"It's about time we realised that dictatorships are not responsible global partners and, if given space, will only create more instability," warn Iyad El-Baghdadi and Ahmed Gatnash in their new book The Middle East Crisis Factory: Tyranny, Resilience and Resistance. "Whatever appears as 'stability' under a dictatorship is a facade, and even the most formidable dictatorships are always just a few steps away from crisis."
As we pass through the tenth anniversaries of revolutions that swept the Arab world in 2011, we have become accustomed to questions about what they achieved, if anything at all. The belief that the Arab Spring was at best a blip and at worst an abject failure seems to be the underlying discourse in many Western countries.
The idea of young people across the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region leading a charge for dignity and democracy is but a memory like a fleeting summer romance, and now we are back in the cold reality, as many policy makers in the West see it. Yet for millions, the Arab Spring is not dead, the revolutions are still taking place and will continue to take place, as we have seen in Sudan in 2018 and Iraq and Lebanon in 2019.
The failure to appreciate this is born out of shallow thinking about the region, because those of us who remember the 2011 revolutions will also remember the shock and surprise in Western capitals that such events could take place. How did we miss the Arab Spring was a common refrain. Why did so many academics, journalists, politicians and commentators simply not see it coming?
I was reminded of a quote by anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot about the 1791 Haitian revolution, which was "history with a peculiar characteristic of being unthinkable even as it happened." The Arab Spring was also unthinkable even as it happened, and remains so. The Middle East Crisis Factory… shakes us out of this cognitive dissonance and aims to take us through what did happen and what may well happen next.
A key feature of MENA politics, according to El-Baghdadi and Gatnash, is the "vicious triangle" of tyrants, terrorists and foreign interventions. Each of these processes, although distinct, are interrelated and rely upon one another.
"Governments typically prioritise prevention of terrorism, provision of security being among the government's most basic function," they write. "But dictatorships are not responsible governments, the rule of law and protection of life are not their highest priorities — ruling is. Thus, terrorists and tyrants can sometimes clash in a way that establishes an interdependency between them. This can happen inadvertently, as a result of incompetence, but it can also happen deliberately, with premeditation and planning."
bOne of the most prominent examples of how tyrants use terrorists is the connection between the Bashar Al-Assad regime in Syria and Daesh. As the book reminds us, the Syrian regime has a long history of facilitating Al-Qaeda fighters and allowing them to cross into Iraq to kill Americans and terrorise civilians. As soon as the Arab Spring came to Syria and the regime's violent response failed to quell the popular protests, Damascus resumed its policy of enabling the growth of jihadism, only this time to be used internally. Hence, the mass release of extremists from Syrian prisons who were jailed initially due to external pressure on the regime, the killing of civil society opposition activists and the bombing of rebel groups, while Daesh was allowed to move around freely and even do business with the Syrian government. The group's presence in turn encouraged foreign powers to intervene, all of which ensures the survival of Assad and his regime. This pattern plays out across the region in different forms and in varying degrees.
A refreshing aspect of the authors' analysis is that they do not oversimplify the question of foreign intervention. They draw a distinction between Western intervention unleashing a crisis in Iraq and Western non-intervention enabling a crisis in Syria, before offering insightful reasons as to why this happened.
The book ends with a grim warning of things to come if the authoritarian conditions persist in the MENA region, with the same cycle repeating itself well into the future. However, the authors also offer suggestions for a different future.
"The most serious challenge to dictators often comes from a strong civil society, including independent activists, journalists and artists," write El-Baghdadi and Gatnash. "To maintain control, dictatorships need to keep society stunned… Independent civil society activists are the best representatives of the creative energy and moral integrity of a society."
The Middle East Crisis Factory… is not merely an analysis of what went wrong, but also a prescription for what can be done about it. The past ten years have been bitter, but the next ten do not have to be. For all the destruction happening across the MENA region, there are many millions of people who continue to survive and inspire hope, and it is to them we must turn. This is the ultimate message of this highly readable, hard to put down and easy to comprehend book.