‘Don’t worry: it’s war! Jeans are fine!’  - The Arab Uprisings


The Arab Uprisings – The People Want the Fall of the Regime
Jeremy Bowen
Simon & Schuster, 339pp, 2012, 978-0-85720-884-2

Jeremy Bowen is a broadcaster whom I greatly admire.  Always worth watching; it turns out that he is worth reading, too.  This excellent book is written with the steady and level gaze that Bowen brings to camera.  Setting his personal experience of reporting the Arab Spring in a well developed understanding of the region’s history, Bowen’s account, much of it first hand, is by turns reportage, travelogue and analysis, underpinned by a very wide ranging address book.

The form of the book interweaves the chronology of the Arab Spring, the sequence of Bowen’s relevant travels in the region and a series of more reflective, analytical passages. Starting in Tunisia with the fall of Ben Ali in January 2011 (Bowen in absentia), the narrative moves to Egypt’s Tahrir Square, where we join Bowen on his arrival on 28th January, staying until Mubarak steps down a fortnight later.   From there, we move by chapter between Libya and Syria, whilst making room for more extended discussions of religion in politics, the Syrian context and the Sunni-Shia divide.

Many of Bowen’s encounters are unauthorised or unexpected, a feature which conveys the unpredictability and danger of his trade.  There is an edginess to Bowen’s drive along darkened streets into the Syrian suburb of Dara, not knowing whether friend or foe would emerge from the shadows; similarly, filming a confrontation between regime forces and ElBaradai supporters after Friday prayers during the Egyptian uprising, smuggling the film away through a mess of tear gas and water cannon from under the noses of regime police, feels downright dangerous. 

This said, Bowen’s role rarely takes centre stage, and never detracts from his real subject matter.  Rather, Bowen presents many of the key moments and figures of the Arab spring and its prologue with a well contextualised immediacy.  Key passages include interviews with Gaddafi and Bashar al-Assad (2010), an assessment of the UK’s and US’ thinking behind the NATO bombing of Libya, the consequences of the bombing on the ground, details of communications between the British and Libyan secret services, and a meeting with Abdel Hakim Belhaj, a Libyan revolutionary commander who, in the period of rapprochement between Gaddafi and the West, had fallen foul of extraordinary rendition.  

Bowen’s cast extends far beyond those whose position put them in the media’s way.  Much of the book’s appeal is in the many stories, partly told, of those with lesser roles, whose fame or notoriety came without pre-meditation.  In Tunisia, Bowen meets Feyda Hamdi, the tearful official whose inspection of an illegal fruit cart led to the self-immolation of Muhammed Bouazizi; in Tahrir square, Zyad Elelaiwy, a Facebook insurgent ‘full of disbelief and wonder at the way that Cairo was being taken over by demonstrators’; in Tripoli, Muhammed Abdullah al-Senussi, the Gaddafi spokesman, who given the short notice for Bowen’s interview with Gaddafi told him ‘Don’t worry: it’s war! Jeans are fine!’  There are countless others - Malek, the caretaker of the Azra Mariam church in Imbaba, Cairo; the Alawite women of District 86 in Damascus; the list goes on.

Their stories in turn inform the bigger picture.  The Arab Spring brought forth different responses across the region. ‘The most susceptible to revolution’, comments Bowen, ‘were republics, especially Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen’.  Here, personality cults identified individual leaders too closely with their regimes to allow the one to survive the other in power.  ‘Monarchies, like Jordan and Morocco, were better at bringing in reforms to head off trouble.  In the third category...were Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.  Their caution came from the shared experience of long and bitter wars.’

Political suppression, kleptocracy and family bonds were key features of the old regimes; the frustration, under-employment and youth of many Arab populations key features of the societies they ruled.  The ‘new media’ of mobile telephony, satellite television and the internet created an opportunity for dissident voices to be heard and reduced the regimes’ room for manoeuvre, exposing their tactics of suppression to greater publicity than ever before.  They may also have contributed to the loss of popular fear which seems to have been a precondition of all of the major challenges to the old order.

Beyond the daily headlines, Bowen’s discussion of the relationship between religion and politics is excellent.   He highlights the conflation of moderate and radical political Islam by both the west and many pre-Spring Arab regimes since 9/11, the deep roots of organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood in what we might call ‘advanced neighbourhood politics’, the success of Islamist parties in Arab elections and the greater political effectiveness of these organisations than of the secular liberals whose voices seem heard more in the Western media than in their own countries.  Perhaps the history of many Arab societies, together with the level of popular support required for successful revolution, loads the dice in favour of some Islamic influence in and on the region’s successor states.  This said, so far, such influences have varied greatly from country to country.  Bowen highlights the concurrent popularity of both political Islam and democracy in parts of the Arab world, and the need for governments to prove their competence in power, in an environment where some affinity to Islam is almost a given.

Looking to the future, Bowen highlights the ‘faultline’ running between Sunni and Shia Islam, with the regional Shia power of Iran extending its influence west through Syria and Lebanon and to a degree east into Iraq.   Undoubtedly the tension between areas of Shia influence and the Sunni societies of Arabia and North Africa will have a major role on the region’s future.  Other influences are also at work.  Israel, it would seem, is increasingly friendless, and can now count only on America, a champion whose attention is ever more distracted by Asia.  US leaders may hope that increased energy independence based on fracking will diminish their requirement for involvement in the Middle East.  The issue of nuclear proliferation is, for now, hanging in the air, as is any sense of progress towards a twin state solution for Israel and Palestine.  At the same time, having enjoyed the oil hand in the twentieth century, the region’s twenty-first century cards look marked.  If desertification, climate driven food price spikes, water shortage and population growth prove an increasingly volatile mix, as they surely must, Arab societies will be among the first to know.  The events set in train by the Arab Spring, meantime, have yet to conclude.  There will be a lot to report on.  I hope Mr Bowen, or journalists of his calibre, will be there to do just that.

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