, when the wife of Ayman Nour, an Egyptian politician who polled second to Mubarak in the 2005 presidential elections, organized a rally to protest his imprisonment on a trumped-up charge, only fifty people showed up.

The same regression has affected even countries that appeared to take the boldest steps toward change. In Lebanon, despite an active civil society and a relatively free press, expectations of reform have been drained by war, foreign meddling, and intractable sectarian politics. Political paralysis has gripped the country for more than a year, polarizing its people between supporters of the government, which is propped up by Western aid, and the opposition, which is bolstered by Syria and Iran.

Similarly, Iraqis and Palestinians feel duped by the promise of democracy, which appears to have delivered nothing but schism, insecurity, and weakness. In both places, the voice of the people has given power not to the liberal secularists who sign on to Western notions of progress, but to religious conservatives who see themselves as a bulwark of opposition to dangerous Western ways. As a result, in both places, the same external forces that called for greater democracy—most aggressively, the Bush administration—now urge their beleaguered pet leaders to crack down on their more popular opponents.

This regressive trend extends to countries not covered in Wright’s perambulations. Saudi Arabia has talked much of reforming its absolute monarchy, but achieved remarkably little. Tunisia’s dictatorship remains quietly vicious, while Algeria’s looser one, which had just been emerging from a decade of civil conflict, is facing a renewed threat of Islamist violence with renewed curtailment of liberties. Even Turkey, whose mild Islamist movement’s capture of power through the ballot box appeared to be a model for similar evolutions in other Muslim-majority countries, shows signs of reverting. The country’s secular, military-backed supreme court now holds a sword of Damocles over the ruling AK party. It has voted to hear a court case which could lead to AK’s liberal Islamists being banned, an act which could call into question the foundations of Turkish democracy.

To her credit, Wright does not shy from admitting that her thesis of inevitable reform has grown increasingly unsustainable. The Arab spring, she says frankly, did not endure. A little more exploration of why this was so would have been appropriate, perhaps. But Wright is surely correct in ascribing some part of the blame to America’s inept and counterproductive Iraq policy. As numerous interlocutors in the region tell her, not only did the debacle promote extremism and further isolate pro-Western liberals, it alerted people to the terrible risks of toppling tyrants. The Iraq adventure, in Wright’s view, may have been the biggest American policy failure of all time. It could yet prove to mark the end of an imperial America’s influence in the region, much as France and Britain’s catastrophic invasion of Egypt in 1956 demolished the colonial powers’ standing and dangerously boosted the fortunes of Egypt’s reckless leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser. That is surely a sound judgment.

Sadly, though, Wright’s urge to make lapidary pronouncements can produce some remarkably hollow punditry. “For the foreseeable future, the Middle East will be engulfed in a contest between the familiar and the feared,” she declares, as if this were not a description of the human condition in general. “Islam’s priests will wield enormous political influence during the Middle East’s turbulent transitions,” we are informed, as if political Islam had not been on the march for the past three decades. Her hardly surprising pronouncement on the coming conundrum that will face the Middle East is “that free and fair elections may not initially produce a respectable democracy.”

Wright’s coverage can be rather uneven. On the subject of Iran, a country she has covered as extensively as any American journalist, she is excellent. Not only is she sensitive to such subtleties as the bitter, even vicious doctrinal differences between senior Shia clerics; she takes care to underline the motives behind what more glib commentators customarily describe as belligerent behavior. She places Iran’s apparent keenness for nuclear gadgetry, for instance, in the context of its ghastly war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, during which some 50,000 Iranians fell victim to Iraqi poison gas.

Yet she is clear-eyed about the creepiness of the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, whose dry, saintly demeanor belies paranoia and a certain nastiness. A statement from him, such as “If someone confronts the clergy, he gladdens the Zionists and the Americans,” is not mere rhetoric. It often indicates that he is addressing a specific person, who is liable to end up in jail. Wright recalls seeing him appear at the United Nations in New York, and being chilled to hear him hector the General Assembly about “arch Satan” America, and then dismiss the very body he was addressing as a “paper factory.”

Wright is less reliable on issues relating to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Mercifully, she does not go into its details, explaining that she did not wish to encumber the book with material that has been heavily documented elsewhere. Besides, as she notes, the strength of Israel’s democracy clearly does not fit the rest of the region’s mold. Yet the problem of Israel and the Palestinians, so poisonous to the region as a whole, cannot be so easily extracted from the general ointment.

By Wright’s account, Israel itself appears to have little agency in fomenting wider troubles. The fault seems to lie almost entirely with the Arabs. It was Syria’s president, Hafez al-Assad, we are told, who wrecked peace negotiations in 2000 by holding out for all the occupied Golan Heights. Yasser Arafat was simply “the obstacle to a final peace.” The American-sponsored roadmap, meant to lead to a final settlement, stalled “when Arafat did not end the violence against Israel.”

Arafat and Assad may have made grim dinner companions, but these are contentious statements. Could it be that Israel’s insistence on keeping the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, which had once been Syria’s, prompted the Syrian dictator’s reluctance? Did the ceaseless expansion of Jewish settlements in Palestinian territories, and the brutality with which Israel responded to the second intifada, including the physical destruction of Palestinian police stations, have anything to do with Arafat’s trepidation, let alone his ability to control violence? We are told that the intifada erupted after Arafat balked at peace terms offered by Israel, but not that Ariel Sharon, later Israel’s prime minister, helped to spark the conflagration by marching into the courtyard of the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, accompanied by two thousand armed police, or that a day later, Israeli police snipers shot dead thirteen of their own Arab fellow citizens.

There are also some lazy expressions here. Arabs seem forever to be “fleeing.” The parents of the Shikaki brothers “fled” their village in pre-1948 Palestine. (The divergent career paths of the two men mirror Palestinian politics: one, a leader of the radical Islamic Jihad group, was killed by an Israeli hit squad; the other is a liberal, soft-spoken pollster.) The Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, who survived an Israeli attempt at poisoning, himself “fled” Palestine in 1967, and again “fled” Kuwait in 1991, when Saddam Hussein invaded. Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah chief, also “fled” from Lebanon’s civil war. Surely, refugees sometimes escape, or get thrown out, or are propelled to move by something other than a tendency to scuttling flight.

A certain hastiness can be detected, too, in the occasional clumsy wording. One wonders how the “dirt-poor poverty” suffered by Morocco differs from other kinds of poverty. “Opening up politics,” she warns elsewhere, “endangers deepening the problems it is meant to solve,” a statement that might be interpreted as dangerously Rumsfeldian. And one can only regret that Wright was not more firm with her editors, who have sadly insisted on modifying the sources of chapter-opening quotes with ugly little identifiers. In the age of Google, is it is really necessary to cite “French philosopher Blaise Pascal” or “American artist Andy Warhol”?

In many ways Dreams and Shadows is an admirable book. Yet despite Wright’s determination to be objective and her skill at her craft, there is something unsatisfying about the approach to journalism that she represents here. Perhaps it is a symptom of listening to the world from Washington, where the rumble of think tanks, the clatter of talk shows, and the whine of politicians synthesize into an agenda that often clashes with the sounds of the Middle Eastern jungle. Wright does try to challenge that agenda, yet does not really escape being informed by it.

She takes pride, for instance, in relying on local sources rather than distant “experts.” Yet many of her local informants are famed talking heads, working in institutions that are furrowed pitstops for foreign correspondents. Often, too, the sort of questions they are asked reflect priorities set elsewhere. At one point, for instance, Wright describes three vital issues that Middle Eastern governments must address in order to accommodate pressure for change: political prisoners, womens’ rights, and political Islam. Perhaps, but that sounds closer to concerns in Washington than to the more mundane things, such as jobs, the corruption of local officials, and the soaring cost of marriage, that actually exercise many Middle Easterners.

Dictators are ugly, and democracy is, most likely, the least bad way of being governed. But demagogues can be better than democrats at keeping fragile polities together. The Arabs say warily that one day of fitna, schism, is worse than thirty years of tyranny. A quaint and anachronistic notion, maybe, but also the product of a historical experience far longer than most other peoples’. One cannot help wondering whether some of the wishful thinking that has proved so injurious when translated into American foreign policy has been influenced by the finely turned but subtly distorting prism of honest and talented reporters such as Wright, reflecting their ultimate faith that one day the rest of the world, and even the benighted Middle East, will come to embrace the American way.

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