It is strange now to recall the sheer shock of the Arab world uprisings that began a decade ago and toppled seemingly impregnable dictatorships. In the Cairo surgery of the dentist and novelist Alaa al Aswany in February 2011, I listened with other reporters as he compared Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s president since 1981, to a “terribly embedded” wisdom tooth. Yet less than three weeks later Mubarak resigned, an emblematic moment in the uprisings that in those first epochal months became known as the Arab Spring.
The euphoria curdled long ago. Now ex-general Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s rule is widely seen as even more repressive than Mubarak’s. Libya is racked by civil war and President Bashar al-Assad’s blood-soaked Syrian regime is still entrenched in Damascus after a conflict that has shattered the country.
The apparent failure of the surge against tyranny has provoked Aswany and other authors to write books to address why things turned out as they did. Their conclusions reveal wider lessons about the enduring nature of autocracy — and its ability to endure and adapt, as well as implode.
Ulf Laessing’s Understanding Libya After Gaddafi is a cautionary tale of how the cement applied by dictatorship can, once broken, yield chaos. He describes a country bereft of credible authority, functioning institutions and accountability. Libya’s fate belies the self-image, embodied by Gaddafi, of the autocrat as leviathan guarding the nation from existential threats. This trope is increasingly exploited by elected leaders, from Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte to Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban.
Gaddafi ruled his country for more than 40 years and styled himself the Guide and Brother Leader. He was ousted in 2011 by rebels supported by a campaign of Nato air strikes. These were launched with UN Security Council approval to protect civilians, after Gaddafi threatened to “cleanse Libya inch by inch, house by house” of “dirt and scum”.
Laessing reminds us how the early days after the fall of Gaddafi already felt as much competition as celebration, foreshadowing the next conflict. Militias from different parts of the country converged on the capital Tripoli. In Green Square — renamed Martyrs’ Square — the sound of revolutionary song gave way to nights of deafening gunfire that showed where the new power lay.
“During the revolution you would hear from rebels, defected officials and the general public of the wish to end Gaddafi’s police state,” writes Laessing, a Reuters bureau chief in north Africa. “Unfortunately, Libya’s post-revolution rulers have since established a similarly repressive environment in which nobody dares to talk freely.”
Laessing’s is a tale of many villains, from feuding fighters to meddling outside powers who have turned the renewed civil war into a proxy international conflict. The epilogue strikes a predictably chastening note, pointing out that post-dictatorship Libya hasn’t had any elections since 2014 and seems unlikely to hold more any time soon.
Aswany’s The Dictatorship Syndrome seeks to pathologise autocracy with the eye of both medical professional and author preoccupied with the human condition. One central theme is the stickiness of authoritarianism in situations where an individual leader is ditched but not a system of power. The sacrifice of a figurehead such as Mubarak facilitates the perpetuation of a deeper status quo of rule by a military, bureaucratic or business elite — or some combination of the three.
It now seems a striking consonance of timing that the Myanmar generals who ruled their country for almost 50 years formally stepped down barely a month after Mubarak fell. While Aung San Suu Kyi is the country’s de facto civilian leader, the military still maintains huge power and has prosecuted a campaign of atrocities against Rohingya Muslims.
Aswany draws on the writing of 16th-century French philosopher Étienne de La Boétie to posit the idea of autocracy built on the bedrock of the docile “good citizen”. This is the “ordinary person” who “neither understands nor wants revolution”. They live in “despair and fear: despair that it will ever be possible to bring about justice and fear of the consequences of any attempt to do so.”
If it seems a pessimistic — even condescending — view, it is a typically provocative point from a polemical author. Aswany says that “people whose cultural tradition is tribal are less likely to resist authoritarianism”, citing the example of the Gulf monarchies. But he might also be talking about the too frequent failures in western politics to accept justified critiques simply because they are made by the other side.
Noah Feldman’s The Arab Winter is distinctive because of the more optimistic tone it tries to strike. The Harvard law professor is a former constitutional adviser to the US occupation authorities in Iraq — a biographical detail that readers may wish to weigh against his sometimes idealistic tone. He argues that the Middle East revolutions were not fundamentally a story of “impotence and impossibility”, even if the “electrifying course of events” brought “little good except to the place where it had begun” — Tunisia.
This book is essentially a plea to take the long view of history. Feldman stresses the suffering wrought by conflict, terrorism and renewed dictatorship. But he also highlights the more inspiring aspects of the “exercise of collective, free political action — with all the dangers of error and disaster that come with it”. He argues that this transformed activism, notions of Arab nationalism and the political role of Islam.
One lesson of the Middle East political eruptions is that autocratic systems can be resilient, especially if they shuffle the faces at the top. Another, more encouraging, truth is that even the harshest repression cannot quell the human urge to dignity. The hope, as Feldman puts it in words particularly resonant in these pandemic times, is that “after the winter — and from its depths — always comes another spring.”
The Dictatorship Syndrome, by Alaa al Aswany, translated by Russell Harris Haus Publishing, RRP£12.99, 160 pages
Understanding Libya Since Gaddafi, by Ulf Laessing, Hurst, RRP£17.99, 240 pages
The Arab Winter: A Tragedy, by Noah Feldman, Princeton University Press, RRP$22.95 / £18.99, 216 pages
Michael Peel is the FT’s European diplomatic correspondent and the author of The Fabulists: How Myth-Makers Rule in an Age of Crisis
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