History Derailed: Understanding the messy Middle East

The Arab Spring was supposed to be a turning point for the Arab Middle East. And it was. But history appears to have taken a wrong turn. Again. American journalist Robert F. Worth joins Paul Kennedy in conversation about his book, "A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, from Tahrir Square to ISIS". Worth is the 2017 winner of the Lionel Gelber Prize.
A girl attends Friday prayers in front of an army tank in Tahrir Square in Cairo February 18, 2011. (REUTERS/Suhaib Salem)
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The Arab Spring was supposed to be a turning point for the Arab Middle East. And it was. But history appears to have taken a wrong turn. Again. American journalist Robert F. Worth joins Paul Kennedy in conversation about his book, A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, from Tahrir Square to ISIS. Worth is the 2017 winner of the Lionel Gelber Prize. **This episode originally aired May 29, 2017.

Robert F. Worth explains how the vast differences among Arab countries coalesce into sameness when it comes to the long-standing outrage ordinary people have been facing for decades. 0:56


 

Robert F. Worth is a former correspondent for The New York Times. The travels he underwent in Egypt, Libya, Syria -- and elsewhere -- make up a journey into an idea of the Arab world itself. Not into the revolutionary promises of the 2010 Arab Spring. But into the sobering, and tragic narrative that took shape just a year later.


From Robert F. Worth's 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, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016.
"In fact, what happened in 2011 was not so much a beginning as an end. It was the final disintegration of something that had been rotting for decades: the Arab republican states, which finally collapsed of their own weight. By 2010, the Arab world's police states were no longer meeting their own standards. 

Strongmen who had spent decades mastering the arts of divide and rule, of 'balancing' local conflicts against each other, found themselves unable to cope with deepening economic crises, unemployment, rising food and commodity prices, the effects of drought, and corruption that had grown beyond their control. 

Demography intensified all these problems: by 2010, the vast majority of the Arab world's people were under thirty. Most of them had slim chances of getting a decent job, despite the fact that they were more literate and better educated than their parents. In 1980, about half of Arabs could read and write. By the year 2000, that number had risen to 61.5 percent, and among people age fifteen to twenty-four, it was about 80 per cent. 

These numbers translated into higher expectations. But in economies dominated by sluggish bureaucracies and patronage, the young saw no reward for initiative, and humiliation everywhere. 

Tentative efforts to liberalize the economy in Egypt and Syria in the early 2000s only increased the wealth gap between those with waasta -- connections to the ruling elite -- and those without. Young Arab men with no income could not marry or move out of their parents' homes. 

They were tantalized by visions of a Western world of freedom and affluence. Starting in the 1990s, they had been hearing new voices, on al Jazeera and other satellite TV stations, that exposed the state-run propaganda of their childhood and mocked the pretenses of their rulers. 

The Internet amplified this new awareness while granting people a much greater ability to communicate with each other. All these things helped pave the way for what began in 2010: a slow groundswell of outrage. In country after country, martyrs were being held up, dead or maimed or humiliated men and women, whose fates seemed to crystallize the indignity visited on an entire people." -- Robert F. Worth
 

  •  A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, from Tahrir Square to ISIS by Robert F. Worth is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016.


 

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