A portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a café in Damascus at the time of the US-led invasion of Iraq, March 2003

Alex Majoli/Magnum Photos

A portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a café in Damascus at the time of the US-led invasion of Iraq, March 2003

Our recent attempt to run an Arab state did not end well. During just over a year in which the US- and UK-staffed Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) administered Iraq, that country began its descent into the abyss of violence and political and economic dysfunction in which it has languished ever since. In Britain on July 6 an exhaustive public inquiry led by the former civil servant Sir John Chilcot concluded seven years of work in which it tried to understand what went wrong. Its conclusion, in essence: Don’t do it again.

I did not serve in the CPA myself, but I did subsequently go out to assist Iraq’s first elected prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, in 2005. I hoped that a government of Iraqis, elected by Iraqis, would solve the problems that foreigners had been unable to address. I was disappointed to find that this did not happen. Violence worsened; many sectors of government barely functioned; Jaafari himself, a kindly man, behaved as a scholar rather than a statesman. Western visitors were baffled to be engaged in discussions of the minutiae of American history, while not far away Baghdad was literally burning. People began to long for a stronger leader. In due course autocratic Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was brought in to replace Jaafari.

There are many lessons to take from the Iraq debacle. The postwar missteps were legion. If the CPA had enfranchised Iraqis faster, instead of trying to install a blatantly American occupation government; if it had not rushed ahead with de-Baathification and the disbanding of the army; if it had paid more attention to the religious divide that was tearing the country apart—if, if, if. I myself doubt that it could ever have been a success. For one thing, such missteps were inevitable when the CPA’s principal loyalty was not to the Iraqi people but to the American government. Few Iraqis, furthermore, were willing to invest in an occupation that was self-declared to be a short-term one.

Second, based on my own experience, I do not think that the Iraqi politicians themselves had particularly good answers to their country’s problems. Perhaps there were no quick solutions to be had, but only the slow rebuilding of an abused and shattered state. If so, the most important lesson for us is that we should be doubly and triply cautious about breaking something that is so hard to reassemble.

That leaves the possibility that such regimes can be overthrown by their own people. In From Deep State to Islamic State: The Arab Counter-Revolution and Its Jihadi Legacy, Jean-Pierre Filiu, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Sciences Po in Paris, looks at just a few of the countries in which there were waves of protests from the end of 2010 until 2012: Yemen, Syria, Tunisia, and Egypt. These differ widely, especially since Filiu also adds Algeria, in which there were not only protests but bitter, violent conflict. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak resigned but the military, which had propped up his rule, ultimately regained power. In Tunisia, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled and a democracy was peacefully installed. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad has used barrel bombs and Russian and Iranian help to remain in power; while in Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh has turned to the Houthi rebels to back him in a civil war. Filiu omits Libya, for reasons that do not quite convince, and Iraq.

What all these countries except Tunisia did share in the twentieth century was the melancholy and ironic fate of Arab nationalist revolutions—against British-backed monarchy or French direct rule—for the most part resulting in regimes that were more authoritarian, and in certain ways more self-seeking, than the ones they replaced. In 1952, Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser deposed King Farouk of Egypt in the name of Arab freedom, but he then abolished or controlled the courts, parliament, and press and launched external military adventures to undermine his rivals. French rule in Syria gave way in the 1940s to a chaotic sequence of different governments before Hafez al-Assad violently took and maintained control in 1970. The Algerian revolutionaries who overthrew French rule in 1962 then divided up power among themselves and later canceled an election that would have displaced them. These leaders used external wars, internal witch-hunts, and talk of foreign conspiracies to legitimize their rule; and at the same time, to subsidize it, they tolerated or brought about huge black economies.

If they had oil, they used it to keep themselves in power. Without oil, Filiu observes, they used the very instability resulting from their own policies as evidence that they needed US aid in order to keep terrorists from taking over. The fall of Mosul to the Islamic State in 2014, he hints, could have been contrived by then Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki as a way to make himself indispensable. (To understand the full horror of such a suggestion, one must know that Maliki, who was installed by the US, is a Shia, and that the Shia are enemies and the principal targets of the Islamic State.)


Bashar al-Assad today says that we should stand against Islamic terrorism. It was only five years ago, Filiu points out, that he was setting terrorists free from his prisons—a cunning and ruthless Saddam-style maneuver designed to undermine more moderate opponents. Just over ten years ago Assad helped to send terrorists across the border into Iraq. Himself an Alawite, regarded by these same jihadi terrorists as an apostate deserving death, he nonetheless helped the jihadi movements gain strength. Why? Because doing it created a threat to Western and Russian interests to which Assad could present himself as the solution.

Likewise, when Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen became America’s ally against terrorism, it would have done him no good at all if terrorism had truly been wiped out in his country. He would then have had no value for the Americans. He needed to be a good ally against the terrorist threat, but in order to stay in power, Filiu writes, he needed that threat to continue to exist. In February 2006, twenty-three al-Qaeda detainees were mysteriously able to escape from a high-security Yemeni jail. The outcome was that more American money was paid to Saleh in order to combat the increased threat of terrorism that the jailbreak had caused.

Filiu’s analysis is acute in providing such explanations of how the terror threat is used in order to obtain money and power from the West, but his prescription may sound too easy. “More democracy should be the answer,” he says—but some democracies behave in the same way. Bin Laden lived near one of Pakistan’s military academies for several years while Pakistan—ostensibly democratic when not a dictatorship—presented itself as a necessary ally in the war against al-Qaeda. The Afghan government elected after 2001 solicited funds to fight the drug trade, while being very heavily invested in the drug trade. Assad and Saleh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, deceive the United States in their counterterrorist activities because their relations with the US are based on manipulation on both sides. Neither side likes or trusts the other. Elections alone will not change that.

Still, Filiu’s book should make us think harder about the economics of power. When I was a political officer in Afghanistan we lacked an understanding of the hidden profits driving the conflict, the secret ways in which government officials made money from the war, and the financial deals done under the table between ostensible enemies. Such networks of corruption, once established, are uncontrollable. Like drugs in sport, corruption confers a competitive advantage that few can resist. In turn, the widespread practice of corrupt payoffs creates secret Mafia-like networks of shared criminality.

Once the use of corrupt money becomes a standard practice, it is the official who stays clean who’s taking the risk: he might be seen by his corrupt colleagues as dangerous. Sometimes those who are at the apex of the pyramid of corruption may be so much in hock to their criminal cronies that they fear to go straight. An Afghan politician widely rumored to be a kingpin in the drug trade spoke to me with a candor masked by the pretense that he was speaking hypothetically. A politician who has a narcotics network, he said, cannot simply walk away from crime: his family and dependents, his entire group of political associates, would turn on him if he did. No, he said with feigned weariness, such a person would have to stick with it.

I have thought of that comment when people have predicted that Bashar al-Assad could easily be persuaded to leave Syria and go into exile in Russia. They ignore that he is to some extent caught in the web of loyalties that he himself spun. To leave, and abandon his clients and backers, would be a risky betrayal. He might never make it to the airport.

In Assad’s case, of course, the allegiances were to some extent strengthened by the complex religious makeup of Syria, whose minorities in some cases fear Islamism more than they fear Assad’s continued rule. In Afghanistan, tribes had a part in cementing these relationships. Elsewhere they have to be built through intermarriage and institutional loyalties. It can be hard to see the strands of the web, let alone unpick them. This is another reason why occupying and trying to run a foreign country is a doomed endeavor. Some smaller lessons, though, do occur to me that could be learned from Filiu and applied to situations like Afghanistan.


Corruption is a weed whose roots go deep and wide; if possible, it has to be torn up quickly. Our Afghanistan aid policy should have done that, instead of flooding the Afghan economy with money that heightened economic divisions and provided ample opportunities for unscrupulous people to enrich themselves. We should have been more careful whom we helped. We should, too, have been tougher in confronting official criminality. The Afghan election in 2009 was riddled with it, on both sides—because, as I’ve mentioned, it gives a competitive advantage.

Filiu does not take up such reforms in convincing detail; but as a diagnosis his book is written with scholarship, passion, and clarity. Still, a central question did not seem addressed. What price is worth paying to change a corrupt or dictatorial government? I felt that the omission of Libya from the book was a missed opportunity to confront this question. Muammar Qaddafi was an appalling dictator; his overthrow, however, led to violent chaos involving a variety of competing factions, in which thousands have been killed. Can the struggle for democracy be conducted with less cost? Is the cost worth it?

Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi and Islamist Ennahda Party leader Rachid Ghannouchi at the opening ceremony of Ennahda’s congress, Tunis, May 2016

Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images

Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi and Islamist Ennahda Party leader Rachid Ghannouchi at the opening ceremony of Ennahda’s congress, Tunis, May 2016

In A Rage for Order, Robert Worth takes a much more pessimistic view than Filiu. It was, he writes, a “willed refusal” of the US and its allies to see that the Arab uprisings of 2011 would end in “civil war and Islamist bloodlust.” But the protesters, he writes, stood for hope instead of despair, and “you couldn’t help rooting for them.”

Yet against relentless enemies, the protesters, as Worth closely and perceptively observed them, lacked cohesion, guile, and pragmatism. That is also the view of Thanassis Cambanis, a journalist and a teacher at Columbia University, who in Once Upon a Revolution follows some of Egypt’s young secular activists and the story of Tahrir Square from the first surprisingly successful march against then President Mubarak in 2011, through to the election of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in 2014 and the reemergence of the security forces as Egypt’s ruling class. He laments the revolutionaries’ mistakes: “their incoherence, their absence of tactical innovation, their inability to forge ideas.” Well-intentioned secular liberals were quickly brushed aside by Egypt’s two most powerful factions—the Islamists and the security forces. The result in 2012 was the doomed pact by which the Muslim Brotherhood would be elected to the presidency on condition that the military’s privileges remain intact.

Cambanis seems to me too harsh: the secular liberal revolutionaries, who wanted the downfall of the entire government system but not religious rule, never had a chance. For one thing, as Filiu observes, it can take decades to build a cohesive group capable of holding power. Filiu argues that the Egyptian army officer caste has evolved over the past decades into a semihereditary “Mamluk” elite, since members of top military families marry among themselves. The Muslim Brotherhood is famously secretive, with a strong sense of discipline adopted from Islam’s old Sufi orders, and an element of fascism that was much admired in the Arab world when the Brotherhood was founded in 1928. Again, its families tend to intermarry, cementing loyalties. The revolutionaries, by contrast, were mostly surprised to find themselves in Tahrir Square at all. They had no time to build a movement that could protect itself, make alliances, and have plausible plans to govern.

Furthermore, in Egypt, large parts of the population were willing to accept the power of the military or were sympathetic to it. When the army turned against the protesters, their cause was lost. “In Egypt’s case,” Cambanis writes, “love of the military and comfort with authoritarianism run deep.” Many people preferred stability above all, believing “that freedoms are luxuries to be enjoyed only when existential threats have been tamed.” Cambanis disagrees, seeing pluralism and due process as the best long-term guarantees of security; but he does not show how they could be introduced.

A third factor affected the events in Egypt. It was easier than many expected to gather a crowd for Mubarak’s ouster. He had no great accomplishments, his repression of dissidents could be brutal, and the ostentatious wealth of his new elite was grating. Yet some of those in the crowd waving placards against Mubarak are now firm supporters of President Sisi. They were in Tahrir not to bring an end to military rule, but to bring an end to Mubarak. The initial astonishing success of the demonstrations masked the fact that many who took part in them had little sense of how to deal with the forces they would face when Mubarak left.

A problem with secular revolution in much of the contemporary Arab world is that religion, usually of a rather intolerant kind, is often popular. Egypt, post-Tahrir, elected a Muslim Brother as its president. The representation of women and minorities in government promptly diminished. Turkish democracy, too, has been tending toward the religious right. There is a long-standing history of such tendencies. During the 1970s, when Anwar Sadat wanted to establish his own base of support in Egypt, he decided that official support for Islam and for religious authorities would be the best way to do it. When facing protests after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Saudi Arabia toughened its religious laws, calculating that this would be popular.

Far from wanting a separation of church and state, two thirds of Egyptians in 2010 (according to a Zogby poll) wanted the clergy to have more of a role in government. As Worth ably describes, an increasingly aggressive piety had been one of the results of the country’s mass migration from the countryside into shantytowns and shabby suburbs skirting Cairo:

In the misery of these new surroundings, populist preachers gradually transformed Islam from the traditional religion of the migrants’ ancestors into something new…. It became a shield they could rattle at infidels at home and abroad. It made them feel they belonged to something higher and better than the Westernized urban elite who despised them.

Partly in response to the growth of Islamism, secular and liberal opposition groups have often successfully been co-opted by governments. This in turn has made Islamist parties the main beneficiaries of revolution. More liberal figures are often easy to denounce as feloul, meaning adherents of the past regime. Few liberals, too, have made the intensive efforts to cultivate relations with the working classes that have been made by the Islamists.

The power of religious extremism and the damage it did to protest movements is a theme that comes across in Worth’s subtly insightful survey of the Arab uprisings. The emergence of the Islamic State has taken the pressure off Assad, just as he may have known it could when he released jihadis from prison in 2011. Islamic extremists likewise have emerged in Yemen, as part of a rebellion against its ruler in 2011, which now has become a civil war. In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood acted so arbitrarily that it unified, as Worth shows, much of the population against it, making victory easy for President Sisi. The power vacuum created by the war in Libya has opened up space for violent Islamists as well.

It might be that in order for democracy to succeed in the Middle East, the nature of religion there must change as well. Intolerant Islamism may have to weaken before democracy can take root. A sense of national loyalty must take precedence over religious solidarity.

These conditions may exist in Tunisia. In one of the final sections of A Rage for Order, Worth describes the country’s efforts to form and maintain a democratic society. Tunisia, he writes,

had been the cradle of the 2011 uprisings, and in many ways the most hopeful. This was a small, pacific country that seemed—on the map—to hover in the Mediterranean between Africa and Europe. It had none of the gunpowder of its neighbors: no sectarian rifts, no tribal strife, no violent insurgencies, no oil. The army was weak and apolitical.

Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the country’s dictator, fled just days after protesters reached the capital, and by the fall of 2011 Tunisia held elections in which Ennahda, “the mildest and most democratic Islamist party in history,” won enough of the Tunisian parliament to form a government.

Still, Worth writes, Ennahda was “reluctant to alienate its ideological base, which included many harder-line Islamists.” Led by the liberal Islamist Rachid Ghannouchi, the party allowed these hard-line groups to flourish, and before long Ansar al-Sharia—a Salafist organization calling for the creation of an Islamic state—was holding rallies across the country. In 2013, two leftist politicians were assassinated by jihadis with ties to Ansar al-Sharia. Facing an anti-Islamist backlash, and fearing a civil war, Ennahda resigned from the government and agreed to new elections.

In his final chapter, Worth gives a remarkable account of the way in which this transition of power was made. It offers some hope for a better way forward in handling the disputes that arise between the revolutionaries and the feloul, or the Islamists and the religious liberals, or indeed between different factions of any kind in a region where politics is too often a winner-take-all game. Relying on interviews and other accounts, Worth describes in detail the two men mainly responsible for averting civil war in Tunisia: Rachid Ghannouchi and Beji Caid Essebsi, founder of the secular Nidaa Tounes party and now president.

Ghannouchi and Essebsi came from very different backgrounds. One was a poor rural Islamist, the other a dedicated secularist from a long line of landed Tunisian aristocrats who had worked for the modernizing dictator Habib Bourguiba, and had been an ambassador under Ben Ali. The mere announcement that they were holding talks brought outraged condemnations, each accused of betraying his respective side. But the negotiations continued, and, as Worth writes, the two men

discovered that they had some things in common…. For all his secularism, Essebsi knew the Koran well, and often quoted it. Both men had been traumatized as boys by encounters with the French military, at almost exactly the same age…. Essebsi began to feel that his Islamist counterpart was a Tunisian patriot. And Ghannouchi realized that Essebsi had—like him—grown uncomfortable with Bourguiba’s autocratic ways long before the Ben Ali era began.

In January 2014, a new constitution was adopted, thanks largely to the work of these two men, each of whom faced fierce resistance from his own party. In the elections that followed, Ennahda received 27.8 percent of the vote, while Nidaa Tounes received 37.6 percent, and the two formed the coalition government now in power.

Tunisia’s current state is nevertheless fragile—it faces not only a crisis of lack of jobs and foreign investment, but also the threat of terror attacks from groups like al-Qaeda’s North African branch. Tunisia is per capita the biggest source of volunteers for the Islamic State including the assailant in the July 14 massacre in Nice. Two recent terror attacks have badly damaged the country’s tourism industry, which accounts for roughly 14.5 percent of its GDP. Worth’s conclusion about Tunisia strikes the note of realism that characterizes his book: “Even if the equilibrium holds,” he writes,

it is hard to say what kind of legacy will be granted to Tunisia’s grand old men. The idea that they achieved a historic synthesis, a reweaving of the country’s Islamic and Western ancestries, is an appealing one. And in many ways, Tunisia did seem to have pulled back from the crater’s edge in mid-2015. The coalition government was coalescing and planning reforms, albeit slowly. Most of the Islamists seemed to have come around to the belief in compromise and reconciliation. Leftists spoke optimistically about a working relationship with the people they’d once hoped to eradicate.

But the greatest dangers and the greatest opportunities lay beyond the country’s borders. Five years after the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, Tunisians still hoped that their small country could be a model, spreading its dream of reconciliation across a region troubled by war and tyranny. They also knew the same winds could blow in reverse and smash everything they had built.