The Bitter Fruits of the Arab Spring

May 3, 2016 | Adam Kirsch
About the author: Adam Kirsch, a poet and literary critic, is the author of, among other books, Benjamin Disraeli and The People and The Books: Eighteen Classics of Jewish Literature.

In a new book entitled A Rage for Order, the journalist Robert Worth tells the story of the Arab Spring and its bloody aftermath through a series of vignettes. Adam Kirsch writes in his review:

[I]n Egypt, as in Syria and the other places Worth covers, the initial enthusiasm [of 2011] obscured the fatal deficit of trust among citizens. Divisions between liberals and Islamists, civilians and the military, rebels and supporters of the old regime proved to be too poisonous and deeply rooted to be overcome. When the Muslim Brotherhood managed to elect their candidate, Mohammed Morsi, to the presidency, many former rebels urged the military to step in and oust him. The new military ruler, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, immediately became the subject of a cult of personality, his likeness appearing on “flags, pins, pictures, chocolate, cups, and other forms of Sisi mania,” in the words of a newspaper article quoted by Worth. When Sisi’s forces massacred 800 Islamists in Cairo, liberals applauded.

In Egypt, however, at least the state survived. The same can’t be said of Yemen, where the decades-long dictatorship of Ali Abdullah Saleh had no sooner ended than Saleh was back at the head of a Shiite coalition, doing battle with Saudi-funded Sunni forces. . . .

It is the disintegration of countries like Yemen, Syria, and Libya that, in Worth’s view, explains the rise and the surprising allure of Islamic State. As his title A Rage for Order suggests, Worth sees the Arab peoples as motivated by a longing not for freedom or justice but for something more basic: the rule of law, the basic predictability of life, that only a functioning state can provide. . . . This is a Hobbesian view of government: rather than a state of nature where all war against all, better to have a single ruler with a monopoly on violence, no matter how arbitrary.

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