Robert Worth’s new book, A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, From Tahrir Square to ISIS, is a comprehensive look at the Middle East in the post–Arab Spring era. Worth, a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine and formerly the Times’ Beirut bureau chief, moves across countries, focusing on both geopolitics and individual stories, from Egypt to Yemen to Libya.
We spoke by phone recently about terrorist rehabilitation programs, the lack of good policy options in Syria, and how the specter of ISIS haunts the region. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Isaac Chotiner: Was there an underreported aspect of the Arab Spring that you wanted to get across in your book?
Robert Worth: Well, for a long time I was skeptical about writing a book that would encompass all these different countries because each country seemed so distinct in its uprisings and the response to them. But by 2013, when you had the coup in Egypt and then the massacre in Rabaa Square, I began to feel that there were common features.
In all of these countries any semblance of a political middle ground disappeared, and you got this sense of a battle over the most basic aspects of the social order. Everybody felt that this was an existential fight: “If we lose, we lose everything. We lose the state, we lose our religion, we lose our sense of people.” Another thing that crystallized across all these countries was ISIS and the response to it.
What aspect of the rise of ISIS are you referring to?
There were huge numbers of people who felt that their world was falling apart. There was a feeling that any semblance of order in these people’s lives had disappeared, and the appeal of this crazily radical solution of head chopping was something that people all over the region were interested in. These people began to connect online—many speak the same language and read the same poems about it.
I think this began to obsess the intelligentsia in the same way everywhere and led to similar movements for renewed autocracy. That’s what fueled the passionate, passionate response to [President Abdel Fatah al-]Sisi in Egypt when he arose into public view in the summer of 2013.
That’s interesting, because while there may be this horrible fear of ISIS and the instability it brings, you also have countries like Saudi Arabia and the Sunni Gulf states exhibiting a sort of sympathy for ISIS because they view Iran and Bashar al-Assad as bigger threats.
Yeah, absolutely. It’s amazing how the sectarian language that first became much more pervasive in Iraq, I guess about a decade ago, just happened everywhere. I was at the Saudi rehabilitation center where they take jihadis.
Yeah, they just sent some Guantánamo guys there.
Yeah, exactly. They essentially buy people off. There’s a religious component to it. A lot of it involves giving them a job, a taxi, a wife, getting them a life essentially, and hoping it stabilizes them. It works for most of them, but some of them have gone back to jihad. I was there talking to a bunch of their patients, or whatever you want to call them, and there was a guy who had been brought in to talk to them. He was viewed as their success story. Well, he had been to Syria and back for jihad, I forget how many times, something between eight and a dozen, and he was there to tell the brothers, “I fought and I decided actually this really isn’t the true path and we’re not meant to be doing this.” He fought alongside Al-Nusra, he fought alongside ISIS guys. But he also said, “Of course I was there to kill Shiites and that’s the good part. That hasn’t gone away. Just don’t do it with these guys.” He was saying this right under the noses of these officials who had invited me. It was staggering—the degree of just open sectarian hatred.
I want to turn to some of the countries you wrote about, specifically Egypt. If Mohamed Morsi had been allowed to remain in power and had not been overthrown in a coup in 2013, where do you think Egypt might be today?
It’s a hard question to answer. The problem with Morsi was not just that he was an Islamist. It was that he was terribly, terribly, catastrophically incompetent. I think bad, bad things would have happened, apart from ideology. There still would have been a huge fissure in the country. Even if a coup hadn’t taken place, it’s just hard to imagine that the country would have functioned very well with a large proportion of its intelligentsia not only unwilling to take part in whatever Morsi was doing but actively trying to undermine it.
What’s striking to me is that in Tunisia, [the moderate Islamist movement] Ennahda, which is a much, much, much more sophisticated organization, is so much more worldly and yet even they screwed up terribly. They fortunately had the wisdom to recognize that they screwed up and to voluntarily give up power. You talk to the people that run the Muslim Brotherhood, and they’re just way, way, way behind. They have years of learning to do if they ever want to come back to power.
Why is this? Because the Brotherhood was repressed for so long? Because of its ideology?
Well, a lot of them just have a very limited background, and they essentially read and reread the Quran all their lives. Tunisia is a different situation. It is just closer to Europe, and there were more international influences on these people from the beginning. I think they actually benefited by being exiled for so long. The leaders of Ennahda lived in the U.K. for 20 years, and they would ask themselves very hard questions. The Egyptians didn’t really do that. They were imprisoned during that time. I think also Tunisia is lucky that [Ennahda leader Rached] Ghannouchi himself happens to be just an unusually smart and interesting guy. When he was in his early 20s, he was reading Marx and Freud and trying to integrate ideas. He wanted to learn. He wanted to create an organization that the entire country could get behind. I don’t think the Egyptian Islamists ever really tried that hard. Later in the ’80s they began to try to make some alliances with leftists but in a very, very limited way.
Given that the Brotherhood in Egypt is now being repressed again, it seems like they will be even worse if and when they eventually return to power. That isn’t much cause for hope.
Well, I don’t mean to suggest long-term hope. I will say a lot of the Brotherhood leadership is abroad. There are some Egyptian Brotherhood figures who I’ve been impressed by. They do seem like they’re trying to learn. It’s a slow and difficult process. I think the guys who are abroad may represent the best hope for the organization.
Is there anything about Sisi that’s much different than Egypt’s other military dictators?
He’s such a through-and-through figure of the army. Nasser, after all, was a figure from the army, but he came out of a different period. He lived through a lot more, growing up in the monarchy, and in some ways was a more appealing guy. Sisi just seems like he has a very limited worldview and a limited perspective. He’s made some interesting comments about renovating Islam and coming up with a new way of thinking about religion and stuff, and that sounds appealing to some in the West. I don’t think he has the ability to think beyond, in terms of politics and economics, the army position, which is a kind of separate universe in Egypt. They are their own world; they think of themselves as superior to the rest of the country, which is kind of like sheep. They are the shepherds and everybody else should just shut up and listen.
I want to turn to Yemen, and the Saudi-led war there, which the Obama administration is supporting despite a massive number of civilian casualties. What do you think this seemingly insane war is going to accomplish or was supposed to accomplish?
I don’t think the Saudis undertook this war with a great deal of strategy in mind. I think, honestly, what they wanted to do was send a message to Iran. “We’re not scared of you. We can strike out against you, and look at us.” They have not achieved any of their goals, and they’ve made Yemen worse, as far as I can tell. You know all the stories about the humanitarian crisis and the growth of al-Qaida in the country? It used to be when I was in Yemen I had to worry about a couple of different armed groups that might kidnap me. Now there must be a dozen. I don’t mean to put it in a selfish way—it’s the Yemenis who suffer from all of this, not foreigners.
The Houthis started off as a small group in the northwest of the country that had very limited, somewhat mysterious demands, but their ambitions were small. Now they’re all over the country and they have stretched way past their natural limits, and as a result they have teenage commanders with guns who are killing people and seem to be out beyond the control of the group’s nominal leaders. The country was already pretty ungovernable previously, but it’s much, much more ungovernable now, and I think it’s going to take a lot longer to bring it into a condition where you could eventually govern it.
What do you think the Obama administration was thinking in terms of supporting this?
Unfortunately, I think the Obama administration was thinking mostly about the Iran deal. They felt in order to keep Saudi Arabia onside with the Iran deal they had to go along with this. It may also be that we felt genuinely indebted to the Saudis because when we do drone strikes in Yemen, we depend a lot on the Saudis for intelligence. We don’t have our own eyes on the ground. They do. Obama is deeply personally involved in those decisions so he thinks that is an essential part of his counterterrorism policy.
If you look at the Houthis, for years both the Yemenis and the Saudis were accusing them of being fueled and supported in various ways by the Iranians. That wasn’t true at the time. It’s funny. In 2009 I wrote a piece saying it’s going to be a self-fulfilling prophecy there. They’re going to start doing it. In fact, right around that time the Iranians did start supplying them. Then the level of support stepped up a bit in the past two or three years, but it’s still nothing compared to what Saudi has supplied to various different factions over the decades in Yemen.
It’s like the story in Scoop when the reporter goes out and reports that the two sides are attacking each other, even though they aren’t, which then leads to an actual war.
I tell you, I love that book and I think of it often because as you say there are so many times when you feel the current situation has all been written by some darkly comic genius.
To turn to Libya, I am wondering if you think any of the chaos we are seeing now was inevitable, or whether without the NATO intervention it would have been contained, whatever the humanitarian cost.
I think what happened there was perhaps inevitable just because I’m skeptical that a different American policy or a different Western policy would have had that much effect. Obama has taken the position that if there had been no NATO intervention, [Muammar] Qaddafi might have crushed Benghazi itself but that the rebels eventually would have continued, and would have found some way to restore their weapons and forces, and you would have eventually ended up with a Syria-type scenario. That seems very plausible to me.
If you look at one “what if’ in Libya that seems most plausible to me, it is that we could have done more to stabilize the country after the NATO intervention, but there again I’m not at all convinced that that would have made a difference. Libya is a tragedy, but I think it’s a Libyan tragedy, not an American one. There were a few Libyan voices at the end of 2011 who were saying, “This is the moment. This is our one chance to disarm these guys. We may have to kill some of them, but if we don’t do it now, we’ll never do it.” That didn’t happen because people felt we’d just been through this horrible civil war and now we have to just chill out for a while and so they lost their chance. You’ve got to remember that Christopher Stevens knew as much about Libya or more than any American at that time. He was for a light footprint. As far as I know he did not want the Americans to come in there and build up a new army and play a big heavy-handed role. He knew Libya, and he didn’t want that.
When you look at the region, do you see the Syrian war as a sort of World War I event that will shape the next several decades?
I do think it’s going to be a huge, seminal event. I think Syria has changed the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran. On the one hand people talk about Sykes-Picot being redone and stuff. That seems unlikely maybe because it takes a lot of initiative to build new borders and draw new borders and build new countries. I do think that Syria will, at least for a long, long, long time, and possibly forever, fail to be the kind of country that it was. There will be de facto states. You will have western Syria, which will be this collection of minorities. You’ll continue to have, unless [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan goes completely berserk, some Kurdish region in the north, and you’ll have this crazy Mad Max Sunni region in the east.
For Erdogan to go from where he is now to completely nuts is a short trip.
There was a headline like two weeks ago in the New York Times that said, “Syrian Troops Said to Recapture Historic Palmyra From ISIS.” It was really interesting just looking at that headline and wondering, “What am I supposed to think about this? Should I be happy about this? Should I be sad about this?”
Yeah, I know what you mean. Although, I have to say any territory being taken from ISIS at this point seems like good news just because as bad as everybody else is, they’re worse. I guess the big question for me is even if the West or whoever in combination with us, Russia and so forth, crush the Islamic State as an entity and we take those parts of Syria, what’s the long-term plan? That’s an ungovernable region right now. Those people do not want to be part of Assad’s Syria.
Is there anything that bucked you up while you were reporting your book? This has been a bleak conversation.
Well, it’s going to be pretty obvious because everybody says the same thing but Tunisia. As you know, I’m an admirer of Rached Ghannouchi, but some of the younger members of his movement are really fascinating because they’re super well-educated and they’re almost post-Islamist. They’re sort of Muslim democrats. Some of them have a really sophisticated grasp of what their country needs. There you really see what everybody hoped for in 2011, which is fruitful relationships between people who think of themselves as secularist and people who think of themselves as Islamist. You see what I hope can be the beginnings of a future political elite that is free of all of the toxic patterns of the Arab world of the past few decades.