A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, from Tahrir Square to ISIS

A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, from Tahrir Square to ISIS

by Robert F. Worth


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A New York Times Notable Book of 2016

One of the Best Nonfiction Books of 2016, Publishers Weekly

One of the Best Books of 2016, NPR

Winner of the 2017 Lionel Gelber Prize

One of 20 Notable Reads from 2016, Mother Jones

Finalist for the 2016 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Current Interest

Silver Medal Winner of the 2017 Arthur Ross Book Award

In 2011, a wave of revolution spread through the Middle East as protesters demanded an end to tyranny, corruption, and economic decay. From Egypt to Yemen, a generation of young Arabs insisted on a new ethos of common citizenship. Their bravery and idealism stirred observers around the world and led militant jihadis to worry that they had been superseded by a new and peaceful uprising.

Five years later, the utopian aspirations of 2011 have darkened. In one country after another, brutal terrorists and dictators have risen to the top as old divides reemerge and deepen. Egypt has become a more repressive police state than ever before; Libya, Syria, and Yemen endure civil war; and the extremists of ISIS have spread chaos and carnage across the region and beyond it.

A Rage for Order tracks the tormented legacy of what was once called the Arab Spring. Writing with bold literary ambition, the distinguished New York Times correspondent Robert F. Worth introduces a riveting cast of characters. We meet a Libyan rebel who must decide whether to kill the torturer who murdered his brother; a Yemeni farmer who lives in servitude to a poetry-writing, dungeon-operating chieftain; two young Syrian women whose close friendship devolves into enmity as their sects go to war; and an Egyptian doctor who is caught between his loyalty to the Muslim Brotherhood and his hopes for a new, tolerant democracy. In a final chapter, Worth tells the moving story of the two eighty-something statesmen whose unlikely camaraderie allowed Tunisia to escape its neighbors’ worst fates.

Combining dramatic storytelling with an original analysis of the Arab world today, A Rage for Order captures the psychic and actual civil wars raging throughout the Middle East and explains how the dream of an Arab renaissance gave way to a new age of discord.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374536794
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 04/18/2017
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 627,745
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.24(h) x 0.79(d)

About the Author

Robert F. Worth spent fourteen years as a correspondent for The New York Times and was the paper’s Beirut bureau chief from 2007 until 2011. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times Magazine and The New York Review of Books. He has twice been a finalist for a National Magazine Award. Born and raised in Manhattan, he now lives in Washington, D.C.

Read an Excerpt

A Rage for Order

The Middle East in Turmoil, from Tahrir Square to ISIS

By Robert F. Worth

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2016 Robert F. Worth
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-71071-2


One People (Egypt)

The kids called it "the house of revolution." It was a huge place with a balcony right on Tahrir Square, more like a decaying antiques shop than an apartment. There were at least a dozen rooms full of dusty old furniture and gilt-framed paintings, encyclopedias in several languages, dead plants, and chipped tile tables covered with laptops and ashtrays and newspapers and plates of half-eaten food. Its owner was a forty-nine-year-old slacker and bohemian named Pierre Sioufi, who'd thrown it open as soon as the demonstrations began, giving refuge to protesters not out of any political conviction but because he was afraid there would be a massacre and he wanted to protect the kids. The house became an essential annex for the revolt against Hosni Mubarak, a pit stop and plug-in zone with a perfect ninth-floor view of the square.

Within days after the first protests started, on January 25, 2011, an eclectic crowd had colonized the place. There were Cairene artists and intellectuals, scores of college-age protesters, journalists and human rights workers, even a few Islamists, all resting and plotting and sharing information throughout the day and night. They would cook a huge pot of lentils every evening and carry it downstairs to distribute to those sleeping in the square. People came and went constantly, stepping over sleeping bodies, glowing laptops, and Pierre's cat and two terriers. No one was in charge, and yet somehow someone fixed the toilet and washed the dishes and stocked the kitchen with bread and beans and fruit. A bookseller had set up a stand by the door downstairs, selling banned books. (Most were opposition pamphlets and anti-Mubarak polemics, but also, oddly, some books about Hitler and Stalin.) Al Jazeera set up a live feed on the roof, just above Pierre's vast wraparound balcony, and because everybody was watching al Jazeera — not just across the Arab world but even inside the square — you had a peculiar feeling of being behind the scenes in a vast and mirrored opera house.

Pierre presided over it all like a benevolent Arab version of Allen Ginsberg. He must have weighed three hundred pounds, a pear-shaped figure with a beard and shoulder-length gray hair that soared in every direction. He sat at a cluttered oak desk by the door, welcoming visitors, giggling, and chain-smoking Marlboros. When I first arrived he wore a faintly Dada T-shirt bearing the Kentucky Fried Chicken logo of Colonel Sanders, and below it the words, in Arabic, MAY YOUR GRANDFATHER REST IN PEACE. I introduced myself, and he glanced up and pushed back the thick plastic glasses that were always falling off his nose. "I'm just like everyone else here," he said. "No one knows anything." He came from a wealthy Coptic family and had dabbled in art and acting, but for the most part, he said, "I don't do much. I'm a revolutionary, but I'm a salon revolutionary." The kids adored him. He seemed to embody the refusal of all authority: the only kind of father figure their movement would accept.

On that first day at Pierre's place I met a Muslim Brotherhood member who described how the police had tortured him in 2002, using electrical wires on his genitals. He had been arrested and jailed dozens of times since then. Now he had brought his wife and children to the square and would not leave until Mubarak stepped down, he said. Also listening to this grim monologue, on a mattress next to me, was Khaled Abol Naga, a famous Egyptian actor and heartthrob. A few feet away was Khalid Abdulla, the boyishly handsome British Egyptian star of The Kite Runner and United 93. Before the revolution, these two men would have drawn squeals of adoration from the twentysomethings around us. Now no one seemed to notice them; the revolution had eclipsed their fame. Both men had camcorders and treated the young protesters as if they were the celebrities. "The best thing Mubarak did was to push people so hard they all melded together," Abol Naga told me, as we sat on broken chairs in Pierre's TV room. "The poor, the wealthy, the secular people, the Muslim Brothers — we all came together, and it spread to every city in Egypt."

One afternoon I found myself on Pierre's balcony next to a tall, elegant man in a three-piece pin-striped suit and a pharaonic-motif tie. He said he was the honorary consul of Italy in Egypt, and he handed me a business card that identified him as Cavagliere Ladislav Skakal. Below us, Tahrir was an unbroken mass of people, swaying in some places, calmer in others, like the surface of some vast turbid lake. Green-and-white banners rippled in the breeze above it, and by the black stage, the sound of a tinny hectoring voice on speakers merged with the crowd's osmotic roar. "You see that green pole? That's where the Zamalek bourgeoisie are," Skakal said with an amused smile, pointing to one side of the sunlit square. (Zamalek is a bastion of old-money Cairenes and foreigners on an island in the Nile.) "On that side are the Islamists; there it's more rural; and there are the warriors, the tough guys who fought with the Mubarak supporters."

He was right, more or less. But the square was much more than the sum of its camps. There was an emotion in the air that encompassed all of us, made us feel we'd shed our old skins and the past was irrelevant. It wasn't just the slogans and chants, the people want the dictator to fall, the shared poetry of revolution and dignity. It wasn't just the heart-lifting feeling that was conjured everywhere with the same phrase: the barrier of fear is broken. Larger than all this was a sudden but vast shift in perspective, as if Earth had tilted on its axis, allowing you to miraculously see truths that had been hidden from you all along. The tyrant, once vast and august, was now revealed as a laughable old fool. Your own countrymen, your own city, so degraded by soot and misery and fear, were delivered back to you and became beautiful. So many people spoke the same words: it was like falling in love. These feelings utterly transformed the dingy, cracked sidewalks, the high-rises where snipers lurked, the slurry of plastic trash underfoot, and the stink of sweat and urine. Most of all, there was the passionate insistence that the revolution would triumph, that justice would replace injustice, that the country's problems — its sectarian hatreds, its corruption, its terrorist gangs — were all artificial, trumped up, the cynical props of the old regime. All of it would fade away now that the people were empowered.

Looking back, I ask myself why these shouted words moved me and so many other cynical outsiders to tears. It was not because we believed them. We had seen too much of the Arab world's fault lines for that. At this distance, after so much blood, it would be easy to laugh or wince at how wrong the protesters were. But I remember the faces that spoke those words, and what they seemed to express was not just naïveté or willed ignorance, but this: I know these things are not true. But perhaps, if we will them with enough conviction, they will come true someday.

* * *

Tunisia's revolution was the first — Ben Ali was gone barely two days after the protests reached the capital — but Egypt was the model. Tahrir was a place where the drama could play out in public, where the consequences were understood by all. Egypt mattered, because of its history and its sheer mass: eighty-two million people, a fifth of the entire Arab population. Egyptians had lost many things over the years, but not their genius for street theater, for jokes and protest songs and slogans that could be adopted wholesale by crowds from Morocco to the Gulf.

And yet, in the first days after Ben Ali fell on January 14, most people doubted that Egypt would move. The country was weighed down, they said, by its size and ancient inertia, and held in check by its sprawling "deep state" of plainclothes policemen and hired thugs. You sensed that inertia when you walked around downtown Cairo: the dilapidated old cafés and squares, always evoking past glory and current decay; the old bawabs, caretakers, standing in doorways, sweeping away dust that would settle right back again; the ever-present atmosphere of nostalgia for a lost greatness. Egyptians were like hippos, a friend of mine put it: they lifted their heads to glance around now and then, but invariably sank back into the Nile mud. Only a few voices seemed genuinely confident. One of them was a small, round-faced young Egyptian woman named Asmaa Mahfouz, who posted a video of herself on Facebook urging people to come out and demonstrate in Tahrir Square exactly one week later. In the video, posted on January 18, she speaks intently into the camera, her head covered with a hijab, her pale face contorted with defiance. "Never say there is no hope," she said. "As long as you say there is no hope, hope will be lost. As long as you come out and take a stand, hope endures. So come out with us and there will be hope. Never fear the government, fear God. God says: 'Indeed Allah will never change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.'" That video, ricocheting across the Internet, inspired others and helped build a furtive sense of optimism among the country's middle-class youth. The first protest was scheduled for January 25, 2011, to coincide with National Police Day, a holiday commemorating the killing of fifty officers by British colonial forces in 1952.

On the night before the demonstration, one of the protest's main architects, a thirty-two-year-old lawyer named Ziyad al Elaimy, was at home on the couch, preparing himself by leafing through a book called Mechanisms of Resistance Behind Bars. It is a dry but useful Palestinian primer on how to maintain your sanity in prison. He felt he needed some tips, because he expected the following day's protest to last "about ten minutes" before the police put a stop to it and threw him in jail. Elaimy is a big man with a jowly face and deep-set eyes that give him an air of calm sobriety. Of all the self-proclaimed revolutionaries I met in Egypt, he was perhaps the least burdened by narcissism, and among the bravest. Rebellion was almost a vocation with him. His mother had spent six months in jail for her role in antigovernment protests in 1977, and his parents had been taking him along with them to protests since he was five years old. "He was so young he couldn't even pronounce the slogans right," his mother told me. "But he knew that lawyers got people out of jail, so he decided to become a lawyer." He had been in jail four times, starting at sixteen years old, and he had residual injuries on his knee and arm from police beatings. But if his insurgent spirit was inherited, his politics and methods were not. He and his friends had abandoned the communism they grew up on in the 1990s, because they felt it was just as paternalistic as the Mubarak regime. They were sick of the old Egyptian deference to a Big Man whose authority could not be questioned. They had been building their own grassroots organizations for years, mostly unconnected to Egypt's weak and corrupted opposition parties. Gandhian nonviolence had become a guiding principle for many of them, and they had been teaching workshops on it since 2009.

In mid-January 2011, Elaimy had helped form a steering committee of thirteen people representing a number of activist groups, from the Revolutionary Socialists to the youth wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. They had made an elaborate plan for the protests of January 25 in the cluttered living room of Elaimy's mother's house. On a coffee table, they'd laid out a star-shaped map of marching routes starting in outer areas of Cairo and converging on several hubs in the center; from there each group would continue on to Tahrir Square. Scouts were assigned to the head of each march to make sure it remained nonviolent. Other groups would join the earlier marchers at designated points along the way. They had walked all the routes a week or so beforehand, timing themselves so that they could arrive in the center simultaneously. They had deliberately publicized false routes to people they did not trust, so as to fool the police. They knew they were being monitored.

Just after noon on January 25, Elaimy met a group of two dozen friends at the El Hayiss Sweet Shop, a café in a ratty working-class neighborhood of western Cairo. On a prearranged signal, they began marching down the street together. They chanted slogans: "The people demand an end to corruption!" and "Egyptians, unite!" Elaimy girded himself, expecting the police at any moment. Instead, as they entered a neighborhood called Nahia, he began to notice that people were joining them. A few dozen at first, then a hundred. By the time a clutch of policemen appeared, it was too late; the march could not be contained and the cops melted back to the sidewalk. At that point, Elaimy remembers thinking: this will not be a short detention, it will be a long one. But the march kept going, and kept getting larger. People were pouring out of apartment towers and office buildings to join them. Others shouted their approval from upper-story windows. Elaimy's cell phone began buzzing with ecstatic texts from friends. He felt as if something was blooming simultaneously in his chest and on the streets, a music you could see as well as hear: it was a happiness sweeter than anything he had known for years. This was no longer the little scheme he and his friends had cooked up on his mother's couch. He had no idea where it would lead. But he allowed it to carry him along.

Tahrir Square resembles a vast teardrop-shaped traffic circle at the heart of Cairo, with a grubby green patch at its center. On most days it is thick with honking cars and exhaust from dawn to dusk. But in essence, it is a theater, and it was designed that way. Ever since 1919, when British troops gunned down twenty-three Egyptians there, it has been a symbolic center for patriotism. It is ringed by monuments and towers that seem to peer downward like giants onto the green: the Arab League headquarters; the fortresslike government building known as the Mogamma; the Omar Makram mosque; and just beyond, the salmon-colored colossus of the Egyptian Museum. On Tahrir's eastern side is the nostalgic grandeur of downtown, with its 1920s beaux arts apartment buildings.

By the time Elaimy got to Tahrir, it was no longer a traffic circle; thousands of people were surging into it from all the major boulevards, chanting for an end to corruption, police abuse, and to Egypt's decades-old Emergency Law, the legal fig leaf for state repression. There was a simultaneous demonstration at the Egyptian High Court, not far away, and that, too, was much larger than expected. Thousands of people broke through the security cordon near the courthouse and made their way to Tahrir, chanting ecstatically as they went. The police made several halfhearted efforts to disperse them, but the crowds were not daunted. By nightfall, the square was in chaos, but thousands of protesters remained. In the darkness, Elaimy and his friends gathered to trade reports, still giddy with their victory. Slowly, the goal began to shift: some people were already dispensing with calls for reform and chanting, "The people want the fall of the regime."

Not far away, at the downtown office of the Muslim Brotherhood, a man named Muhammad Beltagy arrived, hoping to find out what the organization's leaders were thinking. Beltagy was one of the Brotherhood's rising stars, a beloved forty-seven-year-old doctor in the Cairo slum of Shobra al Khaima who had served in Parliament from 2005 until 2010. He had spent much of the day at the High Court demonstration and was now excited about the continuing protest in Tahrir. He wanted to join it and urgently wanted the Brotherhood to give its official blessing. But the group's leaders had issued no statement; they were cautious, elderly men who preferred to wait and see how things played out. Members were free to protest if they liked, but not as representatives of the movement. A dozen younger members, men in their twenties who admired Beltagy for his energy and independent views, were also in the building. Beltagy gathered them and the group left, headed for the square.

They got there at about midnight and made their way through a jostling, ecstatic crowd now totaling tens of thousands, some of them seated on the green and preparing themselves to spend the night. On the eastern side of the square, some of Ziyad Elaimy's youth movement friends were setting up a stage, with a microphone and speakers. One of the first people to take the mike was a big, thickset man in a suit, with a bullish face and almost no neck. "What we are witnessing here is a revolution," he said in a booming voice. "The Egyptian security state is our Bastille, and we will not stop until we secure our rights." The crowd roared. This was Alaa Aswany, Egypt's most popular novelist and a longtime critic of Mubarak. A few more speakers, activists and intellectuals, followed. Eventually, Muhammad Beltagy, the Brotherhood leader, went to the back of the stage and began asking if he could speak. He was eager to flout the Brotherhood's caution and to declare his support for a democratic revolution. The man in charge, a young leftist poet, refused to give him the mike. He did not want an Islamist — even a relatively liberal one like Beltagy — to claim any ownership of this movement.

The moment of triumph lasted less than an hour. A column of riot police stormed the square, firing tear gas and concussion grenades. Young men fought back, hurling chunks of pavement, but most of the protesters left the square, and by dawn it was almost empty. For the next two days, the square was a sporadic battleground, as smaller crowds of protesters and police ebbed and flowed. The rest of the country was erupting in violent protest, but Ziyad Elaimy and other young protest leaders were busy getting the word out for the next big push. They called it the Friday of Anger, January 28, 2011.


Excerpted from A Rage for Order by Robert F. Worth. Copyright © 2016 Robert F. Worth. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction 3

Part I Revolts

1 One People (Egypt) 17

2 Revenge (Libya) 36

3 Sects (Syria) 61

4 Prisoners of the Sheikh (Yemen) 96

Part II Restorations

5 Brothers (Egypt) 127

6 In the Caliph's Shadow (Yemen, Syria) 170

7 Reconciliation (Tunisia) 196

Epilogue 223

Time Line 235

A Note on Sources 241

Acknowledgments 243

Index 247

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