At what point did the revolution in Egypt go off the rails? This was the question that my friends and I spent most of our time discussing in smoke-filled rooms in Cairo, with deepening alarm, in the years following the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Islamists swept the elections; protests turned into clashes and massacres; prisons filled with young men and women; and an avuncular, menacing general took over. All the while, the uprisings that had occurred in Syria, Yemen, and Libya degenerated into brutal civil wars. We wondered whether it was all inevitable. Had it been a revolution after all? How does one tell the story?
In July, Amnesty International reported on the Egyptian security forces’ increasingly common practice of “disappearing” civilians: Hundreds of Egyptians have been kidnapped, held in secret locations, and tortured into giving false confessions. This summer in Syria, the rebel-held sector of Aleppo was finally cut off by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, which, with Russian assistance, have carried out a relentless bombing campaign (making hospitals a particular target). Residents of the besieged, devastated neighborhoods must choose between starvation and handing themselves over to government soldiers. Those in search of perspective on Syria’s devastation should turn to Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, by the reporter Robin Yassin-Kassab and the activist Leila al-Shami. Their book offers a knowledgeable, empathetic, morally lucid account of the revolt against the Assad regime and an explanation of why—to the horror of many of its supporters—it became a civil war. Burning Country avoids the easy indulgence of indignation; instead, it elicits the voices of many different Syrians involved in the uprising, acknowledging their suffering as well as their courage, intelligence, and humanity, while explaining the terrible choices that have been forced on them. “Pressed on all sides, these are people who’ve truly made history,” Yassin-Kassab and al-Shami write, “enough to compete with and for a moment drown the savage history made by states.”
Their book chronicles the grassroots political and cultural activism of the revolution’s first year. It also charts how the struggle turned sectarian and violent. From the beginning, the Assad regime insisted on “reading the revolution through ethnic and religious categories; largely as a result of its own efforts, these categories would indeed eventually grow in importance until they dominated the field of struggle. The regime’s priority was to refuse any recognition of the non-Islamist civil activists, because these represented the greatest threat.” The regime knew that it would be more convenient, domestically and internationally, to be seen as fighting an extremist opposition—the “terrorists” that it had accused the demonstrators of being from the start.
Assad’s strategy was to throw gasoline on the fire. Peaceful liberal activists were arrested and tortured in nightmarish ways. Protests were met with deadly violence; rape was used as punishment and provocation. Meanwhile, 1,500 Islamists were released from Assad’s jails in 2011.