Ten Years Later – How the Arab Spring changed the world

Ten Years Later – How the Arab Spring changed the world

On this day ten years ago, at approximately 11:30 am on the morning of 17 December 2010, a twenty-six year-old Tunisian man, a street vendor from a village nearby the town of Sidi Bouzid, did something extraordinary. After acquiring a can of petrol, he took himself before the local governor’s office, doused his body, and set himself on fire. That man was Mohamed Bouazizi and his dramatic act of self-immolation was the spark that ignited the Arab Spring – the wave of protests and uprisings that shook rulers and rocked regimes across the Arab World from the winter of 2010-11 and onwards.

After being subjected to a public humiliation at the hands of heavy-handed officials who had confiscated his fruit and vegetable cart, Bouazizi tried to voice his grievances to the governor in Sidi Bouzid, who refused to give him a hearing. With his livelihood arbitrarily confiscated and without recourse to justice, that was when he took his ultimate action. In an interview with TIME Magazine in January 2011, not long after her son had died of his wounds in hospital, Bouazizi’s mother said that “Mohamed did what he did for the sake of his dignity.”

This demand for dignity captures why this moment was at once so significant and so powerful. Bouazizi’s experience resonated because it was symptomatic of wider problems and injustices experienced throughout the Middle East and North Africa. His desperation channelled popular anger at a world of paternalistic petrodollar states, self-serving security apparatuses, and kleptocratic strongmen, where economic opportunities were scarce and political rights were firmly restricted.

In Tunisia itself, Bouazizi’s act of protest quickly became a symbol of defiance that inspired an upsurge of opposition to the regime of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Within a month, on 14 January 2011, Ben Ali had fled the country for Saudi Arabia, relinquishing twenty-three years of personal rule and leaving Tunisia to begin its transition to a constitutional, civilian-led democracy.

The initial phase of Tunisia’s remarkable revolution was over, but the Arab Spring was just getting started. As the winter of 2010-11 progressed, the tide of revolt spread further – on 25 January 2011, Egypt witnessed its “Day of Wrath”, as protestors coordinated street demonstrations and converged on Cairo’s Tahrir Square. By 11 February, the country’s dictator, Hosni Mubarak, had resigned as president after it became clear that the army, long hostile to his plans to pass on his office to his son Gamal in hereditary succession, considered him to be a liability and refused to crack down on protestors.

Further uprisings then followed in what appeared to be a cascading, irresistible wave – protest movements mobilised in Yemen on 15 January 2011, setting in train a series of events that would eventually force President Ali Abdullah Saleh to agree to a Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered transfer of power in November. In quick succession, on 14 and 15 February, intense mass demonstrations sprang up in Bahrain and Libya respectively. In March, a brutal confrontation between the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and protestors in Syria had got underway.

Across the region, from Tahrir Square in Cairo to Taghir Square in Sana’a, the refrain of the Arab Spring, “The people want the fall of the regime”, could be heard. These sonorous words were painted on banners in Egypt, chanted at Bahrain’s Pearl Roundabout, and graffitied on city walls in Syria – a powerful call for change that echoed throughout the Arab World.

Alongside these uprisings, further protests – with a variety of different demands – also took place in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Iran’s Khuzestan province, which is home to a large number of Iranian Arabs. Some of these were placated with swift concessions from rulers, others were met with crackdowns and the strong arm of state security forces.

Despite the early hope and promise of these protests and revolutions, the Arab Spring quickly evolved into a harsher winter, leaving complex legacies, civil wars and dashed dreams in its wake. Only in Tunisia, it seems, has a relatively stable, if imperfect, post-authoritarian order emerged. As Tarek Masoud, Jason Brownlee, and Andrew Reynolds write in their 2015 book on the Arab Spring, the very use of the word “spring” carries a tragic “dual connotation of tremendous political potential and inevitable setback.”

And yet, after all the high hopes and bitter disappointments of the last ten years, the tremors and aftershocks of Mohamed Bouazizi’s act and the events that followed it are still having a profound impact on the world today. There is much to reflect upon. This is why I have gathered together voices to shed light on the significance of this ten-year anniversary. The contributors here are civilians, activists, journalists, writers, and academics from the Middle East and North Africa, and from outside – some of them participated in the uprisings across the Arab World a decade ago; others are expert observers. All of them have experienced and examined the forces unleashed by the Arab Spring in one way or another.

It is a privilege to present their views on this momentous date. Their reflections will help to ensure that the brave protestors who took to the streets and squares in the winter of 2010-11 to demand their dignity, fight for freedoms, and express their hopes for a better future are not forgotten. They write for those who cannot.

Read the full article and the contributions on Reaction here.

CAIRO, EGYPT – FEBRUARY 11: Anti-government demonstrators celebrate near Tahrir Square upon hearing the news of the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on February 11, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt. Crowds continued to pack Tahrir Square, the epicenter of an eighteen-day protest and occupation that climaxed in the resignation of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and the implementation of military rule. (Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images).

BBC Radio 4’s Mayday review – what really happened to James Le Mesurier?

BBC Radio 4’s Mayday review – what really happened to James Le Mesurier?

The Syrian Crisis is one of the greatest tragedies of the twenty-first century – nearly ten years after protests against the government of President Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011, the violence has still not ended. Instead, after a decade of bitter civil war, perhaps as many as 585,000 people have been killed, including tens of thousands of children, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Almost six million Syrians are believed to be in refugee camps after fleeing the country, with a further 6.2 million people displaced inside the country itself.

This is the terrible toll of a conflict that has disfigured the country’s historic cities and wrought destruction on the lives those who live there. In a chilling inversion of Thomas Hobbes’ famous phrase, the lifecycle of this war has been nasty, poor, brutish, and long.

Because of social media, digital technology, and smart phones, this tragedy has taken place before the eyes of the world in an unprecedented fashion. Yet, despite the Syrian civil war being among the most thoroughly documented conflicts in human history, the evidence of war crimes and atrocities committed by the Assad regime and its Russian allies (from 2015) has frequently been distorted.

“Wars are fought with guns and bombs and stories”, says Chloe Hadjimatheou in the opening episode of Mayday, a gripping new podcast from BBC Radio 4. Her aim is to uncover one particularly mysterious story, the details of which are entangled within the blurred battle lines of Syria’s long and bloody civil war — the strange death of James Le Mesurier in Istanbul in December 2019.

Le Mesurier was a former British army officer who helped to mobilise and lead the famous White Helmets, a celebrated volunteer civil defence organisation that has provided humanitarian aid throughout the Syrian Crisis. Hadjimatheou follows the trail left behind by his death, tracing the life of a figure who comes across as a classic British “adventurer” in the mould of T.E. Lawrence, as well as a committed humanitarian. The name of the podcast itself, “Mayday”, comes from the name of the organisation that Le Mesurier helped to build from 2014 in order to coordinate the White Helmets as they came under increasing pressure with the escalation of Syria’s civil war.

The heroism of the White Helmets is well documented in videos and in the testimony of the war’s survivors. Most of them are ordinary Syrians who, with awe-inspiring courage, put their lives at considerable risk to help civilians and combatants caught in the most dangerous of circumstances. Their work received international acclaim – in 2016, the White Helmets won a Right Livelihood Award, a prestigious international prize given to those who promote peace, environmentalism and human rights. In 2017, a Netflix documentary about the White Helmets was awarded an Oscar.

This all came at a price, however. Slowly but surely, Le Mesurier and the White Helmets were dragged into a warped disinformation war. As Hadjimatheou explains, “there were others that wanted to shape the way the war was seen too – the Syrian and Russian governments. And to do that, they’d have to flip everything on its head. They would have to pull the war into a bizarre mirror world, where everything would be inverted, where heroes become villains, and where we begin to doubt everything we think we know.”

Early on, Hadjimatheou concludes, the Syrian government – and then its Russian backers – decided that the White Helmets were a threat. As witnesses to the atrocities committed by the Assad regime against its own people, including chemical and bombing attacks against innocent civilians, they had to be neutralised and discredited. Otherwise, it was feared that they would fuel international outrage and possible western armed interventions. President Assad, the Kremlin, and their loyal press organisations have since pursued a relentless mission to muddy the waters, presenting the White Helmets and James Le Mesurier as sinister tools of foreign governments, sectarian terrorists, and legitimate targets for military strikes.

In Mayday, the darkest sides of humanity are examined alongside moments of extraordinary courage. We are taken through the twists and turns of how the conflict in Syria quickly created a struggle to control the narrative. Caught in the middle of this information war, Le Mesurier discovered that his idealistic mission was being distorted by state-sponsored misinformation cults and celebrity conspiracy theorists.

Throughout this extraordinary podcast, Hadjimatheou combines her highly impressive skill as an investigative journalist with a compelling narrative and slick production. It is quite simply a triumph for Radio 4’s production team. The song “Zamilou” by Syrian rap and indie artist Bu Kolthoum is an apt musical score running through the series and it lends an evocative atmosphere to the podcast throughout its eleven episodes.

With the upcoming ten-year anniversary of the beginning of the Syrian Crisis and of the Arab Spring more generally, Mayday gives us cause to reflect on the legacy of these uprisings after a decade of upheaval, protest, and counter-revolutions. This tale of twenty-first century conflict explores that tragic old truism — that the first casualty of war is truth.

For more of the best podcasts of 2020, check out this list from podcast guru Nick Hilton.

This article was originally published on Reaction.

The New World: dishonest Net Zero targets are not tackling the cause of climate change

The New World: dishonest Net Zero targets are not tackling the cause of climate change

Climate change is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity today. As societies across the globe grapple with the consequences of warming temperatures, rising sea levels, and their impact on human populations, governments and policy-makers try to square the circle, balancing and counter-balancing calls to protect living standards with efforts to transform our energy supplies. Few political or policy problems feel at once so urgent and so existential as the need to protect the future of our planet, its natural resources, and its diverse civilisations.

But is there cause for hope as well as concern? Has the coronavirus pandemic provided us with an opportunity to renew our efforts to reduce carbon emissions and regenerate our natural environment? And how will the climate challenge play into global power politics in the coming decades?

In the latest episode of The New World, recorded in September,  I hosted Dieter Helm, Professor of Economic Policy at the University of Oxford and a world-renowned expert on energy policy and the economics of climate change. He is the author of the 2017 Helm Review, an independent report on the United Kingdom’s energy supply chains and climate change targets, which was commissioned by the British government.

He has since written a book on carbon emissions targets – the aptly-named Net Zero: How We Stop Causing Climate Change, which was published by William Collins this September. The book sets out to provide practical policies that could help societies affect a transition to a low carbon future.

There are some bitter pills to swallow. Helm pulls no punches in his scathing assessment of how Western governments have sought to tackle the causes of climate change so far. He argues that they have “wasted” the last thirty years with dishonest targets and counterintuitive schemes. The greenwashing of our political debate has not actually translated into the types of changes we need to carry out in order to preserve and improve our natural environment.

Two fatal flaws in the current global approach are emphasised in Helm’s book – the focus on reaching Net Zero carbon emissions while maintaining high levels of carbon consumption, mostly through off-shoring carbon-intensive activities, and the faith in a symbolic but ineffectual top-down approach to solving the climate conundrum, as exemplified by grand United Nations summits in Paris and Tokyo. The result, he argues, has been the creation of an illusion that something is being done while individuals and governments are consistently failing to take decisive measures.

One of the startling revelations in Helm’s book, for instance, is the sheer – perhaps even scandalous – failure of European countries, including the UK. He describes how the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) has been “captured by lobbying”, fuelled “opportunities for corruption” and anti-competitive practices, and “made no contribution at all to decarbonising.”

Instead, Helm argues, “The EU ETS played a significant role in maintaining coal-burn and, at least in Germany’s case, it flourished.”  This could be a story to watch over the next decade if these policies begin to unravel.

This is just one of many surprises: “Of all the carbon myths, the presentation of Germany as the great green champion, the greenest in Europe and indeed the world, is a triumph of spin over substance.” In reality, Helm explains, the German Energiewende is “an object lesson to the rest of the world of just how not to do it.”

The United States, on the other hand, has a better record than has commonly been assumed: “The simple mantra that the Europeans are the good guys and the US the bad guys is not quite as black-and-white as it seems.”

“The US has a thriving, energy-intensive manufacturing base. As cheap shale gas has come on stream, it is not only switching from coal to gas, but it is also reshoring lots of energy-intensive businesses from China and elsewhere, and attracting European investments too. It is swapping energy-intensive imports, based largely on coal, for domestic production based on gas. It is sobering to reflect that the US could even have a better record than Europe on carbon consumption, and without any of the European policies and their costs.”

To remedy the problems we face, we need to rapidly shift to a new bottom-up approach to climate change, Helm suggests – one in which individuals and national governments take the lead in driving forward key changes to consumption habits and lifestyles. A carbon tax to make consumers pay for the price of polluting and a healthy dose of honesty about the impact that effective measures will have on lifestyles both form crucial pillars of Helm’s overall solution.

Yet, and it is crucial to emphasise this, Helm remains sceptical of the fashion for “Green New Deals” and is a fierce critic of the anti-democratic, doomsday culture of activist groups such as Extinction Rebellion. Neither a dogmatic statist nor a free market fundamentalist, he has spent a lot of time trying to find practical, workable solutions to the challenges posed by climate change. In a debate that is so often filled with frenzied apocalyptic predictions and moral panic, the softly-spoken Helm is one of the few voices calmly articulating a blueprint for a more sustainable society. It is well worth listening to his carefully-considered conclusions:

You can access the podcast – Net Zero: tackling climate change – here.

This article was originally published on Reaction.

French terror attack should be a wakeup call for a divided Europe

French terror attack should be a wakeup call for a divided Europe

What is a “civilisation”? What is it that binds people and countries together and makes them flourish? And what is it that makes them wither and die?

These questions are not new – they have been explored by historians across cultures and continents for generations, from the great fourteenth-century Arab scholar Ibn Khaldun to the vast tomes of Edward Gibbon on the decline and fall of the Roman Empire centuries later.

Gibbon wrote that the Roman Empire, which stretched from North Africa to Northumbria, fell because it succumbed to religious zeal. Today, however, the western European states that emerged from Rome’s ashes look set for ruin because of a lack of faith in anything. They have become post-Christian, post-modern societies in which traditional bonds of social solidarity – religious and secular – have been disbanded and where many seem to be ambivalent about or even actively hostile to their own heritage.

One such heritage in particular, sometimes called the tradition of enlightenment, is a commitment to freedom of expression among citizens. It defends the idea that tolerant, if still passionate, debate in an open public sphere is the best way to preserve social harmony and promote individual liberty; that satire is the cure for coercion; that the free mind and the free conscience are the key to the free society.

Nowhere has this ideal, however imperfect in practice, been more passionately defended than in France. It often finds inspiration from figures such as Voltaire, the epic defender of toleration in an age of censorship, absolute monarchies and a powerful Catholic Church; or perhaps from the Baron d’Holbach’s thunderous refrain:

“Si l’erreur et l’ignorance ont forgé les chaînes des Peuples, si le préjugé les perpétue, la science, la raison, la vérité pourront un jour les briser.”

“If error and ignorance have forged the chains that bind peoples, if prejudice perpetuates them, then knowledge, reason, and truth can one day burst them asunder.”

It was this heritage that was channelled by President Emmanuel Macron as he responded to Friday night’s shocking terrorist attack on the streets of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine in north-west Paris. The ideals he defended find themselves under siege across the world.

The victim, Samuel Paty, 47, was a history teacher whose crime was to instruct his class in the noble French tradition of l’ésprit critique. In the class, he is believed to have shown his pupils the satirical cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad from the magazine Charlie Hebdo, for which the cartoonists were killed in 2015, and advised Muslim students that they should leave the room if they would be offended. He was beheaded by his assailant nearby his own school, where the words “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” adorn the entrance.

The French President rose to the occasion in a way that the jaded and uninspiring François Hollande, his predecessor, never could. Speaking in front of the school in a sombre yet defiant tone, an impassioned Macron declared the “Islamist terrorist attack” to be an assault on the values of the Republic itself, with powerful rhetorical flourish:

“He wanted to cut down and destroy the Republic in all its values, (along with) enlightenment (lumières), and the possibility of making our children – wherever they come from, whatever they do or do not believe, whichever religion they practice – free citizens. This battle is ours and it is existential. (…) He wanted to cut down and destroy the Republic. They shall not pass. Violence and the obscurantism that accompanies it will not win. They shall not divide us…We must hold fast together, (as) citizens…to be united, without any distinction between us, because we are first of all and before all else citizens united by the same values, history, and destiny”.

The terrible events in France last night were a reminder about what is really important. Europe in the broadest sense as a family of nations bound by history, culture and purpose is supposed to be united by a commitment to the classical religious and political freedoms. Instead, we are now squandering our efforts arguing about… who gets the fish.

This murder should serve as a wakeup call in Britain and the EU member states, which are currently moving towards the brink in a divisive standoff over the Brexit trade negotiations. Both sides on the negotiating table, from the philosophe-president Macron to the libertine Boris Johnson should see how trivial their policy differences are, put them aside, and focus on building a new partnership. In the age of an assertive, authoritarian China, we cannot afford to make our friends the best of our enemies.

Still, I won’t hold my breath.

There was a meme that circulated about five years ago, after the terrible Charlie Hebdo attacks. It showed a list of “Je suis” statements, recalling the platitude of solidarity, “Je suis Charlie”, pledged to the murdered Parisian satirists.

At the bottom of the list, the meme simply read: “Je suis épuisé” – “I am exhausted”.

This air of exhaustion hangs over western Europe today – it is crushing, deep, oppressive. Rather than drawing strength from our history of free speech, open public spheres and religious toleration, Europe is increasingly destabilised. Society is fracturing under the weight of obsessions about identity; common civic culture is corroded by the influence of social media; reasoned debate is engulfed by the rage of righteousness.

The continent today looks more like a series of islands withdrawing into themselves. To steal a line from the great Lebanese writer Gibran Khalil Gibran, it looks like a civilisation divided into parts, where each part considers itself to be a civilisation.

This article was originally published on Reaction.

The New World: the populist revolution is here to stay

The New World: the populist revolution is here to stay

Over the last decade a populist tide has been sweeping across the West. From Donald Trump’s entry into the White House to the rise of the Law and Justice Party in Poland, populists have spoken to widespread anxieties about immigration, identity, and inequality. In so doing, they have challenged the ideological foundations of globalisation and the post-Cold War liberal order.

Will populism continue to grow in the wake of the coronavirus crisis? And will it fundamentally change the character of global politics?

Populism is here to stay, according to Matthew Goodwin, Professor of Politics at the University of Kent and co-author of National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy. He says it will be a political presence across the West and beyond for the foreseeable future.

In the latest episode of The New World podcast, I hosted Matthew to talk about the future of populism – and liberal democracy – after the coronavirus pandemic. We discussed the rise of national populist parties in Europe, the emergence of identity politics before and after the end of the Cold War, and the likely outcome of the 2020 United States presidential election.

You can access the episode here – Crashing Globalisation: Populism after the Pandemic

You can follow The New World on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, via Audioboom, here. 

This was originally published on Reaction.

The New World: a new generation provides hope for a Middle East in crisis

The New World: a new generation provides hope for a Middle East in crisis

The Middle East is a region where high hopes exist alongside devastation and disillusionment. 

It was announced yesterday that the United Arab Emirates has now normalised its diplomatic relations with Israel. In a move supported by Oman, Bahrain and Egypt, the historic declaration made by the UAE has ended decades of cool hostility and paved the way for peaceful cooperation. The so-called “Abraham Accord” is a significant watershed moment, solidifying geopolitical shifts taking place across the Middle East.

Yet for all this good news, major parts of the wider region remain in crisis. The hopeful Arab Spring has now turned into a harsh winter filled with frustrated dreams and failing states. Strongman rule is back in Egypt, while Syria and Libya remain trapped in long and bitter civil wars.

At the same time, popular protests across the region give voice to widespread anger at government corruption, religious sectarianism and endemic economic failures. The explosion that took place in the Port of Beirut almost two weeks ago is the latest bitter blow in a country whose political system has empowered sectarian elites, fuelled mismanagement, and crippled reforms.

“A new Middle East constantly struggles to be born. But each attempted birth is abortive, with visions of utopia replaced by dystopia.” So writes Emma Sky, Senior Fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, in her recent book, In A Time of Monsters: Travels Through a Middle East in Revolt. It is a striking assessment, capturing the sense of anguish and helplessness that has gripped so many in a region beset by tragedies. Yet Sky also sees some hope for the future – among a young generation tired of sectarian conflict and kleptocratic states, and which continues to work towards positive change.

In the latest episode of The New World podcast, I host Emma Sky, a former adviser to the US military leadership in Iraq, alongside Robert Fox, Defence Editor at the London Evening Standard and veteran foreign correspondent.

In a podcast recorded before the blast in Beirut, Emma and Robert shared their insights and experiences, touching on what went wrong in the Iraq War, the fate of the Arab Spring, and why Western governments repeatedly misunderstand what happens in the Middle East.

You can listen to the episode here:

The New World: State Collapse and Democracy in the Middle East

Few people in the UK know the challenges faced by the modern Middle East as well as Sky. After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, she witnessed the United States-led regime change in all of its hopes and failures, as Governorate Coordinator for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Kirkuk Province. She later served as a political officer in Afghanistan and as senior adviser to US General Raymond Odierno during a crucial phase of the Iraq War, in 2007-2010.

Robert Fox, Reaction’s chief foreign affairs commentator, has also seen the region’s troubles first hand. A veteran foreign correspondent who has worked in war zones from Algeria and Afghanistan to Iraq and Yemen, Robert warns of a dangerous disconnect between events on the ground and policy-making circles in Western capitals.

I hope you enjoy the podcast.

The New World: intensifying US-China rivalry is not a new Cold War – yet

The New World: intensifying US-China rivalry is not a new Cold War – yet

The strategic rivalry between the People’s Republic of China and the United States of America is one of the dominant geopolitical trends of our time. Now, with the onset of the coronavirus crisis, the tone and stakes of this rivalry have been steadily intensifying. The game has changed, escalating from trade disputes to a battle over technology, ideology, and the shape of the global political order itself.

So how should we think about this clash between the world’s premier powers? And how will this contest resolve itself? Hawkish voices in both Washington and Beijing have spoken about the emergence of a new “Cold War”; former Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, has even warned of the danger of armed conflict arising from tensions in the South China Sea.

Yet there are also reasons to be more circumspect – this contest does not entirely mirror the totalising standoff between the United States and Soviet Russia. Decades of economic integration between China and the West, a more multipolar geopolitical landscape, and new frontiers of cyber espionage all characterise a rather different sort of confrontation.

In the latest episode of The New World, I hosted Bruno Maçães, renowned voyager, political theorist and geopolitical strategist, to find out more. We discussed the US-China rivalry in the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis, and his recent book – The Dawn of Eurasia: On the Trail of the New World Order (Penguin, 2019).

Bruno joins the podcast from Lisbon.

You can listen to the episode here – The New World – Clash of Titans: The US-China rivalry

The New World: Surveillance states are transforming the technology revolution

The New World: Surveillance states are transforming the technology revolution

The internet and the digital revolution continue to transform the world around us. The human experience has been changed as smart phones, social media networks, and the tech companies that build them are now a fundamental part of how we live and work.

As Benedict Evans, renowned tech analyist with decades of experience in Silicon Valley, explains, in a relatively short amount of time “technology has gone from being interesting, but not actually central, to being a systemically important part of society.”

This development has brought benefits for many around the world. But there are also concerns surrounding this rapid revolution. Is Big Tech too powerful? How should we think about the role played by platforms such as Facebook and Twitter in our modern democracies?

And how is technology strengthening the power of surveillance states? In the middle of the geopolitical changes of the last decade, the Chinese state has also been transforming the intellectual model of the internet both within and beyond its own borders. Beijing, too, is harnessing the power of the tech revolution.

In the latest episode of The New World, I am joined by Benedict Evans and Iain Martin, Editor of Reaction, to discuss issues.

You can listen to the episode here – The New World: Tech, Social Media, and Surveillance States

BBC’s Once upon a time in Iraq – a devastating documentary masterpiece

BBC’s Once upon a time in Iraq – a devastating documentary masterpiece

The Iraq War weighs heavily on the conscience of many in Britain and the United States. In 2003, coalition forces sought to oust President Saddam Hussein’s regime and bring freedom to the Middle East. Instead, the invasion brought chaos, state collapse and civil war, unleashing sectarian insurgencies which tore the country apart and led to tens of thousands of military and civilian deaths. It was in Iraq perhaps more than anywhere that the idealism of the post-Cold War West collided with reality. Seventeen years and two presidential administrations later, US forces are still on the ground.

The BBC’s new documentary, Once upon a time in Iraq, explores these shattered illusions through intimate interviews with those who lived through the Iraq War and its aftermath. The costs of this conflict have been immeasurable, but what is special about this documentary is the way in which it takes us down to the raw, human level. It shows us the experiences of those caught up in these events, their lives changed forever, from Iraqi civilians trapped in the crossfire to the American journalists and soldiers who saw historic events unfold.

The series is directed by James Bluemel with Waleed Neysif acting as an informal presenter throughout the series. They make a natural pair: Bluemel is the director of Exodus, a BAFTA award winning documentary on the refugee crisis. For Neysif, the Iraq War is a very personal story and he appears in the documentary as both a witness and a guide for the audience. He was 18 years old at the time of 2003 invasion, and now lives in Canada. In the documentary, he reflects with candour and sadness on how his teenage infatuation with the West turned into horror at the anarchy unleashed after the coalition invasion.

Bluemel’s documentary is crafted from an extraordinarily rich variety of eyewitness accounts. It is a story told in five parts, with episodes examining key themes – War, Insurgency, Fallujah, Saddam, and Legacy. Each chronicles a different chapter, with Legacy providing a troubling insight into life in Mosul under the Islamic State.

The result is a devastating documentary series: in Insurgency, we hear from Alaa Adel, a young Iraqi woman who still bears the scars from where her eye was hit by shrapnel during an insurgent attack. In Fallujah, we are shown the anguish of one Iraqi family caught up in the fierce fighting that engulfed the city in 2004. Others bear emotional scars, such as Sally Mars, who was eight at the time of the US invasion and who recounts the constant fear she felt as a high school student in 2014 as the Islamic State advanced close to Baghdad.

The sense of loss and hopelessness it has created for Iraqi people across the world is as heart-breaking as the war itself. Omar Mohammed, a history professor who has now fled Iraq, despairs in Legacy: “They (the Americans) didn’t bring freedom, they brought chaos.” His sadness at the wasteland created in his home city of Mosul is echoed by an Iraqi friend of mine, who told me recently: “Iraq is the cradle of civilisation, and now it is in ruins. How did the Americans allow this to happen?”

Yet the American accounts are no less heart-wrenching or haunting. Perhaps the most moving of all is the fate of Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Sassaman, a West Point graduate who commanded a unit of US troops in the heartlands of Iraq’s Sunni triangle. Tasked with the impossible, of acting as a civilian governor as well as a military leader in one of the most volatile parts of Iraq, Sassaman lost his way.

Getting to see – and feel – the tragedies of the Iraq War in this way is vital. So many other depictions of this conflict leave the audience divorced from the bitter realities of what actually happened.

For instance, Adam Curtis’s documentary Bitter Lake, which explores the history of America’s entanglements in the Middle East more generally, is cinematic and provides a compelling political narrative. Yet that is the problem – it is too cinematic, and too polished. The experience feels too much like watching a story rather than a documentary about real events and real people.

Then there are Hollywood films, such as Clint Eastwood’s propagandistic action thriller, American Sniper, which provide one-dimensional, heroic tales of individual servicemen detached from geopolitics. Such portrayals are a form of escapism from confronting the ways in which Iraq broke down the simplistic dividing lines between liberation and terror, regime change and chaos, democracy and destruction. Once upon a time in Iraq grapples with precisely these challenging and uncomfortable questions.

If I have one criticism, it is that this documentary could have done more to frame the historical context effectively. This would have allowed an uninitiated audience to better understand key political events covered, such as de-Baathification or the rise of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. In all fairness to the directors, this might have ended up taking us slightly away from the human perspective that makes Once upon a time in Iraq so powerful and unique. Yet I can’t help but feel that such an approach would also have yielded further insights, insights which Bluemel is clearly equipped to provide.

book co-authored by Bluemel and Chatham House fellow Renad Mansour to accompany the series promises to fill these gaps. But for those wanting to know more, the perfect complement to this series is Emma Sky’s The Unravelling. Sky served as a political officer in Kirkuk Province after the 2003 invasion and later as a senior adviser to the US military leadership during the 2007 surge. In her account, she provides a crucial explanation of the conditions that led to insurgency and later the rise of ISIS, as well as the continued role played by Iran in destabilising the Iraqi state.

The overwhelming theme of Once upon a time in Iraq is tragedy. Yet there are fleeting moments of resistance and hope, even amid the ruins. It’s a devastatingly honest examination of what went wrong that is long overdue – and after all the terrible events of the last seventeen years, we owe Iraqis like Neysif the chance to tell their tale, and be heard.

This article was originally published on Reaction.

Head image: Image via BBC/Keo Films/Gus Palmer.

EU leaders agree 1.8 trillion euro fiscal package to keep worst-hit countries afloat

EU leaders agree 1.8 trillion euro fiscal package to keep worst-hit countries afloat

Having provided the vital impetus in getting the EU27 to endorse the new EU recovery fund, Chancellor Angela Merkel will rightly see this as an important personal achievement.

Her decision to back the fund was a crucial moment in ensuring its success, shifting the balance of power away from the frugal states and towards French calls for fiscal aid.

The conclusion to the EU summit is a testament to Germany’s premier place in the European project.

But while the fund is symbolically important, it’s unlikely to be enough to help the Eurozone’s struggling southern states rebound from the coronavirus crisis.

Read more about the EU’s historic recovery fund package on Reaction.

Image: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock