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Johnny West's book on understanding the Arab Spring

Johnny West’s book gives a street view of why a region erupted. It’s an essential guide to North Africa’s Berlin Wall moment

NO-ONE with a 24-hour TV news channel has lacked information about the Arab Spring. But understanding why it happened and what comes next is another matter. Are radical Islamists, long suppressed in North Africa, about to take over? Are they behind the unrest? Is Nato bombing Libya and ignoring Syria because one has lots of oil and the other doesn’t? Was it really Facebook that did in the dictators? And who are these people on the street?

Johnny West, a former Reuters Middle East correspondent, tries to answer these and other questions in Karama! Journeys through the Arab Spring, one of the first books to come out of the revolutions.

Watching it all unfold on a screen didn’t appeal, so West took leave from a job with the UN and set off across North Africa, pen and notepad in hand. His book, part travelogue, part reportage, is a thoughtful account of the people he met and the stories they told.

West goes to the neighbourhood of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who set himself alight and triggered a revolution in his country. He meets Tunisian bloggers, rappers, policemen, under-employed youth. In Egypt, he left behind the extraordinary events of Cairo’s Tahrir Square and ended up in Alexandria, where regime roughs had killed a young man. Like Bouazizi’s self-immolation, this murder catalysed a new movement.

A Facebook page, set up by Google executive Wael Ghonim, appeared. "We are all Khaled Said," it read, and called on people to protest in Tahrir Square on 25 January. Thousands turned up. Hosni Mubarak stepped down as president 18 days later. West shows the reader why these deaths signified something greater, stirring a region where, he notes, so little had changed in decades.

His book captures the street energy, the first cracklings of the fire that would spread from Tunisia to Bahrain and Yemen. Karama is the Arabic for dignity, and the region’s people had for too long been denied it. It meant, writes West, "not being slapped about by some idiotic policeman just because he felt like it … not being told … to accept mediocrity and falsehood and poverty and a perpetual state of helpless emergency" – and it became the "underlying motif" of the upheavals.

A World Bank report would give anyone the macroeconomic reasons: chronic unemployment; weak infrastructure; rapid population growth; corruption. West shows how such forces played and play out on the Arab street, in the cafes and in the front rooms of ordinary people living in extraordinary times.

Within a week of the rebellion’s start in Libya, West was in Benghazi, heartbeat of the movement against Muammar Qadhafi. From a barber’s chair he listens, sceptically, to tales of mercenaries working to quell the uprising.

Libya’s petroleum wealth made its dictatorship different from those in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt. Qadhafi and his entourage plundered a trillion dollars in oil money from the country, West calculates. What they didn’t steal, they spent on schemes to deaden dissent – such as vast payments to families of victims in one of Qadhafi’s worst acts, the 1998 massacre of prisoners in Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison.

Western companies colluded in the petro-dictatorship, West suggests, taking contracts that allowed both the firm and the regime – but not average Libyans – to profit. (West founded and now runs OpenOil, which campaigns for industry and oil-revenue transparency.) Meanwhile, the mumbo-jumbo of Qadhafi’s political philosophy created a defunct political system and corruption flourished in the void.

West neatly debunks notions that the Western military intervention in Libya was another war for foreign oil, pointing out that pre-conflict arrangements suited international oil companies just fine. Wiping Libya’s 1.6 million barrels a day from the international market was in no-one’s interest; although, as West acknowledges, the country’s upstream now offers enticing acreage and the rare prospect of new oilfields.

It is West’s knowledge of the Arabic culture and language that makes his book more revealing than the rolling newsbites, and gives Karama! some of its most telling details. It isn’t just other Western journalists and writers who have lacked West’s fluency in Arabic or instinct for the mood on the street. Just before Tunisia’s tyrant, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, jetted off to exile in Saudi Arabia, he tried to win over popular protestors by adopting their street Arabic. "I got you!" he told them, an attempt to make amends. It didn’t work. In the end, Ben Ali was not just loathed; after that he was mocked, too.

West is sympathetic to the new generation and its foment. Alongside the malaise of unemployment, an explosion of Arabic popular culture, helped along by the internet, has separated these youths from their parents, and their parents’ rulers. West’s book gives a voice to this loose movement – scarcely noticed in the English-speaking world.

Islam in these countries has been changing, too. West doubts the Muslim Brotherhood’s spectre hangs over Egypt’s revolution, let alone inspired it. Instead, he finds a post-Islamic popular culture springing up; religiosity that sits more easily alongside the internet and other fruits of globalisation. Al Qaeda’s popularity in the Arab world has waned since 2005, he points out. The Arab Spring may provide new heroes.

It is an optimistic reading of the upheavals in the region. Weary of the petty humiliations and caprices of the regimes that ruled them, Egyptians, Tunisians and Libyans have shown valour to reclaim their dignity. "To anyone who has seen these revolutions," he writes, "this is a Berlin Wall moment."

Things could still go wrong. Libya’s rebels have won Tripoli, but not yet the country, especially its south. The war has claimed as many as 30,000 lives. Divisions in the rebel movement abound. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the power behind Mubarak’s throne, broods over Egypt. Violence in Syria and Yemen has killed thousands. The uprising in Bahrain continues, despite Saudi Arabia’s troop deployment, "a foreign intervention that somehow sneaked under the radar".

Inevitably, geopolitics hangs over everything. Attacks on Israel’s embassy in Cairo in recent weeks have raised fears that the Arab Spring may end the Camp David Accords, the long peace between Israel and Egypt. Implosion in Syria is a prospect that terrifies analysts from Tel Aviv to Washington. And hints of uprisings around the Mideast Gulf, with the potential to disrupt supplies from the world’s most important oil exporter, have rattled crude markets.

Honour regained

But West’s book is about what happened, and is happening, on the street, where oppressed people are at last reclaiming some dignity. "The sense of karama, of honour regained, cannot now be taken back."

International politics helped keep some of their oppressors in power. Now the uprisings deserve the help of outsiders, West suggests. "This is Marshall Plan stuff," he writes in his epilogue. So people know that revolution and democracy "are about bread on the table as well as freedoms", Egypt needs 2 or 3 million jobs, quickly. "Egypt and Tunisia represent 100 million people living along the shores of the southern Mediterranean who, for the first time, have a chance to become free, pluralistic societies, and to inspire their neighbours – or not."

Karama! Journeys through the Arab Spring: Exhilarating encounters with those who sparked a revolution. Heron Books, London

Johnny West has contributed two op-ed articles to Petroleum Economist:

Time to lift the lid on Qadhafi’s oil contracts | Drilling for oil while Hama burns

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