After the Arab Spring: How the Islamists Hijacked the Middle East Revolts, by John R Bradley
|February 16, 2012||Posted by Tom Wooldridge under culture, reviews|
John R Bradley, the author, has lived in, and reported on, the Middle East for many years. He published a book in 2008 called Inside Egypt that accurately predicted a revolution in Egypt and spent most of early 2011 travelling between the countries affected by the Arab spring; in this book he uses his knowledge and experiences to explain, as the name suggests, how the Islamists hijacked the Arab spring. He has previously published several other books on the Arab world (click here to get to the author page on Amazon), and contributes to broadsheet newspapers in both the UK and US. He also writes for magazines such as The Spectator and is commonly interviewed on news channels.
I am writing this review with little previous knowledge of Middle Eastern culture and only a basic knowledge of Islam. This is the same way I approached this book, but it wasn’t a problem: Bradley breaks down the chapters thematically whilst retaining separate chapters for his favourite countries of Egypt and Tunisia. Thanks to the relatively recent events concerned and book publishing schedules there is little with which to compare this book, however judging from the publications that the author writes for and some of his arguments I think he is more right wing: he is critical throughout of the western media’s belief that the revolutions are being caused by a demand for liberal democracy. This bias needs to be taken into account, and it remains to be seen how other authors will portray the Arab spring in future books.
If you want a quick review and only have time to read a small section of this book, you should read the introduction, An Arab Spring? and the concluding chapter, What Next? These two chapters sum up Bradley’s main arguments.
Themes throughout the book are Bradley’s reiteration of the threat of western-backed Wahhabi interpretation of Islam and consistent criticism of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. The Wahhabi applications of the teaching of Islam are led and taught by Saudi Arabian, state-backed clerics, and Bradley claims that the Saudi Arabians fund these groups. Saudi Arabia is also the country which Bradley claims finances Al-Qaeda (as well as providing a safe haven), and yet it is where the US and the west base their war-on-terror arsenals, as well as being the recipient of financial support and political legitimation. This is due to the Saudis supporting the Sunni sect of Islam, which opposes Iran’s Shia sect; Bradley says the west sees Iran as a bigger threat.
In Tunisia, the author explains how the relatively moderate, not-too-barbaric leader Ben Ali ruled. Ali was an usual case as he didn’t kill opponents – he ‘only’ submitted some to torture and then exiled the opposition to London. Bradley describes Tunisia as a secular state where wearing a veil was actively banned in public-owned buildings and discouraged elsewhere, and where women could even wear bikinis on the beach. The new ruling party which took power after Ali’s departure, a proxy of the Muslim Brotherhood, has since enforced a Saudi-style police state to ensure women wear the full hijab at all times. Bradley says the revolt here was down to economic woes as Tunisia had the highest graduate unemployment rate in the world. He describes how the protesters held up posters of former president Habib Bourgiba at the protests to expel Ben Ali. Bourgiba didn’t have elections, or democracy, but a tolerant society with successful economy – which is what the people want.
For Egypt, Bradley cites similar circumstances, with a tolerant regime being toppled. Egypt differed to Tunisia in its education levels: Tunisia was highly educated while Egypt wasn’t, and even the children that did pass exams were illiterate. Education could be bought. There was also more corruption in Egypt than Tunisia, but this only increased the severity of the economic problems. The biggest difference in Egypt was that the entire population was involved in the demand for Mubarak to step down, whereas in Tunisia it was largely the graduates who were active in social media and upset at the economic situation. The similarity between the revolts is that, though the people demanded change, the movements were both taken over by radical Islamists who have wanted this opportunity for many years after being oppressed by all of the old regimes (with western support). Bradley claims that in Egypt the Islamists were afraid to participate in the revolution until it was likely Mubarak would go because of the harsh response they would suffer if it failed.
The above is just an outline of the book. There is also a brilliant section on Syria, though the Syrian problem is far more complex and the reader needs to understand the author’s full argument before reading this section in order to do it justice. Another excellent chapter is entitled Lessons from Southeast Asia and is about Malaysia and the connections between opposition leaders in Tunisia and the Saudi clerics. Bradley’s intricate descriptions of the Shia and Sunni sects’ parts in the revolution are also fascinating.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the Arab spring, or anyone with a view on intervention in the region; it questions every assumption the media has portrayed and provides evidence for these statements. There’s no complaining about the cost of it either: it costs only £10.99 at Blackwells (where you can spend your Christmas book vouchers as I did) or it is available for £7.80 on Amazon.
I welcome and will reply to any comments, questions or criticisms.