Monday, September 15, 2014

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Karama! : Journeys Through The Arab Spring

Has the release of journalist Johnny West's book on Tunisia, Egypt and Libya's roles in the Arab Spring come too soon?
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The recent assassination of the rebel commander General Abdel Fattah Ali Younis was one of the most surprising and unsettling episodes of the Libyan uprising so far. 

On July 29 the National Transitional Council (NTC) announced that unnamed attackers had killed the general as he made his way to Benghazi to report for questioning by senior members of the NTC. In the confusion surrounding his killing, representatives of the NTC claimed armed elements linked to Colonel Gaddafi’s government in Tripoli had carried out the murder. However, at the same time, the blogosphere was alive with rumours that Younis had come to a grizzly end at the hands of groups within the NTC itself.  

The chairman of the NTC, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, admitted that a NTC-aligned group had killed the general, but, incredibly, that the group was in fact a pro-Gaddafi sleeper cell in Benghazi. In a final twist on Monday this week, Libya's cabinet was dissolved amid the controversy for a reshuffling by Mahmoud Jabril, the prime minister.

Although the truth is still far from clear, this episode has shown that the Arab Spring is not the straightforward good-versus-evil struggle that certain outlets of the Western press have tried to portray. Demonstrators working to overthrow long-standing regimes in the Arab world have a wide variety of demands and interests, and they are not at all united in their vision for the future of their countries, as this last incident has shown.

These divisions, contradictions and uncertainties within North Africa’s anti-regime uprisings are all too evident in Johnny West’s travelogue of the Arab Spring, Karama!, released in paperback this week. The author, a former Reuters correspondent who speaks Arabic fluently and has covered the Arab world for nearly twenty years, travels across Tunisia, Egypt and opposition-held Libya tracing the origins and early days of the revolutions there.  

Karama!, which means "dignity" in Arabic - many demonstrators claimed they rose up to reclaim their dignity - starts in the small Tunisian town where everything began with Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in protest at his mistreatment by the local police.  West carefully traces the trajectory of the revolution as it moved from local sit-in to full-blown national revolution. He tracks down and interviews Tunisians involved at all levels, from activists and demonstrators to old pro-Ben Ali survivors such as head teacher Ali Youssefi, who gives an interesting perspective on life since the Revolution. The author then travels to Egypt in the wake of Mubarak’s ousting, researching how and why it took place and meeting with those who made it happen. While still in Egypt, West hears that Libya is up in arms against Colonel Gaddafi’s 42-year reign and heads to Benghazi to find out more. 

West does a good job of piecing together the events and circumstances that brought about the wave of change currently sweeping over North Africa, in no small part thanks to the huge variety of people that he talks to during his travels. However, most interesting of all is the author’s coverage of post-revolutionary North Africa. It has been assumed by many that the toppling of dinosaurs such as Gaddafi, Ben Ali and Mubarak would be the end of the problem and that democracy - quite what kind of democracy is never mentioned - would follow. 

The reality of Egypt and Tunisia’s transition to democracy is shown in all its difficulties in the book. In Tunis, West meets up with some of the rappers whose politically incendiary work fanned the flames of the uprising, such as Psyco M. During the struggle to overthrow Ben Ali, Psyco M was staunchly anti-regime, a stance that won him the plaudits of many in his homeland at the time. West has followed his career after the revolution, and it turns out that Psyco M is convinced an Islamist government would be best for Tunisia, and has produced a number of records criticising public figures unconnected to the regime for un-Islamic behaviour. 

Similarly, the book follows the youth groups in Egypt that helped to spark the demonstrations and who are now rushing to organise themselves into viable political organisations. This dash for democracy has occupied hundreds of column inches, but West’s writing adds some colour to the press reports.  He talks to young activists about their dreams for a new Egypt, and their feelings on the reality of a country ruled by an increasingly authoritarian military government. 

In Tunisia, as in Egypt, the author runs into the increasingly tense standoff between demonstrators and the country's interim military powers. In Tunisia, certain villages where dissent has grown too loud have simply been cordoned off as locals seek to take the law into their own hands. In Egypt, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces grows ever more vague about the details of the elections it promised in January. 

Releasing a book about the Arab Spring so early on may seem a little cynical, as events in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain remain fluid. Indeed, it is far too soon to make an accurate judgement of what has happened to date. However, West’s book is finely written, and his love for the region he has lived and studied in for twenty years comes across in his prose. In the introduction the author sounds a little cocksure, in asserting how well-acquainted with the Middle East he is.  However, Karama! is a thoughtful and interesting look at the first months of the Arab world’s revolutions and there can be no doubt that West’s excellent knowledge of the region and his grasp of Arabic have given him access to sources and information that many other journalists could never hope to make use of.

As the saga of Hosni Mubarak’s trial, Egypt’s elections, Syria’s protests and Libya’s civil war roll on, it is clear the Arab Spring is only in its very first stages. With this in mind, Karama! can only really ever be a kind of introduction to the topic. It is too early for deep, searching insight on the unrest in the Arab world as that there is apparently so much more to come and so much that we don’t know. Even so, West’s book is a fascinating combination of travelogue and current affairs analysis and his insights on Egypt, Tunisia and Libya are invaluable. 

Karama! is published by Heron Books, an imprint of Quercus, and is available now in paperback for £8.99

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