The fall of Muammer Gaddafi in Libya caps a tumultuous eight months during which a series of Arab revolutions has redrawn the political map of the Middle East. Regimes in Egypt and Tunisia have been ejected; other tyrannies in Syria and Yemen are fighting for survival.
Johnny West, a former Reuters correspondent in Cairo, plunges into this confusion with bright-eyed curiosity and a natural storyteller’s appreciation of disconcerting detail. His tendency to pick up the threads of café conversation takes him into strange corners scarcely noticed by news reporters who hastily construct their voxpops from Twitter and Facebook: Tunisian rap radio stations, the submerged ruins of classical Greece off the Libyan coast, the sweet shops and bakeries of Alexandria.
Many have reported on the case of Mohammad Bouazizi, the street trader whose self-immolation sparked the Tunisian uprising – but West visits his primary school in Sidi Bou Zid as well as his grave, harvesting all the rumours that have accumulated around the dead man. Was Bouazizi already a corpse by the time the Tunisian despot, Ben Ali, decided to be photographed at his hospital bedside in an attempt to placate the rioters? Probably, yes: the grotesquery of such a charade would certainly account for the appalled expression on the face of the doctor standing by.
Bouazizi’s brother, Ali, appoints himself West’s guide to the internet cafés of Sidi Bou Zid and rattles off all the ways to avoid detection when posting subversion online. “This is where I uploaded the video of Mohammed from,” he tells West. “I have a number of spots all over town with different IP addresses.”
One in every 16 Tunisians of working age is employed by the security force, West calculates after meeting one of their victims and noting the dispassion with which he tells of running into a former classmate at “Torture Central”. The two men – one in a heap on the floor, the other dressed for a day at the office – exchanged pleasantries until the latter thoughtlessly asked: “And what brings you here?” It fell to Yassin, the victim, to correct the situation: “He shrugged and gave an awkward smile. You know. Least said.”
West sketches out the indignities of life in the Arab lands – the lack of jobs, the casual oppression and the sense of a few well-connected people doing better than the rest. One unemployed man in Sidi Bou Zid tells him how his family had considered paying $6,000 for a party card for his semi-literate mother so she could get a job as a teacher. They pulled back, cowed by the prospect of the lies required to recover their investment.
In Alexandria, where he picks away at the story of Khaled Said, the middle-class drop-out whose killing triggered the regime-toppling protests in Tahrir Square, West marvels at the squalor that has disfigured this once elegant city. What he remembered from his Reuters days as a two-lane highway along the corniche had become a 10-lane monster that has eaten the waterfront. “If you want to go to the beach these days you have to get on a bus and travel five kilometres up the road,” says a shopkeeper. “Not many people do that.”
The revolutions were not just about kicking out Hosni Mubarak or Ben Ali. They were about people re-asserting control over their lives and recovering lost dignity – or karama, the Arabic word West adopts as his title. “I was born in 1980,” says one of the young demonstrators West meets in Sidi Bou Zid. “But I feel like I was born in 2011.”
Where will it lead? While the revolutions have brought people together, there is little in the way of civil society to keep them so once the excitement fades. Most people still look to the centre for the essentials: employment; somewhere to live. What has changed is the state’s ability to dominate public discourse. For the first time, the street and the media are holding the powers that be to account. Given time, such scrutiny could entrench new freedoms.
Whether liberty will be allowed to fructify is a point ultimately left hanging although West is cautiously optimistic. At one point a young man tells him how the Tunisians rose up to recover their honour, adding: “After so much fear and humiliation we could not lose that again.” One can only hope he is right.
Jonathan Ford is the FT’s chief leader writer
Karama! Journeys Through the Arab Spring, by Johnny West, Heron Books, RRP£8.99, 386 pages