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The Arab Spring: A Crisis Fell upon the Region | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Tahrir Square, February 2011. Paolo Pellegrin/ Magnum Photos

The New York Time Magazine has issued an epic report that tells the story of the catastrophe that has fractured the Arab world since the invasion of Iraq 13 years ago, leading to the rise of ISIS and the global refugee crisis. The geography of this catastrophe is broad and its causes are many, but its consequences — war and uncertainty throughout the world — are familiar to us all. Scott Anderson’s story gives the reader a visceral sense of how it all unfolded, through the eyes of six characters in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan.

Accompanying Anderson’s text are 10 portfolios by the photographer Paolo Pellegrin, drawn from his extensive travels across the region over the last 14 years, as well as a landmark virtual-reality experience that embeds the viewer with the Iraqi fighting forces during the battle to retake Falluja.

Anderson depicted the situation in Libya today through activist Majdi el-Mangoush from the Libyan city of Misurata, where the revolution that ousted former President Muammar el-Qaddafi had first sparked.

The author then illustrates the Egyptian state of affairs by introducing family of Egyptian activist Laila Soueif. Laila was born into a life of both privilege and intellectual freedom. Her parents were college professors, and her older sister, Ahdaf Soueif, is one of Egypt’s best-known contemporary novelists. While studying mathematics at Cairo University in the mid-1970s, she met her future husband, Ahmed Seif, who was already the leader of an underground communist student cell calling for revolution.

In the third part of his report, Anderson, through Majdi and Laila, tackled the story of the Arab Spring that turned into a crisis, or an ordeal suffered by the region’s countries.

It was during this time of ferment that the three children of Laila Soueif and Ahmed Seif, who previously had shown little interest in activism, began to have a change of heart about politics. The first to make the evolution was their son, Alaa, a pioneering Egyptian blogger, and it happened when he accompanied Laila to a protest march in May 2005.

“He had become very interested in citizen journalism,” Laila said, “so with all the street actions surrounding the Constitution and Mubarak running again, he had begun coming down to cover the demonstrations — not to participate, just to report on them.”

But the protest on May 25 was a very different affair. Waiting in ambush were government-hired thugs, or baltageya, who immediately charged at the demonstrators to beat them with fists and wooden staffs. Perhaps recognizing the well-known protester in their midst, the goons soon fell on Laila.

“Well, this was something new,” she said, “for them to punch a middle-aged woman, and when my son saw that, he jumped in to help me.” For his trouble, Alaa was beaten up as well. “He had some toes broken, so we went to hospital, and it was only later that we discovered we were the lucky ones. After we left, the baltageya began pulling the clothes off women and beating them in their underwear. This was something they did a lot later on, to humiliate, but that was when it began and when Alaa joined the protests. The girls became involved later — Mona got pulled in with the judges’ independence movement, and then for Sanaa it was the revolution — but for Alaa, it started in 2005.”

Laila Soueif is a tough, unsentimental woman, and if she harbored any pride — or, in light of what was to come, regret — over her children’s turn to activism, she didn’t let on. “I never tried to dissuade them. Even if I had wanted to — and I probably did at times — I didn’t. That kind of thing is useless. They’re not going to listen to you anyway, so you just get into fights.”

It was around this time that Majdi el-Mangoush joined onlookers on a sidewalk in his hometown, Misurata, to witness an incredible sight.

Along Tripoli Street, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, a municipal work crew with a cherry-picker was methodically taking down the posters of Muammar el-Qaddafi that hung from every lamppost.

It was part of an attempt by the Libyan dictator to put a kinder, gentler face on his government. While ostensibly directed at the Libyan people, the campaign was really meant for Western consumption.

In the days leading up to the invasion of Iraq, there had been talk in President George W. Bush’s inner circle that once Saddam Hussein was dispensed with, the troublesome Qaddafi would be next. Once the Iraq invasion began in March 2003, the Libyan dictator hurried to make amends with the Americans. He offered a settlement over his country’s role in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland — without explicitly admitting guilt, the Libyan government agreed to set aside $2.7 billion in compensation to the families of the 270 victims — and began quietly dismantling his nation’s fledgling program for chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. Even more quietly, Libyan intelligence agents shared dossiers with their American counterparts on suspected Al Qaeda operatives and other Islamic

fundamentalists in the region. On the home front, the goal was to create at least the illusion of political liberalization, and one aspect was to remove some of the tens of thousands of posters and billboards of “the Leader” that wallpapered the nation.

Qaddafi soon thought better of the whole egalitarian makeover. By 2006, the United States had restored full diplomatic relations with his government; while officially a response to the abandonment of the Libyan unconven­tional-weapons program, certainly a contributing factor was that, amid the deepening quagmire of the Iraqi misadventure, there was not going to be any grand American crusade against the region’s other dictators. Which also meant that Qaddafi could quietly abandon his reform drive. “It was just a bit of theater,” Majdi said. “Nothing really changed, and after a few months, I don’t think anyone even remembered it.”

But that day hadn’t yet arrived when the cherry-picker made its way down Misurata’s Tripoli Street. Majdi was still observing the spectacle when an elderly man emerged from a nearby alley.

For a long moment, the old man stared slack-jawed in amazement at the sight before him. He then rushed over to one of the discarded posters, removed a shoe and — in a gesture of insult common throughout the Arab world — began beating it against Qaddafi’s likeness amid a torrent of curses.

A municipal worker came over to ask what he was doing.

“The bastard’s gone at last, no?” the old man asked. “There’s been a coup?”

When the worker set him straight, the man stammered out an explanation for his behavior — he’d been very ill lately, given to fits of lunacy — and then hurried away.

Khulood did not flee Iraq alone. She crossed back into Jordan with her next-eldest sister, Sahar, and they were joined in Amman a few months later by their father and oldest sister, Teamim. Choosing to stay on in Iraq were Khulood’s three brothers, along with her mother, Aziza. By summer 2007, Khulood was especially worried about Wisam, her youngest brother. “The war then was at its worst,” she said, “and young men were just being taken from the streets. I called Wisam all the time. I told him there was no future for him in Iraq, that he had to come out, but he was very softhearted and said that he needed to stay to take care of our mother.”

One evening that September, as Wisam and a friend walked along a Kut street, someone with an assault rifle killed them both in a burst of gunfire. “He was 25,” Khulood said softly. “Some people say he was killed because of the work I was doing, but I hope that isn’t true.”

A few months after Wisam’s murder, Khulood faced a new ordeal when, working for an NGO, she rebuffed the demands of a corrupt but well-placed Jordanian businessman looking for kickbacks. He was the wrong person to cross. Shortly after, she was ordered to leave Jordan. Facing almost-certain death if forced to return to Iraq, Khulood turned to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for emergency resettlement in a third country.

Among the more unlikely possibilities for resettlement was the United States. In 2008, American troops were still embroiled in an Iraqi civil war, and the Bush administration had strict caps in place (albeit recently loosened) on the number of Iraqis to be given refuge; to let in all those who had fled the country — and there were an estimated half-million displaced Iraqis in Jordan alone — would belie its talking point that the corner had finally been turned in the war. In light of the grave danger Khulood faced, how­ever, the U.N.H.C.R. placed her in its own special program, reserved for only the most vulnerable of refugees, and for those in this pool, the Americans had a spot available. In July 2008, Khulood boarded a plane bound for San Francisco.

It’s hard to imagine a more extreme transition, from the cramped, tumbledown apartment she shared with her father and two sisters in Amman to a pleasant one-bedroom in San Francisco, and Khulood reveled in her new life. “Just to have the freedom to go wherever I wanted, and to not think something bad might happen to me. And I don’t mean just the war. For a woman to travel alone in Iraq — maybe it happened in Baghdad, but never in Kut, and so some days I would just take a bus or the metro for hours. It was something I had never really imagined before.”

Her career prospects were also much improved. In Iraq, Khulood studied English because it seemed to offer the greatest chance at future freedom for a young woman, but in the United States the opportunities were endless. “After one year, I would get my green card, and then I could apply for scholarships to study whatever I wanted. I became very ambitious.”

The one continuing source of worry was for her divided family back in Iraq and Jordan. While she knew those in Kut wouldn’t leave, Khulood was desperate to release her father and sisters from their limbo existence in Amman and, soon after reaching San Francisco, she started the paperwork to have them join her.

Three months later, Khulood received both good and bad news. Her two sisters were approved for resettlement. Their father, how­ever, was rejected. The sisters remained in Jordan while the family appealed the decision, but Ali al-Zaidi was rejected again.

By February 2009, seven months after Khulood’s arrival in San Francisco, there was still no progress in the effort to resettle her father. It was then she made a fateful decision: She would return to Jordan and work on his case there.

“My friends in San Francisco couldn’t understand it,” she recalled. “Why, when you have a new life here, why would you ever go back?” Khulood grew thoughtful for a moment, as if still struggling for an answer. “But how to explain my culture to them? In Iraq, family is the most important thing, you can never turn away from it, so how could I and my sisters enjoy this nice life in America but leave our father behind? We could never live with the shame of that. So I went back.”

In Amman, Khulood tirelessly pursued any angle she could think of to win her father’s exit, petitioning for settlement not just in the United States but also in a half-dozen European nations. Nothing worked.

Worse, Khulood had walked herself into legal limbo. As she was warned before leaving San Francisco, under the stipulations of American immigration law, refugees awaiting the permanent status of a green card cannot leave the country for longer than six months. By returning — and staying — in Jordan, Khulood had lost her refugee classification. Now, along with the part of her family that she had brought out of Iraq, Khulood was stranded. She could not go home or to a third country, hostage to the whim of a state — Jordan — that was anxious to shed her.

The American invasion of Iraq was initially worrisome for Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian dictator’s relations with the mercurial and dangerous Saddam Hussein had warmed recently, and he was no doubt concerned that he could be next on the American hit list. But just as with Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya, by the late 2000s, Assad could be quite confident that he had nothing to fear from a flailing United States.

Not that this confidence translated into greater political freedom for the Syrian people. Just as in his father’s day, Assad’s subjects lived in constant fear of internal security agents and a network of government-sanctioned thugs, or shabiha. So pervasive was this spying apparatus — or at least the fear of it — that politics wasn’t so much a delicate subject in most Syrian homes as no subject at all.

“I can never remember my father saying anything about the regime, good or bad,” Majd Ibrahim said. “And I never remember any of my relatives or neighbors doing it either. When it came to the state, the most anyone would criticize was maybe the corrupt traffic policeman at the corner. You just didn’t talk about that stuff with anyone.”

Because of his liberal upbringing, Majd experienced a shock when he left his Catholic school at the end of the ninth grade and transferred into a state high school. His modern and secular ways often estranged him from his more Islamist-minded classmates, and the instruction was abysmal. But high school is a bad time for a lot of people, and Majd’s life brightened considerably upon graduating in summer 2010. While failing to obtain the high marks on the national exam that would have enabled him to pursue one of the “higher” professions — engineering or medicine — he did sufficiently well to enter Al-Baath University in Homs that autumn to pursue a degree in hotel management.

This was undoubtedly a better fit for Majd regardless. The handsome, outgoing young man had a natural charm that enabled him to develop a quick rapport with most anyone, joined to an intense curiosity about the larger world beyond Homs. With his degree in hand, he envisioned a future at one of the luxury hotels in Damascus — they “represented one of the best ways to advance,” he said, “to have a good life.”

But there was another feature of his hometown that Majd had probably scarcely given thought to in his short life: In almost every way, Homs truly was the crossroads of Syria. Located near the midpoint of the highway between the nation’s two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo, Homs was also the eastern terminus of the highway linking Syria’s interior to its coastal provinces. Just as significant, it was the hub of the nation’s gas- and oil-refinery industry — quite logically, since the pipelines leading from the oil and natural-gas fields in the eastern deserts passed directly through the city on their way to the coast. If all this served to make Homs a prosperous town, it also meant that, in the event of a war, it was a place all sides would fight furiously to control.

By the time Majd started at Al-Baath University, that war was just months away.

Laila had been involved with Egyptian politics for far too long to believe all the talk about the plans to protest in Tahrir Square on Jan. 25, 2011. “It’s not going to be a demonstration,” one young activist told her. “It’s going to be a revolution.” She understood the man’s excitement. Only days earlier, street protests after the self-­immolation of the fruit-­and-­vegetable vendor in Tunisia had forced the longtime Tunisian strongman Zine el-­Abidine Ben Ali from power. Throughout the Arab world, rebellion

was in the air. But this was Egypt. Laila expected news conferences and solidarity committee meetings, perhaps some paper reforms, certainly not insurrection. She even joked about it. She was attending an educational conference the day before the demonstration, and when an organizer asked if she would be returning the next day, she replied, “Well, tomorrow we’re having a revolution, but if the revolution ends early, yes, I’ll be here.”

The following day, as Laila approached Tahrir Square, she realized this indeed was something altogether different from the toothless Egyptian protests of the past. Until now, the Cairene activist community had considered a protest successful if it drew several hundred demonstrators. In Tahrir Square on Jan. 25, the crowd was at least 15,000, and Laila soon heard about the many thousands more who had converged on different rallying points around Cairo and in other towns and cities across Egypt. In Tahrir, as elsewhere around the nation, the stunned security forces simply stepped aside, as the emboldened crowds’ calls for reform gave way to open demands for Hosni Mubarak’s fall.

The protests continued over the next two days, until, on Jan. 28, Laila concluded that they truly did have a revolution on their hands. That morning, she and some friends traveled to the Imbaba neighborhood in northwest Cairo to join a group intending to march on Tahrir, only to be met by a wall of soldiers in riot gear. After dispersing the protesters, the soldiers pursued them into Imbaba’s narrow alleyways, firing tear gas as they went.

“That was a very stupid mistake,” Laila explained. “These are small alleys where people are practically living in the street, so that just brought down Imbaba. It became a fixed battle between the troops and the residents, and there was absolutely no moving those people. They were going to break down these soldiers and torch the police stations, or die trying.”

The battle for Imbaba continued late into the afternoon. Laila, having become separated from her friends, decided to walk to downtown alone. It was an eerie journey. The streets were deserted, and fires raged in the growing dusk: cars, barricades, police stations burning. Echoing off the surrounding buildings came the sound of gunfire, some single shots, others the sustained bursts of assault rifles. With darkness falling, Laila finally emerged onto Ramses Street, a major thoroughfare in central Cairo.

“And suddenly, this huge crowd of demonstrators appeared,” she recalled, “running down Ramses. They had just broken through the police cordons, and they were running to get to Tahrir. One young man saw me standing there, and he came over and hugged me — he’d obviously seen me before, in Tahrir — and

said, ‘I told you we would have a revolution!’ And that was the moment when I knew it was true, and that we would be victorious.”

Over the next week, both the size and the militancy of the demonstrations grew, but so did the harshness of the government’s response, with soldiers and the police increasingly trading tear gas for live ammunition. On Feb. 1, a defiant Mubarak took to the airwaves vowing never to leave Egypt — “On its soil I will die” — and the following day there came the bizarre spectacle, called the Battle of the Camel, when scores of state-­sponsored thugs astride horses and camels attacked those encamped in Tahrir Square with riding crops and whips.

The following day, Ahmed Seif’s law center was raided by the military police, and he and dozens of others were hauled off for questioning at the headquarters of military intelligence. For two days, Ahmed was interrogated by a variety of officers, but he would have reason to recall one encounter in particular. It came on the morning of Feb. 5, when the chief of military intelligence, a colorless general named Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, going about other business, happened to stride past Ahmed and several other prisoners. In an impromptu lecture, Sisi warned his captive audience that they should all respect Mubarak and Egypt’s military leadership and that, once released, they should go home and forget Tahrir Square. When Ahmed, forgoing respectful silence, retorted that Mubarak was corrupt, the general’s haughty manner swiftly changed. “He became angry; his face became red,” Ahmed recalled a few years later to The Guardian. “He acted as if every citizen would accept his point and no one would reject it in public. When he was rejected in public, he lost it.”

Upon his release that day, Ahmed stopped by his home for a change of clothes and then immediately returned to Tahrir Square.

It soon became clear that the regime was losing control. Across Egypt came reports of army units refusing orders to fire on demonstrators, and in Tahrir Square television cameras captured images of soldiers embracing the protesters and sharing cigarettes with them.

On Feb. 11, the clock finally ran out on Hosni Mubarak. After submitting his resignation, the president and his immediate family boarded a plane and fled to their palatial retreat in the Red Sea resort town Sharm el Sheikh. At the news, all of Egypt erupted in celebration, and nowhere more so than in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

But among a small handful of Egyptians, joy was already tinged with a note of disquiet, especially when it was announced that a group of senior military officers, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF, would serve as an interim government until elections were held. One of those who worried was Laila Soueif.

“In the last few days of Mubarak,” she said, “when we could see what was coming, I and some of the other independents, we tried to talk to all the different political factions. ‘Seize power. Don’t wait for permission. Just seize power now before the military steps in.’ And everyone said: ‘Yes, of course, that’s a good idea. We’ll organize a meeting to talk about it in a couple of days.’ ” Laila shook her head, gave a bitter little laugh. “But maybe it was asking too much. Maybe we simply couldn’t do it at that point. People needed to feel they had won. Not us, the politicos, but all these millions of people who had come down to the street. They needed a time to feel victorious.” She sighed, and then fell silent for a moment. “I don’t know. To this day, I don’t know. But I think that was our critical moment, and we lost.”

13. Majdi el-­Mangoush


By January 2011, Majdi was completing his third and final year in the national air force academy, a sprawling compound in southwest Misurata, hoping to earn a degree in communications engineering. He was an unlikely soldier — softhearted, slightly pudgy — but the academy was an easy choice for Majdi, allowing him to spend regular leaves at his family home, just a few miles away, and hang out with his civilian friends. He and his fellow cadets followed the news of the upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt in astonishment, but none connected that tumult to their situation in Libya, much less imagined it might spread there. Then, on the evening of Feb. 19, a Saturday, the cadets heard a series of crackling sounds coming from within the city. At first, they thought it might be firecrackers, but the sounds intensified and drew nearer, until the students realized it was gunfire. Soon they were ordered to assemble at the drill ground, where they were informed that all leave had been canceled. By then, the watchtowers that ringed the compound — usually empty or occupied by a single bored sentry — were manned by squads of soldiers with mounted machine guns.

“That’s when we knew something big had happened,” Majdi recalled, “because this was unlike anything we’d seen before. But still, no one would tell us what was going on.”

Majdi hoped he would get an explanation when classes resumed the next morning, but the civilian instructors failed to show up. Throughout that day, Majdi stayed in the constant company of his best friend at the academy, Jalal al-­Drisi, a 23-year-old cadet from Benghazi. In contrast to the shy Majdi, Jalal, wiry and quick on his feet, was always ready with an irreverent joke or an elaborate prank. What the two shared was a fascination with science and gadgetry — Jalal was studying aviation weaponry —

and over the course of the previous two and a half years, they had become inseparable. Jalal frequently spent his weekend leaves at the Mangoush family home in Misurata, a hospitality that was reciprocated when Majdi spent part of the summer of 2009 with the Drisis in Benghazi. In the bizarre news-free environment that existed at the academy, the young men tried to puzzle out what was happening.

Over the next two days, the gunfire beyond the walls continued sporadically. The sound would draw near at times, only to recede; intense exchanges would be followed by long periods of quiet.

A measure of clarity finally came on Feb. 22, when Col. Muammar el-­Qaddafi, clad in an olive-­drab robe, addressed the nation. In what almost instantly became known as the Zenga Zenga speech, the dictator laid blame for the social unrest then spreading across Libya on foreign conspirators and “rats,” and he vowed to purify Libya “inch by inch, house by house, room by room, alley by alley” — “zenga zenga” in Qaddafi’s pronunciation of the Arabic word for “alley” — “person by person.”

No sooner did Qaddafi’s address end than the gunfire in Misurata significantly escalated. “It was like the security forces had been awaiting orders for what to do,” Majdi said. “After the speech, they just opened up everywhere.”

The cadets remained quarantined; they were besieged by elements outside the compound walls whose goals they weren’t allowed to know and kept within those walls by soldiers who clearly didn’t trust them. As the days passed and the unseen gun battles raged, the students lounged around their barracks wondering what was to become of them. It was virtually all Majdi el-­Mangoush and Jalal al-­Drisi could talk about. “We would sit together for hours and go over every little detail, every clue we had picked up,” Majdi said. “ ‘What did it mean? Did it mean anything?’ But sometimes it got to be too much. We had to stop. We had to talk about football or girls, anything to distract us.”

Their peculiar limbo ended on the night of Feb. 25, when soldiers of the elite 32nd Brigade suddenly appeared on the base. Announcing that they had come from Tripoli to “rescue” the cadets, the commandos ordered the students to gather their things and run to a gathering point at the edge of the compound where buses were waiting.

Someone in the vaunted 32nd had made a logistical error, however. To transport the 580 cadets, just two buses had been ordered. With each vehicle filled to bursting, the excess students were crammed wherever they might fit in the brigade’s jeeps and armored cars, and then the convoy trundled into the night for the long journey to Tripoli.

(The New York Times)