Robert Worth, author of A Rage for Order, on the causes of the chaos in the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring.
One of the things I’m most often asked about the Arab uprisings – at least in the US and Europe – is: how did things go so wrong so quickly? Where did ISIS come from, and why did it spread so quickly in the same places where the democracy movement seemed strongest in 2011?
These are hard questions. It has become popular to offer relatively simple answers, such as ‘it’s all because of Saudi Wahhabism’, or ‘Western colonialism and the 2003 Iraq invasion ruined Arab societies’.
I think one reason so many of us (myself included) have been surprised by the region’s descent into chaos is that we had not fully recognized how dysfunctional Arab states and societies had become over the past 50 or 60 years.
Dictators like Hosni Mubarak and Bashar al Assad were grudgingly praised for preserving ‘stability’. Beneath that shell, meaningful institutions had virtually disappeared, and been replaced by networks of crime and cronyism. In many places, the state had abandoned the pretence of governing (much less representing people) and became a device for extorting money and fending off challengers. The state’s one functional aspect, its police and security services, had developed a culture of extreme violence (especially in Iraq and Syria) that became self-perpetuating.
The torturers and their victims – those that survived – were left with psychic wounds that leaked into the broader society. It is not so surprising that ISIS, whose commanders included many former military officers and prisoners who carried out and suffered torture, maintained these methods and even amplified them.
I think many ordinary people in the Arab world were also fooled by the appearance of stability and normalcy. They mouthed the regime’s slogans of unity, progress, socialism, and nationalism. They may have sensed that these were empty phrases, that the state was a gang of thieves, that it was tacitly fostering the same social divisions it was pretending to heal; but they never expected this game to be exposed. They never thought the state would collapse.
When it did, many Arabs responded with a kind of existential terror. They’d been taught all their lives that nothing was worse than chaos. This has been the message of autocratic governments in the Middle East for a thousand years. They instinctively sought out the most powerful and uncompromising force available to secure their lives, their towns, and their religion.
They became more vulnerable than ever to identity-based appeals: We the Sunnis must unify against the infidels. We the true Egyptians must unify against the Islamists. We the true Syrians must unify or the terrorists will win (‘Assad or we burn the country’). It didn’t matter that these identity-labels would in many cases have been meaningless to their grandparents.
I started seeing these kinds of all-or-nothing appeals in 2013, and they seemed to provide a common theme in all the countries where the uprisings had broken out two years earlier. A rage rooted in primordial fear was the wellspring for the massacres of Islamists in Cairo that summer, for the Syrian regime’s brutal military campaign, and of course for ISIS, which spread from Syria to Egypt to Libya to Yemen and beyond.