Dreams, despair and dictators

Published by The Observer (24th August, 2015)

Shifting Sands: The Unravelling of the Old Order in the Middle East (Profile)

Khaled Fahmy trudged down to Tahrir Square in Cairo four years ago to join what he expected to be another small demonstration crushed by overwhelming police forces. Instead he found himself alongside tens of thousands of fellow Egyptians calling for the downfall of Hosni Mubarak and the end of a 30-year dictatorship. Day after day they returned, believing finally their voice was being heard. A new slogan spread, symbolising the demand for dignity: ‘Irfa’ rasak fo’. Inta Masri‘ (Lift up your head. You’re Egyptian.)

How distant those heady days now seem, how naive those expectations of democracy. Mubarak was ousted, yet Egypt is now gripped by a worse military dictatorship ‘that has arrested our friends, imprisoned our comrades and quashed our dreams’. Kangaroo courts have passed hundreds of death sentences and journalists and human rights activists have been jailed, while security forces carried out one of the biggest killings of protesters in recent memory. Despite this, the west continues to support and sell arms to this hideous regime.

‘How did the Arab spring morph into an Arab nightmare, out of which we seem not to be able to awaken?’ asks Fahmy, professor of history at the American University in Cairo, in his sparkling contribution to this superb book of essays by 15 academics and writers. This is the key question at the core of the collection, which arose out of discussions on the past, present and future of the Middle East at last year’s Edinburgh international book festival. The result is a short work of useful insight into the maelstrom engulfing the region.

Fahmy’s piece is typical, sweeping through history yet written with a wry tone. He argues that the most difficult issue is not to determine when the revolution ended but when it began. He suggests it was an uprising against the modern Egyptian state, put in place more than two centuries before those crowds swept away Mubarak’s corrupt rule. ‘We the people have been in a state of constant rebellion for the past 200 years,’ he says – and this was the ‘latest phase of our struggle to force the tyrannical state to serve us’.

Others go further back. Justin Marozzi claims the sectarian tensions ripping apart Iraq have existed there since the foundation of Baghdad in the late 8th century. He points out how this was understood by the Ottomans during their lengthy period of rule, which predated the British arrival in 1917, administering the place as three provinces. ‘The British, in their wisdom, decided to throw them all together and create the new state of Iraq.’

Needless to say, the British and French do not emerge with any credit for their colonial meddling, which destroyed the old order in the Arab-speaking world with little thought of the consequences, as we can see from the terrible tremors shaking the region today. There is much discussion – probably too much – of the secret Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916. Yet I loved the revelation that France’s negotiator, François Georges-Picot, signed in ink, while the Briton Sir Mark Sykes used a pencil, reflecting each side’s attitude towards the pact.

But this is not just a history book; it also encompasses art and culture, along with current affairs. The journalist Ramita Navai delivers a strong analysis of the tensions bubbling away in Iran and asks whether the emerging alliance between Tehran and Washington can ever be more than a temporary tactical union. Along the way she points out how the internet invigorated the gay scene there, while online searches for pornography in Iran are among the world’s highest. Yet still the conservative clerics seek to control women’s sexuality, even debating leggings in parliament, “not, as one would hope, as a crime against fashion but as a crime against morality”.

Inevitably, not all the offerings work so well. A couple have little fresh to say, while one tedious essay on Syria is the worst kind of cheapjack journalism, spending much of its time erroneously condemning the international media regardless of the many deaths, injuries and kidnaps suffered in getting out the story. Despite this, the net result is a fine primer by writers who are largely informed, impassioned and articulate about a world around them that, as one says, feels like it is on fire.

These essays echo conversations I’ve had in cafes and homes across the region. For all the inevitable pessimism, given the horrors of repression, religious bigotry and civil war, flashes of the inspiring optimism seen back in those inspirational days of early 2011 still break through the gloom. So Fahmy writes that he is confident the revolution will prevail one day, given the depth of its roots, and that people have ‘prised open the black box of politics’. Yet it is hard to shake off a quote from Nietzsche used by a Syrian street artists’ collective: ‘Be careful when you fight the monsters, lest you become one.’

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