Johnny West
Interview Words : Peter Moore | 31 May

Johnny West on the Arab Spring

Author Johnny West discusses the Arab Spring in detail... And what it means for travellers

Johnny West is an award-winning former Reuters Middle East foreign correspondent who is fluent in Arabic. During the months of the Arab Spring, he spent time in the cafés, homes and meeting places at the heart of the popular uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, getting a street-level, intimate perspective of this unique moment in modern history.

He speaks to Wanderlust about the Arab Spring, meeting Islamist rappers and 'Facebook lads' and about what the changes in the region mean to the world at large... and to travellers in particular.

You got outside the foreign correspondent bubble and travelled through the region by public transport. Did that give you a clearer perspective?

Absolutely. I gave up chasing the news and decided to go to backwater, small-town places and just let whatever happened there become the story. How incredibly liberating! And when you're just hanging around with no particular agenda other than to meet whoever and hear about whatever, serendipity starts to happen.

So it led to a series of experiences I came to think of as “protagonist journalism” – Hunter S Thompson without the drugs. At various times I had brief spells of driving a mini-bus on the Libyan border, minding a grocery shop in Alexandria, taking torture depositions in Tunisia, and diving off a sunken and entirely abandoned Ptolemaic port just behind Benghazi.

It wasn't all public transport by the way. One of my favourite techniques is hiring a car and then picking up hitchers, as in the rural Middle East people still hitch all the time. Serving people in some menial way is a fantastic short cut to build trust.

The Arab Spring? Why now? And why across so many countries?

There are two answers to the 'now' question. The first is because it had to happen sometime. The second is because the effect of the Internet and digital technologies (including satellite TV, which dates back 20 years now) had reached critical momentum. Too many Arabs, particularly the young, now understood just how crappy their lives were compared to the rest of the world, how they were being treated as feudal subjects by these ridiculous old men, and how many millions of their compatriots felt the same way as they did.

And 'across so many countries' because, with all the lying rhetoric and disappointments that Arab nationalism has visited on the 20 countries of the Arab World in the last 50 years, the vast majority of Arab men and women feel strong common bonds with each other. So we can explain the specificities and differences all we like – Bahrain's GDP is 20 times per head what Yemen's is, Tunisian women are twice as likely to be literate as Egyptians – but that's left-brain analytical stuff.

It's true that there's enormous variation of all kinds, including religion, within what we call the Arab World. Tunisia, Yemen and Bahrain may be as disparate, say, than Finland, Bulgaria and Portugal within Europe, even if they do share a common language. But on the other hand, if the people themselves, wherever they are, feel inspired by Tunisia and then Egypt and then, who knows, Libya, that's an even deeper 'objective' fact.

You speak to 'Facebook Lads' and the internaughts. How has the internet changed things? Would the Arab Spring have happened without Facebook, Twitter et al?

No it wouldn't. I went through the cycle on this. First the hype of “Facebook Revolution”. Then examining the claims of the specialists that giving such importance to gadgets and apps was somehow undermining, trivialising the importance of complex social phenomena and human relations – the history of the Egyptian labour movement, the provenance of various tired dictatorships, mass unemployment and so on.

But, having carefully considered these arguments, I've gone back to the first view, precisely because of the interaction between the technology and complicated human stuff like psychology, self-identity and peer group encouragement.

I met many Tunisians who said Wikileaks had played a part in preparing people to revolt. Not because it revealed new information to them – they knew better than anyone how corrupt the regime was. But because now they knew the Americans knew; that the Americans thought their guy, Ben Ali, was a buffoon – and then what did that make them? They began to feel embarrassed about the dictatorship. In Libya, Gaddafi was mocked by satirical cartoons spread among the young and connected, who then “rebroadcast” to their extended families.

It's precisely a nuanced view of social structures that allows us to understand the Great Big Before that the Internet had built, a more open view of society. It is so not about the narrow question whether or not mobile phones allowed a flash crowd in Tahrir on Tuesday at 2.30.

Islamist rap – how is it different to the stuff coming out of the west?

Well it has the same patina. But it's fully adapted to the culture. So no gangsta rap that I could find. I half expected to find suicide bomber rap – ”putting on my belt and it feels good, yeah, yeah” – but didn't. In part, I think, because there's less “I” in the Middle East in general and more “we”. These are more socialised environments in that sense.

But the other thing that gobsmacked me was how the Tunisian state tried – and succeeded for a short while – in appropriating rap to be cool to the young. To the extent, I strongly suspect but can't prove so won't name names, of fronting up for tame, local rap artists to do bullshit collaborations with global artists. Some of these guys became regime rappers, who'd perform at society weddings and the like. I guess it just goes to show that anything can become appropriated.

The Arab Spring seems to have gone off the boil in Egypt. Is the revolution there and in Tunisia complete? Do you think this is a danger that Presidents may go but things stay fundamentally the same?

Yes. It's got messy in Egypt. And yes, in both Egypt and Tunisia the semi-constitutional nature of the “revolutions” – in the end, the armies of both countries held the ring – means they could indeed lose impetus. The biggest issue I see is continued mass unemployment. That's the real difference between life being crap and boring for most young Arabs, or not. And there's depressingly little movement on that.

You met all kinds of people from all walks of life in your travels. Which of them had the biggest impact on you?

That's so hard to say. There's a young man called Ismail Alexandrani who spent months leading protests in Egypt, there are the protesters in Tunisia who survived stupid amounts of torture with their spirits unbroken. Probably, though, I would have to say Ahmed, the brother of Khaled Said, the young man who was beaten to death by the police in Egypt and whose story became the poster case for the revolution there.

Ahmed was – is – a regular guy who just had this extraordinary thing wash over him overnight. The police killed his brother and could then easily have seen to him too, as was not uncommon in cases of this kind. But the guy – 5.8ft, bald, chain smoking, profane and loose living at times – had a completely indomitable spirit. He took on Egypt's police state alone. It's hard to describe what degree of guts that took.

Egypt being Egypt, the police only set a guard on Khaled's body to begin at six in the morning so Ahmed, who'd been given the run around, chasing the ambulance around all the previous evening, came back to the morgue at three in the morning and slipped in and took pictures of his brother's broken body, showing the torture, and then posted them on the Net. It was the first 'Before and After' of Mubarak's Egypt. Google Image “Khaled Said” and you will see these pictures and understand how Ahmed created the cause that could lead to Tahrir Square.

But it's also still ongoing. I've spent a bit of time recently with Syrian protesters who hopped across the border to Lebanon. There are people risking their lives by day and having spirited, generous, and far-sighted political discussions into the night.

It may sound trite but I gradually came to feel, seeing people like this up close, that we should be more optimistic than we are about all this, more supportive of so many ordinary people who really can only be described as heroes. I do think there's an inbuilt negativity in our culture that means it's easier to appear smart by being negative, and we've seen that play out in a lot of so-called “expert” analyses of how it will all end in tears, fundamentalism, tribalism, vengeance etc etc. These are possible scenarios but not, in my view, the most likely outcomes.

Your book is called Karama, which is Arabic for honour, dignity, self-respect. Is this an essential element in the Arab Spring?

Yes. I gave it that name because that's the word everyone uses to describe why they risked their lives on the streets. Karama is not being slapped about randomly by an ignorant policeman, or being able to get a job, or not having to pay or receive bribes. The literal translation “honour” sounds exotic and epic but most of the time people simply mean being able to live a normal life without being humiliated and scared.

The leaders deposed by popular uprisings have been supported by western governments. Do you think the future will see a new transparency in political relationships between the West and North Africa?

Yes. And what a good thing that will be. Nassim Nicholas Taleb recently wrote that the Arab Spring was a political Black Swan. Policy makers were seduced for decades by some concept of “stability” that in the end turned out to be little more than a mirage in the sand. There, an Oriental cliché!

How is the uprising different in Libya? Would it have happened without NATO involvement?

Well it did happen without NATO. The no-fly zone came when Gaddafi's forces were on the edge of Benghazi and the East had risen up against the regime for a full month. I don't believe the rebels would ever have given up.

There's a common sentiment I've been hearing from protesters across the region, including in Syria. I asked one man how he reconciled risking his life in the protests with being a father of four. What about his responsibilities? He replied that yes, that was a normal calculation and how he had lived all his life. But there just comes a moment, maybe by chance or something entirely spontaneous, when you realise that there is no going back. You just have to do the right thing and have faith in destiny. I think the last time we felt that kind of thing was the Second World War.

That said, the outcome would have been drastically different without NATO of course. The rebels would have had to retreat to mountain areas, there would have been massive repression, and Gaddafi might have lasted another decade or more.

How do you see post-Gaddafi Libya panning out? Is there going to be a smooth transition? Or do you think various factions will now fight for control?

I don't know but I'm also pretty sure nobody knows. Beware of false expertise on this. A lot of analysis of “tribalism” and bloodshed has been very loose. For at least the last 30 years Libya has been an urbanised oil state with people living in concrete prefabs, not tents; driving cars not riding camels. Yes those affiliations count for something but I defy anybody to confidently say what. There's been a lot of lazy-think.

Of course the transition won't be smooth! But that doesn't necessarily mean that it will be disastrous. Real transformation to open societies takes four or five elections and the best part of 20 years, we know that from Eastern Europe and Latin America. Why would the Middle East be different? But what we're seeing is the start...

Do you think travellers will be able to go back any time soon?

Absolutely. Eastern Libya is already perfectly safe, with the most amazing fertile belt behind Benghazi. It's like 150 miles of Italy over there, a little Calabria with nobody in it – olive groves and meadows and pine forest. On the road to Benghazi I counted on the car trip-metre about 25 miles of white, sandy Med beaches beyond tufted dunes with not a single soul on them.

Syria has always been a very popular destination for Wanderlust readers. How do you see the situation unfolding there?

Grimly, until the Assads go. And they are even more ensconced than Gaddafi was. It's too early to tell what could happen after. The Syrians, though, as anyone who has been there will know, are very proud of their role in history and aware of their place in the world. And this revolution is very much about the young seeking to make that a reality in their daily lives. So I would expect people to continue to be massively friendly to visitors when they go again. If I were looking for safe adventure, I'd watch for the first time when it was safe to go to Syria again – I expect even the normal hospitality to go through the roof. But that won't be until the Assads go.


Karama!Johnny West was a Reuters correspondent in the Middle East and has run a digital news agency in the area for the past decade. His book, Karama: Journeys through the Arab Spring, is available on Amazon now.


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