The Battle for the Arab Spring: Revolution, Counter-Revolution and the Making of a New Era

Excerpted from Chapter 1: An Arab Malaise (footnotes omitted), from The Battle for the Arab Spring: Revolution, Counter-Revolution and the Making of a New Era by Lin Noueihed and Alex Warren. Reprinted by arrangement with

Yale University Press. Copyright © 2012. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.

An Arab Malaise

Good rulership is equivalent to mildness. If the ruler uses force and is ready to mete out punishment and eager to expose the faults of people and to count their sins, (his subjects) become fearful and depressed and seek to protect themselves against him through lies, ruses and deceit… They often abandon (the ruler) on the battlefield and fail to support his defensive enterprises… The subjects often conspire to kill the ruler. Thus the dynasty decays, and the fence (that protects it) lies in ruins.

— 14th-century Tunisian philosopher Ibn Khaldun, Al-Muqaddimah

Not a single Arab country made it onto the 2011 list of top global risks issued by Eurasia Group, a multinational consulting firm that helps clients identify looming instability. Some perennials, such as the Iranian nuclear standoff, were mentioned, but domestic change in the Middle East was simply not on its radar – even though protests had been spreading since late 2010. After all, despite their dysfunctional economies and ossified political systems, Arab rulers had proved remarkably resilient to both domestic pressures and external shocks. They had survived the end of the Cold War and the so-called ‘third wave of democratization’ that swept away dictators from Portugal to Indonesia, from the 1970s onwards.

Arab regimes, if not individual leaders, had made it through a series of wars and three unpopular peace deals with Israel. They had largely crushed violent Islamists. They had adjusted, as mostly Sunni Muslim rulers, to the Shi’ite resurgence ushered in by Iran’s 1979 revolution, and they had survived the sectarian and political tensions wrought by two US-led wars against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Syria, Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates had all survived the deaths of veteran leaders and managed relatively smooth successions. Syria, the only republic on this list of monarchies and dynasties and the one most vulnerable to a succession crisis, had set a precedent with Bashar al-Assad’s carefully-choreographed takeover in 2000 from his father Hafez, who had ruled for the previous three decades. Mubarak, who had led Egypt for thirty years without naming a vice president, took note as he groomed his son Gamal for the presidency.

Democrats around the Arab world lamented the birth of the first Arab ‘jumlukiya’. Literally translated as ‘republarchy’, the word fused together jumhuriya, Arabic for ‘republic’, and malakiya, Arabic for ‘monarchy’. With the creation of this monstrous hybrid dropped the last fig leaf of legitimacy. There could be no more pretence that national interests came before the interests of the ruling family, and the sect or tribe to which it belonged. In Tunisia, another Arab republic, it was widely suspected that Ben Ali, whose only son was a toddler, was grooming his son-in-law for the top job. There were fears that the first lady, Leila Trabelsi, derided by Tunisians as a latter-day Marie Antoinette, had her own eye on high office.

Rather than invest in the future of their countries, these leaders dedicated much of the wealth and power of the state to ensuring their own survival. Coercion, or the threat of it, was widely used in a region whose governments spend a higher proportion of their state budgets on defence and security than any other. In 2009, an average 4.6 per cent of Arab GDP went on military spending, compared to a global average of less than 2 per cent.

Much Gulf Arab military spending is intended as a deterrent against Iran, a non-Arab Shi’ite power in a region dominated by Sunni rulers, but the aura of an impregnable state, possessed both of the latest weaponry and of support from Western countries, also put off potential opponents from mounting any serious challenge for power. It was not just the amount spent on the armed forces, but also their composition, that discouraged revolt. Some rulers and their families fortified their power bases by filling the military and interior security forces with members of their own tribe or sect, creating a patronage network and ensuring that those who bore arms owed their allegiance to the leadership rather than the state itself. The Saudi Arabian National Guard, for instance, is a separate force that bypasses the defence ministry and draws its soldiers from tribal elements historically loyal to the royal family and dedicated to protecting the king from a family rebellion or a challenge from the regular army. Bahrain, meanwhile, has resorted to recruiting foreigners, who were less likely to balk at shooting or beating protesters and had no stake in local politics.

Tellingly, the army in Tunisia was considerably more professional than most in the region and considered itself to be an institution of the state rather than the private security wing of the ruling family or party. In Tunisia and Egypt, furthermore, tribal ties are weak and both countries are home to majority Sunni populations ruled over by Sunni rulers, who focused on crushing opposition parties or rival elite figures rather than shielding themselves from competing sects or clans.

An underlying sense of fear was also perpetuated by intelligence agencies, or mukhabarat, that employed spies at every level of society. This was manifested in different ways in different countries. Egypt or Bahrain did not feel oppressive day-to-day, but Syria was another story. Men in lurid shirts and leather jackets loitered in hotel lobbies, hiding behind newspapers and listening to the conversations that went on. It was casually assumed that phones were tapped and on no account was any political conversation to be undertaken in taxis, whose drivers were widely believed to be informants. One in Damascus openly admitted that he worked for Syrian intelligence, describing how he had been based in Beirut before the 2005 withdrawal of Syrian forces but by 2010 was forced to supplement his paltry civil servant’s salary with taxi fares.

Intelligence agencies operated in a legal grey area, carrying out arrests and operating secret jails where political prisoners, numbering thousands, were abused or tortured. Many of these prisoners were Islamists, but any journalist or academic worth his salt could expect to be in and out of jail on trumped-up charges, or no charges at all.

The Syrian regime had maintained emergency law since the Ba’ath Party coup of 1963, Egypt had done so since 1981 and for long stretches before that, while in Algeria emergency law had been in place since 1992. This effectively suspended constitutional protections and gave rulers much wider scope for arbitrary arrests. It meant that a journalist who stepped over the line could suddenly find him- or herself in a military or security court on charges of undermining national security that would normally be reserved for cases of terrorism or espionage. The absence of the rule of law meant that no one knew exactly what was permitted and what was not, forcing critics to play a dangerous game of self-censorship as they tried to make their point without tripping up on one of the many red lines that criss-crossed the public sphere.

But it was not all repression. Authoritarian rulers also built alliances among prominent tribes, families and business elites to bolster their rule. Libya’s Gaddafi rewarded the clans who helped him to recruit fighters in the war against Chad with plum government jobs, or put the scions of loyal families in charge of public sector companies. In Syria, the ruler was Alawite but the established Sunni business families were among the main beneficiaries of Assad’s economic liberalization policies of the 2000s. In Saudi Arabia and among some Sunni monarchies, political bonds were strengthened through marriage, much as they had been among European aristocracies in centuries past.

The economic reforms introduced in Syria, in Tunisia, in Libya and beyond had lifted the pall of oppression that hung over these countries in the 1980s and 1990s. New cafés, restaurants and shops opened up. Foreign high-street brands arrived in upmarket districts. The lot of most Syrians and Libyans had improved a great deal since the 1980s, when imports were effectively banned but local industries could not produce enough goods of sufficient quality to meet demand. Yet such reforms were intended to protect the incumbent rulers by relieving economic discontent and staving off calls for deeper change.

Facing US pressure or domestic demand, some Arab dictatorships and dynasties even introduced more meaningful elections, but they worked to curtail any concrete changes the ballot box might bring. When one party can change the laws to its benefit, can wield the security forces to intimidate its opponents, the judiciary to jail its critics and the state-run media to campaign on its behalf, there is no real choice. Either electorates were not allowed to vote freely or the body that they were voting for lacked any meaningful powers. This system proved effective on at least two fronts. Firstly, it applied a veneer of plurality to systems that were in reality based on a single party that saw itself as the state. Secondly, it divided the opposition. After years underground, some activists felt that, since they could not beat the system, they should try to change it from the inside.

Together with this ran the promotion of a cult of personality. Rulers projected the image that they would be there for eternity and that, if they were not, their son or other relative was waiting in the wings. A giant poster showing Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, his son, the crown prince, and his uncle, the prime minister, hung from the side of a building just a few metres from the Pearl roundabout where protests would be concentrated in early 2011. In Libya, billboards were filled not with ads but with pictures of Gaddafi showing the number of years he had been in power. Faded posters showing the Colonel next to a large number 39 were juxtaposed with newer ones of Gaddafi 40 or 41. Visitors could buy Gaddafi watches, baseball caps and T-shirts from shops in central Tripoli.

Alongside this crude propaganda that appeared to belong to another era, Arab rulers demonstrated a knack for ‘upgrading authoritarianism’ to survive the challenges posed not only by globalization but also by new media and the growing international emphasis on human rights. One of several tactics they employed was to curtail, co-opt, compete with and thereby undermine efforts to build a strong civil society through the creation of non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Arab NGOs first started to proliferate in the 1980s, largely in response to openings from above. Authoritarian rulers apparently thought that tolerating small and powerless groups would burnish their democratic credentials abroad while incurring little cost at home. But local NGOs that focused on issues from human rights to corruption eventually became a thorn in their sides. Rather than attract bad press by banning all groups, they harassed and repeatedly detained offending members. They introduced laws that required NGOs to register, which then allowed the state to legally reject troublesome critics, limit their sources of funding, or restrict the scope of their activities. While weakening independent groups, Arab governments also set about sponsoring semi-official NGOs that received privileged access to donors, conferences and officials. These could not act independently and were muted in their criticism while competing for funds and publicity with the weaker and smaller independent groups.

Many of these government NGOs, or GONGOs, were led by the glamorous wives of Arab kings and presidents, and were dismissed by grassroots activists as ‘First Ladies’ Clubs’. Asma al-Assad, the wife of the Syrian president, was the sponsor of seven NGOs focused on issues such as youth, women’s rights and rural development. All operated under the umbrella of the Syria Trust for Development, which she also chaired, and which advertised itself as a non-profit and non-government organization through which the state would partner with local NGOs to foster development. Yet it was notoriously difficult for any rights-based NGOs to operate legally in Syria, which is home to 1,500 civil society groups compared to 5,000 in its much smaller but much freer neighbour Lebanon.

Gushing Western media coverage also made it easier to present a sanitized view of developments in the Arab world. Asma al-Assad was glamorous, charming, British-born, and the subject of a fawning Vogue story which described the democratic principles governing her family’s life, and was published the same month that Mubarak was overthrown. Jordan’s Queen Rania, another beautiful first lady, boasted a string of accolades from Glamour magazine’s Woman of the Year to a place on Forbes’ Most Powerful Women list, thanks to her work for charity and for NGOs that sought to empower women. These first ladies were popular abroad, but their unveiled, slick and empowered images bore little resemblance to the lives of ordinary women and made no mention of the undemocratic ways of their husbands.

If one generalization could be made about countries as different as Yemen and Tunisia, it is that their rulers were survivors, adept at repressing or co-opting their enemies and adapting to changes, from the end of the Cold War to the rise of social media. They had simply been around so long that they exuded an air of stability that masked the growing discontent among their people.

The Arab Exception

The club of Arab dictators had proven so resilient that a whole body of academic literature and journalistic commentary had developed to explain why emerging countries were industrializing, growing, creating jobs and shifting towards more representative government, while the Middle East fell ever further behind. Pundits spoke of the ‘Arab exception’, unfavourably comparing Arab countries first to Asia’s ‘tiger economies’, then to the BRICs, the rising powers of Brazil, Russia, India and China.

There were several permutations to the ‘Arab exception’ argument, ranging from the suggestion that these societies were simply not ‘ready’ for democracy because their patriarchal nature predisposed them to authoritarian rule, to the opinion that Islam, as a religion, was intrinsically incompatible with democracy. Another explanation was that the United States had propped up authoritarian rulers in countries including Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Bahrain and Tunisia because a confluence of geopolitical interests in the region – its desire to defend Israel, to ensure a steady supply of affordable oil, to hold back Iranian influence following the 1979 revolution, and to curtail any Islamist threat – trumped any ideological desire to spread democracy.

The US commitment to protecting Israel’s security has, indeed, led it to work closely with leaders in Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian territories, all of whom signed peace deals with the Jewish state, and to apply pressure to those who had not. When Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat broke ranks and signed a unilateral peace treaty with Israel in 1979, the deal was sealed with the promise of $1.3 billion a year in US aid and unwavering support from Washington. The Camp David peace accord won back Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, which had been captured by the Jewish state in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, but cost Sadat his life in 1981, when he was assassinated by an Islamist militant.

So unpopular was the agreement both at home and among other Arab states, that Sadat’s funeral was attended by three former US presidents, as well as Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, but only one Arab leader. Once host to the Arab League, Egypt had been thrown out and its leader was as unpopular among his own people as he was in the region. Sadat’s economic liberalization, or infitah, policies also cemented Egypt’s shift from the Soviet into the Western sphere and, though they provoked bread riots in 1977, the reforms were lauded by the United States.

US financial, military and political support continued under Sadat’s successor. Mubarak worked with the United States and Israel to enforce a blockade of Gaza that began in 2007, with the aim of isolating Hamas, despite television images of widespread civilian suffering and protests on the streets of Cairo. Even as thousands of Egyptian protesters braved tear gas and rubber bullets to demand Mubarak’s resignation in 2011, US officials appeared reluctant to admit that his record on human rights and democracy was, to put it mildly, an embarrassment.

Saudi Arabia: Too Big to Fail

‘Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things and he’s been very responsible… relative to geopolitical interests in the region; Middle East peace efforts, the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing the relationship with Israel,’ US vice president Joe Biden said two days after the start of protests in Egypt on 25 January 2011. ‘I would not refer to him as a dictator.’

There was a sense in the region that the United States not only propped up its allies, but also turned a blind eye to its enemies as long as they served its interests. While Syria has sheltered and supported armed anti-Israeli groups such as Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, for instance, both Assads have stuck to a 1974 ceasefire on the Golan Heights, allowing Syria to maintain its anti-Israeli stance while avoiding direct conflict. Whatever misgivings the United States and Israel may have had about the Syrian regime, they appeared more willing to live with the Assads than venture into the unknown.

Many Arabs clearly saw US support for, or tolerance of, authoritarian leaders in Egypt, Jordan, Syria and the Palestinian territories, as serving the Jewish state. Beyond the borders of Israel, however, oil had been a chief strategic consideration for Washington.

The United States, still the world’s biggest energy consumer, has sought to ensure the steady supply of crude to world markets even if that means supporting illiberal and undemocratic rulers who it trusts to keep the taps on. And the Middle East and North Africa is the world’s largest energy-exporting region, producing crude oil equivalent to about two-fifths of total global consumption in 2010. It includes the world’s biggest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia, plus another six of its top 20 producers – the UAE, Kuwait, Iraq, Algeria, Qatar and, before 2011, Libya. Saudi Arabia single-handedly produces about 12 per cent of the world’s oil consumption, and in 2010 had become yet more important to global energy markets when it completed a $100 billion, six-year expansion programme that upped its total crude production capacity to 12.5m barrels per day (b/d) and provided a generous cushion of unused capacity.

While the United States pumps a significant amount of oil itself and sources most of its crude imports from countries outside of the Middle East, any serious disruption to Saudi production, whether through domestic unrest or problems in its export routes, would send shockwaves through the famously jittery global oil market. In the wake of the global financial crisis, ensuring a steady supply of cheap crude took on added importance. Any repeat of the 2008 spike, which saw prices reach almost $150 a barrel, could seriously undermine any recovery in the United States and, by extension, the global economy. Saudi Arabia, in banking crisis parlance, was too big to fail.

While the Israel and oil arguments apply to some, but not all, of the Arab countries, all rulers worried to differing extents about what they saw as the Islamist threat. This concern was conveniently shared with the United States and its allies in Western Europe. Whereas, with the end of the Cold War in 1989, the United States no longer needed to prop up friendly dictators from Latin America to Asia to guard against democratic movements that threatened to bring in socialist or populist leaders, in Arab countries the threat of communism was immediately succeeded by the threat of Islamists who had once been exploited as a bulwark against the left.

For decades before the 2001 attacks and the ensuing war on terror, Arab rulers from Tunisia’s Ben Ali to Egypt’s Mubarak had veered between repressing Islamists and co-opting them for their own ends. It is us or the Islamists, they said, and any free and fair elections that had been held in the Arab world, like those in Algeria, Iraq and the Palestinian territories, appeared to prove them right.

When Hafez al-Assad crushed an armed Islamist insurgency that began in the late 1970s and culminated in a bloodbath at Hama in 1982, the United States brought the fighting to the world’s attention but took no action. Journalists, initially banned from the central Syrian city, had to rely on Western diplomats estimating the death toll at 5,000 people. However, in a detailed report published in 2006, the Syrian Human Rights Committee said at least 25,000 people had died.

Western governments threw money at Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, despite endemic corruption in the public sector, to help him crush an Al-Qaeda franchise active in the lawless south and east of the country. In 2010, the United States more than doubled its official military aid to Yemen after an Al-Qaeda-linked militant trained in the country tried to blow up a passenger plane by hiding explosives in his underwear.

It was a similar story elsewhere. As long as the alternative was the Islamists, the United States appeared to turn a blind eye to all but the worst repression by Arab rulers. And while it publicly criticized the arrest of activists, it continued to offer some of these rulers financial or military aid that they could direct against their opponents.

The United States had also helped to create a monster. In what proved to be the last decade of the Cold War, it had helped to fund the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union. Thousands of Arab Muslim men, who became known as the ‘Afghan Arabs’, arrived to help expel the ‘Godless’ Soviets from Afghanistan. Many of them were backed by Saudi money, and Pakistani intelligence. Among them was Saudi-born Osama bin Laden. When the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, many of these men, trained militarily and indoctrinated to fight for Islam, went on to fight in other troubled regions such as Chechnya, or returned home and turned their guns against their own governments.

Al-Qaeda turned the war against the United States, the Arab rulers Washington supported, and even those rulers whom it did not support. It is worth noting that Libya, not the United States, was the first country to issue an international arrest warrant for Osama bin Laden, via Interpol in 1998, for the murder of a German intelligence officer and his wife four years earlier. And when nineteen Arab and Muslim hijackers from Al-Qaeda flew passenger planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and Pennsylvania on 11 September 2001, it was not just US-allied rulers such as Egypt’s Mubarak who proved indispensable to the ensuing US ‘war on terror’, but also ostensible enemies such as Assad and Gaddafi.

Some Al-Qaeda suspects were subjected to what is euphemistically known as ‘extraordinary rendition’, meaning they were abducted and transferred to secret CIA detention centres or to their home countries, where they faced potential mistreatment. One widely reported case was that of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen who was arrested in 2002 while passing through New York and transferred to his country of origin, Syria, where he was imprisoned for a year and says he was tortured. Abdel Hakim Belhaj, the Islamist and rebel placed in charge of securing Tripoli following the taking of the capital in August 2011, has publicly said he was detained at Kuala Lumpur airport in 2004, questioned by the CIA, and then repatriated to Libya, where he spent the next six years in jail.

Arab rulers also used the ‘war on terror’ as a handy excuse to round up domestic opponents on the flimsiest evidence. Now, even the most moderate of Islamists could be jailed on charges of supporting terrorism, adding to increasing domestic repression.

As we will discuss in more detail later, Islamists range in their outlooks from religious democrats campaigning peacefully within their own countries to jihadis fighting a global war to establish direct Islamic rule across vast swathes of majority-Muslim land. But in the Western media, the words Islam and jihad were heard together all too often. As US-led forces fought the Taliban in Afghanistan, ordinary people across the world watched news features on women forced to wear the burqa or banned from going to school. A slew of books hit the shelves warning of the dangers of the global jihad, a war against the United States, the West and anyone who did not believe in the narrowest interpretation of Islam.

Samuel Huntington’s 1993 prediction of a coming ‘clash of civilizations’ was the subject of renewed debate, while pundits explained how Islam’s emphasis on community good clashed with the Western emphasis on individual rights, and why Islam could not provide for the separation between mosque and state required for a liberal democracy.

These arguments are likely to have come as a surprise to Turks and Indonesians, whose majority-Muslim countries were already functioning, if flawed, democracies. They also appear to ignore the historical tradition of shura, or consultation, that the early Islamic community engaged in and that many Muslim scholars consider to embody the democratic values of Islam. Amid the fears that swirled in the aftermath of 9/11, the enormous variety of views held by Muslims, on everything from democracy, to sex, to banking, were glossed over. When George W. Bush declared that you were either ‘with us or against us’, virtually all Arab dictators screamed that they were ‘with’. Without us, they warned, the Islamists will come to power, the borders of Israel will no longer be secure and the supply of oil may be disrupted, and it was hard for the United States, as it hunted down Al-Qaeda supporters and invaded two Muslim countries, not to listen.

Yet the 2003 invasion of Iraq, opposed by many of Washington’s Arab allies, inflamed anger across the Arab world and raised a new generation of jihadis. Men too young to have fought in Afghanistan in the 1970s and 1980s now went to Iraq to fight the US invasion. From the perspective of Washington’s long-time allies – particularly the Sunni rulers of Saudi Arabia and the other oil-exporting Gulf states – the biggest winner from the invasion of Iraq was their common enemy, the Shi’ite Muslim theocracy Iran. Tensions flared between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims from Pakistan, to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia in the Gulf, to Lebanon on the Mediterranean coast. Jordan’s King Abdullah spoke with concern in 2004 about the rise of a Shi’ite crescent from Lebanon, through Iraq, to Iran. That, along with the widely-held belief that Iran was pursuing a nuclear weapons programme, provided another reason for the United States to maintain its support both for Sunni Arab rulers and for Israel.

The Democracy Dilemma

All this did not deter Bush from officially launching his so-called ‘freedom agenda’ in 2005. In it, Bush recognized that US support for authoritarianism in other countries might breed anger against the United States, but apparently failed to grasp that sermons on freedom would ring hollow while hundreds were held without trial in Guantanamo Bay, and that democracy enforced by the barrel of a gun might not be welcomed by all those struggling against unelected rulers. ‘We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world. America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one,’ Bush said in his second inaugural address.

The Bush administration’s public enthusiasm for accelerated Arab democracy appeared to be waning by 2006. The 2005 Egyptian parliamentary election lauded by Bush had again shown the Muslim Brotherhood to be the strongest opposition force there. Washington’s carefully groomed secular exiles had failed to win votes in Iraq, trounced in 2005 elections by Shi’ite Islamist groups who now dominated the government. The 2006 Palestinian elections had brought a clear win for Hamas, who had rejected the Oslo accords with Israel. By 2007, the noisy US demands for Arab rulers to accelerate democratic reforms and hold elections had shifted focus.

More emphasis was placed on empowering civil society, activists and NGOs. Arab bloggers were invited to the United States, while activists were given training and in some cases funding. Signed into law on 3 August 2007, the ADVANCE Democracy Act enshrined Washington’s declared commitment to promote democracy abroad into law. Similar measures were passed through National Security Presidential Directive 58, which was signed by Bush in July 2008. Rather than pushing for change from the top, the United States appeared to settle for a longer-term strategy of empowering young, secular activists to establish the bedrock on which more stable and organic democracies could later be built. To many activists, such efforts were little more than window-dressing, hopelessly overshadowed by continued US support for unelected rulers.

Warmly welcomed when he first became president in 2008, Barack Obama changed the tone of engagement with Arab leaders and people, but his handling of the Arab Spring would suggest that the US dilemma remained essentially unchanged. How does it balance its oft-stated desire to promote democracy and free markets in the Middle East and North Africa with its often conflicting political, economic and security interests in the region? On the eve of the Arab Spring, only 20 per cent of Arabs saw Obama in a positive light compared to 45 per cent the previous year. Some 63 per cent were discouraged by his Middle East policy, compared to 15 per cent a year earlier.

In the decade before Mohammed Bouazizi’s desperate suicide sparked the 2011 uprisings, people in the Arab world had witnessed Israel’s crushing of the second Palestinian intifada, marked by a spree of Palestinian suicide bombings that had shocked world opinion. They had watched Islamic extremists fly passenger jets into buildings on 9/11. They had suffered the darkest side of the US ‘war on terror’. They had witnessed the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and Israel’s war against Hezbollah in 2006 and then against Hamas in the Gaza Strip in 2009.

Writing after the invasion of Iraq but before Israel’s war with Hezbollah, Samir Kassir encapsulated the feelings of helplessness that pervaded the region at the time. ‘The Arab people are haunted by a sense of powerlessness; permanently enflamed, it is the badge of their malaise,’ he wrote in Being Arab.

Powerlessness to be what you think you should be. Powerlessness to act to affirm your existence, even theoretically, in the face of the Other who denies your right to exist, despises you and has once again asserted his domination over you. Powerlessness to suppress the feeling that you are no more than a lowly pawn on the global chessboard even as the game is being played in your backyard. This feeling, it has to be said, has been hard to dispel since the Iraq war, when Arab land once again came under foreign occupation and the era of independence was relegated to a parenthesis.

With the odds so stacked against them, it seemed no wonder, as the first decade of the twenty-first century came to a close, that many people in the region lived in one of two equally-depressing situations: under the thumb of authoritarian rulers, be they monarchs or presidents-for-life, or in the midst of chaos, sectarian strife and foreign meddling. It seemed to reinforce these leaders’ oft-repeated warning that their heavy-handed rule was the only thing preventing anarchy, and it seemed to underscore the helplessness felt by millions who could see little hope of change.

Arab rulers had crushed opposition parties, preventing any meaningful consolidation among their ranks and dispersing their members between jail, exile and hiding. Their repression had left opponents nowhere to gather but the mosque, breathing life and legitimacy into religious movements that would defeat weakened secularists in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. They had undermined civil society, ensuring that NGOs were under-resourced and under pressure, and limiting the role they could play after the uprisings. And they had strengthened the networks of patronage and nepotism that weakened state institutions and forced people to look to sects or tribes for protection and favours, complicating the transition to new systems of government.

This legacy of repressive policies and foreign meddling would define some of the battles that would unfold in the post–2011 era, but, as the next chapter explains, deep economic divides and inequalities were stoking just as much anger.

Lin Noueihed is a Reuters editor based in London. She has reported from the Middle East for twelve years, covering politics, economics, and conflict.

Alex Warren is a director of Frontier, a Middle East and North Africa consultancy. He has lived and worked around the region, and since 2009 has specialised in Libya.