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What The Arab Spring Can Teach Us About America’s Populist Revolution

The Arab Spring began in Tunisia in December 2010 and by August of 2011, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and Libya had all experienced revolutions that called for the ouster of their respective leaders. The people of these countries were spurred by a desire for more freedom, stability, and a new way of life, free from government corruption, torture and the police state. Robert Worth’s new book on the Arab Spring, A Rage for Order, takes us through each country’s revolution, examining what sparked it, what life was like before and during the revolt, and the struggles to maintain the goals of the revolution.

He tells the story of the Arab Spring in the same way that excellent historical fiction is told, by following individual stories, with the political scene in the backdrop. His informants range from two young Syrian women, one Sunni and one Alawi who had been best friends before the civil war, to a man who has been fighting the regime in Yemen for more than 40 years. He follows the story of a Muslim Brotherhood figure who began as a unifier during the 18 days in Tahrir Square and ended as a staunch Islamist who was sentenced to death. He spent time with the leader of one of the many militias in Libya that emerged after Qaddafi fell, a man who showed him videos of the torture performed under the deposed dictator and then allowed him to interview one of the torturers, whom he was keeping prisoner.

Worth himself has spent years in the Middle East and North Africa, working for four years as The New York Times Beirut bureau chief. He was on an apartment balcony looking over Tahrir Square the night Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down from power, and he drove into Libya in the weeks after the protests began there. He was on the ground not just during the revolutions, but before and after them.

Islamism Versus Secularism

Through the stories he collected, Worth highlights the deep sectarian and tribal tensions of the Arab world that are responsible for centuries of violence, decades of dysfunction in the post-colonial era, and the difficulties the Arab Spring faced. In Syria, the Alawi and Sunni sects have been in opposition for hundreds of years. Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh had long pitted rival tribes against one another to maintain power. In Libya, after Gaddafi fell, dozens of militias formed with no real government or army in power. In all of these countries, Islamists took advantage of the chaos.

In all of these countries, Islamists took advantage of the chaos.

These internal divisions were ignored during the colonial era and after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, when borders were drawn in the living rooms of European diplomats, forcing warring groups to live as one nation. Whenever one group was in power, the other was hounded by the intelligence apparatus, tortured, or disappeared. These fissures…

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