There was a common thread to the headlines marking the 10th anniversary of the Arab Spring: “Why the Arab Spring Failed”, proclaimed Time, Vox, Prospect, Jacobin and Haaretz; variations on the theme ran in many other outlets. As Iyad El-Baghdadi pithily notes in The Middle East Crisis Factory, the first time he was asked to join a panel on “the failure of the Arab Spring” was in July 2011 – just seven months after it had started.
Baghdadi didn’t believe it then, and he doesn’t believe it now. For him and co-author Ahmed Gatnash, the Arab Spring was not a switch that could be flicked on and then off again; it was instead “a real awakening that produced a new citizen” in the region. Did the Arab Spring fail? As the Chinese premier Zhou Enlai didn’t quite say about the impact of the French Revolution, it’s too early to tell. “The Arab Spring is a 30-year historical transition that began in 2011 as the last phase of a long decolonisation,” they write.
Baghdadi, a Palestinian start-up consultant, joined the Arab Spring in his adopted homeland of the United Arab Emirates, forging online activist networks across the region. They watched with euphoria as dictators were toppled in Tunisia and Egypt, and then with alarm as Bahrain cracked down and chaos, followed by civil war, were unleashed in Libya, Yemen and Syria.
Baghdadi was arrested in April 2014. He feared long-term imprisonment, or death, but was instead deported to Malaysia, from where he obtained asylum in Norway. Two years later, his online activism saw Islamic State (Isis) put his name on a hitlist. He battled with post-traumatic stress disorder. In 2019, Norwegian intelligence told him he was a planned target of the Saudi regime, and took him into police protection.
Throughout, he was talking and writing with Ahmed Gatnash, a young British activist of Libyan parentage. They started a podcast, The Arab Tyrant Manual; a think tank, the Kawaakibi Foundation; and have now published this book. Its title is at odds with their philosophy: “crisis factory” has, like that 2011 panel on the “failure” of the Arab Spring, an overtone of fatalism; in fact, their mission is precisely to counter the fatalism – and racism – that they see underlying conventional western attitudes towards their region.
Terror as essence
In Irish commentary, "Middle East" most commonly invokes the conflict between Israel and Palestine, which together have a population of some 15 million. The focus here is far wider: the authors use Middle East as a shorthand for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, with a combined population of half a billion.
The fatalism they decry is embodied in the ideas that this region and its cultures are not conducive to democracy; that Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism are somehow woven into its essence; that the best the West can hope for is that it be ruled by relatively benign despots. The authors identify this attitude even in supposedly progressive western observers.
Two examples are telling. One was the enthusiasm with which the rise of Mohammad bin Salman – universally known now as MBS – was initially greeted in the West, as exemplified by fawning coverage in the New York Times. The authors observe: “A certain strand of western thought has always seen us, the people of the Middle East, as somehow lesser on the ladder of humanity. We are hence unworthy of self-rule, certainly of democracy, and the only thing that can work to bring us savages into the civilised world is an enlightened, western-friendly autocrat who’s willing to move fast and break things.”
The other is Barack Obama's final state of the union speech, in January 2016; the Middle East's problems, Obama said, were "rooted in conflicts that date back millennia". The authors are scathing in response: "The conflicts in the Middle East date back decades, not millennia; and his foreign policy choices poured gasoline on these conflicts even as the region was going through a historical intergenerational transformation."
Baghdadi and Gatnash provide an excellent primer on the history of the region, firmly rooting its current woes in the colonial experience. (A sample of gleaming detail: “When the French left Algeria after 132 years of occupation, the literacy rate stood at less than 15 per cent.”) This produced a region that is a “crisis factory”, caught in a “vicious triangle” where “terrorists, tyrants and foreign intervention mutually support and legitimise each other”.
The Arab Spring briefly and beautifully threatened this: then a “counter-revolutionary axis” arose among the region’s leaders, quashing dissent. MBS was the fulcrum of this axis, but he is also the fulcrum of this analysis in another way, the turning point in what the authors believe will be a story of redemption, not tragedy, for their region.
A US intelligence report released last month found that MBS had authorised the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist, at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. This marked a definitive end to the image of MBS as a reformer. “When Jamal’s murderers dismembered his body, they were not aware that they were also dismembering that mythical reformist leader whom so many desperately wanted to believe in,” they write.
The authors do not claim to have a magic bullet to cure the region’s ills, instead prescribing a series of strategies common in the world of human rights advocacy: targeted sanctions; facilitation of whistleblowers; universal jurisdiction for prosecuting human rights violations. Those in the West who facilitate authoritarians – such as the PR companies that airbrush the Saudi regime – should also be targeted. Tech companies should be pressurised to counter online disinformation and disarm the “bots” that target online activists.
But their primary means of fighting autocracy is as much philosophical as it is strategic: the region’s citizens must be supported and empowered to hold their own leaders to account. The authors call for more visas and educational opportunities, investment in entrepreneurs, smart use of technology, and targeted supports for activists.
Ultimately, the book is less a policy prescription than a polemic: it is a proud, angry and ultimately hopeful rallying cry for the causes of democratisation and human rights in the Middle East and North Africa.
“Our job isn’t only to battle dictators and make them nervous,” they write. “It is also to be a wellspring of support, solidarity and love for every human being who dreams of freedom.” And our job must be to offer them what support can.
Colin Murphy is a journalist, playwright and broadcaster