Review: Emma Sky offers a much more subtle, comprehensive view of the Arab uprisings
Her new book, 'In a Time of Monsters: Travels Through a Middle East in Revolt', reveal an obvious affection for the Middle East
You could fill a small library with books written about the Arab uprisings. As protests first erupted about nine years ago in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and elsewhere, after the self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor called Mohamed Bouazizi in December 2010, many authors sought to find collective meaning in the cries for change that could be heard across the region.
The formula for the first flush of books presented a narrative of the unrest as cohesive and contagious. The language of those volumes typically fell back on an ill-advised figure of speech describing Bouazizi’s act as lighting the touch paper for a regional fire, even when it was one man’s cry for help after being humiliated by officials. This storyline also routinely presented these discrete uprisings as an homogeneous lump, even though each country’s protests produced vastly different outcomes.
Emma Sky’s new book, In a Time of Monsters: Travels Through a Middle East in Revolt, is a far more subtle volume. It is also far more comprehensive. Sky’s travels take her far and wide, collecting passport stamps from countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Jordan.
The author benefits from having more time and distance from the ruptures of the uprisings, but her part-travelogue, part-memoir and part-political commentary avoids falling into catch-all cliches or sweeping generalisations. It also helps that Sky’s writing style reveals an obvious affection for the Middle East.
Experience with the Middle East
At the outset, she says: “I fell in love with the region the first time I set foot in it, aged 18. I found something there that was lacking in the West. The warmth, the interconnectedness, the sense of belonging, the history. It was in the Middle East that I discovered a sense of purpose, a passion for promoting peace.”
Sky spent the 1990s in Jerusalem working in support of the peace process, while she was in Kirkuk after the Second Gulf War as an adviser to the US military and as an administrative governor. After a period spent kicking her heels in London at the beginning of this decade, she vows to travel back to the region as unrest is stirring up.
In 2011, Robert Ford, the US ambassador to Syria at the time, tells her how out of touch President Bashar Al Assad is with ordinary citizens, and in Iraq, army officers inform her that “life was better under Saddam Hussein”.
She is told repeatedly that “before we had one Saddam, now we have hundreds”.
In Turkey the following year, she sees Ankara’s much feted policy of “zero problems with its neighbours” collapse into “zero problems without neighbours” as the intransigence of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan becomes increasingly problematic.
Barack Obama, the US president at the time, frets about being on the right side of history as the uprisings gather strength. His speech in Cairo in 2009, which promised much, is soon exposed as a “cruel illusion” that lacks coherent policy and adequate resource. The red lines that were crossed and ignored in Syria years later, become a natural consequence of that sclerotic approach.
How it all went wrong
The unrealistic expectations of the first flush of the uprisings, in which transition would be brought about quickly and peacefully, give way to a broader recognition that any change would be bitter and long drawn out, in part because the old order of the international community was broken beyond repair. “The Middle East was unravelling and Europe melting down. And America was withdrawing from its leadership role in the world. It had all gone so wrong,” Sky writes.
The uprisings challenged the way states are governed but regimes proved incapable of reform. They countered and collapsed.
Her contact book of diplomats, politicians and prominent figures is deep and impressive, and it helps the reader see the entire arc of the uprisings, from beginnings to consequence, including the emergence of ISIS and the continued fracturing of the decades-long peace process. “The uprisings challenged the way states are governed but regimes proved incapable of reform. They countered and collapsed,” she writes.
All of which may suggest that a downbeat conclusion will follow Sky’s nuanced reporting and analysis. Not so. For all the author’s withering assessment of those who fashioned post-Second World War order and watched it collapse, she remains hopeful that young people will provide better answers to the world’s problems.
At the beginning of In a Time of Monsters she writes that “a new Middle East constantly struggles to be born”. By the end of her book, she says “the millennial generation is striding forth, determined to leave the world a better place. Out of a crisis will come an opportunity.”
There is hope after all.
Updated: May 20, 2019 12:00 PM