By Scott Anderson (Photographs by Paolo Pellegrin)
This is a story unlike any we have previously published. It is much longer than the typical New York Times Magazine feature story; in print, it occupies an entire issue.
The product of some 18 months of reporting, it tells the story of the catastrophe that has fractured the Arab world since the invasion of Iraq 13 years ago, leading to the rise of ISIS and the global refugee crisis.
The geography of this catastrophe is broad and its causes are many, but its consequences — war and uncertainty throughout the world — are familiar to us all.
Scott Anderson’s story gives the reader a visceral sense of how it all unfolded, through the eyes of six characters in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan. Accompanying Anderson’s text are 10 portfolios by the photographer Paolo Pellegrin, drawn from his extensive travels across the region over the last 14 years, as well as a landmark virtual-reality experience that embeds the viewer with the Iraqi fighting forces during the battle to retake Falluja.
It is unprecedented for us to focus so much energy and attention on a single story, and to ask our readers to do the same.
We would not do so were we not convinced that what follows is one of the most clear-eyed, powerful and human explanations of what has gone wrong in this region that you will ever read.
– JAKE SILVERSTEIN, EDITOR IN CHIEF
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PART Ia: ORIGINS (1972–2003)
1. Laila Soueif (Egypt) – The Matriarch of a prominent dissident family
Laila Soueif attended her first political rally when she was just 16. It was 1972, and the protesters were demanding what students have so often desired — a more equitable world, greater freedom of expression. But they also had a demand that was a bit more specific to the Arab world: that Egypt’s president, Anwar Sadat, launch a war to recover the Sinai Peninsula, which was seized by Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967. From this experience, Laila would soon be convinced of the power of civil disobedience; Sadat launched an attack on Israel the following year. What Laila hadn’t counted on was the more immediate wrath of her parents. Just two hours after she joined the protest in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Laila’s mother and father tracked down their teenage daughter and dragged her home. “From that, I learned that it was easier to defy the state than to defy my parents,” she said.
Laila was born into a life of both privilege and intellectual freedom. Her parents were college professors, and her older sister, Ahdaf Soueif, is one of Egypt’s best-known contemporary novelists. She gravitated toward leftist politics at an early age. While studying mathematics at Cairo University in the mid-1970s, she met her future husband, Ahmed Seif, who was already the leader of an underground communist student cell calling for revolution.
By then, Egypt had long been regarded as the political capital of the Middle East, the birthplace of revolutionary movements and ideas. In the modern era, it owed that status largely to the legacy of one man: Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Well into the 1940s, Egypt, along with most of the rest of the Middle East, remained a lesser global concern, still in the thrall of the European powers that imposed their will on the area decades before. That began to change at the end of World War II with the discovery of vast new oil fields in the region, and with the collapse of the British and French colonial empires. The pace of change greatly accelerated when Nasser and his Free Officers Movement of junior military officers overthrew Egypt’s Western-pliant king in 1952.
Championing “Arab socialism” and Pan-Arab unity, Nasser swiftly became a galvanizing figure throughout the Arab world, the spokesman for a people long dominated by foreigners and Western-educated elites. Just as crucial to the strongman’s popularity was what he opposed: colonialism, imperialism and that most immediate and enduring example of the West’s meddling in the region, the state of Israel.
Nasser’s success inspired many other would-be Arab leaders, nowhere more so than in the artificial states of the Middle East formed by the European powers. By 1968, military officers espousing the Baathist (“renaissance”) philosophy — a quasi-socialist form of Pan-Arabism — had seized power in Iraq and Syria. They were joined the following year by the Libyan lieutenant Muammar el-Qaddafi, and his somewhat-baffling “third universal theory,” which rejected traditional democracy in favor of rule by “people’s committees.” In all three countries, just as in Egypt, Western-favored monarchs or Parliaments were neutered or cast aside.
But Nasser possessed an advantage that his fellow autocrats in the region did not. With a sense of national identity that stretched back millenniums, Egypt never seemed in danger of being torn apart; the centrifugal pull of tribes or clans or sectarian identity simply didn’t exist there to the degree it did in Syria or Iraq. At the same time, Egypt’s long tradition of relative liberalism had given rise to a fractious political landscape that ran the spectrum from secular communists to fundamentalist Islamists.
Part of Nasser’s genius was his ability to bridge these divides, and he did so by appealing both to Egyptian national pride and to a shared antipathy for the West, a vestige, perhaps, of 70 years of heavy-handed rule by Britain. Thus, even when Islamist conservatives became alarmed by Nasser’s moves toward greater secularism, most still saw him as a hero for nationalizing Western businesses, and for besting Britain, France and Israel in the 1956 Suez crisis. Similarly, urban liberals like the Soueif family who disdained Nasser’s strong-arm rule — his was a military dictatorship, after all — also cheered him for his leadership in the international Nonaligned Movement, for proudly thumbing his nose at the threats and enticements of the United States as it sought to compel Egypt into its orbit during the Cold War. This became the means by which Nasser and his successor, Anwar Sadat, maintained their grip on power: play left and right off each other as a matter of course; bring them together when needed by focusing on an external foe. Such maneuvering resulted in many odd political turns, including the first protest march of Laila Soueif.
After working on leftist causes together throughout their time at the University of Cairo, Laila and Ahmed married in 1978. That same year, Egypt’s political landscape was neatly turned upside down. In September, Sadat signed the Camp David accords, which led to an American-brokered peace treaty with Israel. That stunning about-face simultaneously propelled Egypt into the camp of American client-states and isolated it from much of the rest of the Arab world. Even more ominously for Sadat, what was seen in the West as an act of courage was regarded by most Egyptians as an act of betrayal and national shame. This was certainly the view of Laila and Ahmed. It was in the wake of the 1979 peace treaty that some of the men in Ahmed’s underground cell began buying up arms on the black market and vowing armed action against the government. Those plans never got off the ground, though. Instead, it was a cabal of Islamist military plotters who finally got to Sadat, shooting and killing him at a military parade in Cairo in October 1981.
A month later, Laila gave birth to her and Ahmed’s first child, a boy they named Alaa. Their lives took on an air of increasingly apolitical domesticity, and by 1983, Laila, then 28, was juggling the demands of child-rearing with her new position as a professor of mathematics at Cairo University. All normalcy was shattered, however, when Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, ordered a sweeping security crackdown. Among those ensnared in the dragnet were Ahmed and his colleagues in the underground cell. Severely tortured until he signed a full confession, Ahmed was then released to await his verdict. When that verdict was returned, in late 1984, the news was grim: Ahmed was found guilty of illegal weapons possession and sentenced to five years in prison.
At the time, Laila was in France, having accepted a scholarship to further her math studies, but when Ahmed’s sentence was handed down, she rushed back to Cairo with Alaa. Thanks to a curious loophole in Egyptian law, sentences for security-related offenses like Ahmed’s had to be approved by the president, a process that normally took several months and during which the defendant could remain out on bail. It presented the couple with a tempting choice.
“We had to decide,” Laila, who is now 60, told me. “Does he submit and go into prison for five years, do we try to find some way to get him out of the country or do we go into hiding?” She gave a nonchalant shrug. “So we went into hiding.”
For several months, the couple lived as fugitives with their 3-year-old son. Ultimately, though, both realized it was a futile exercise. “He wasn’t willing to leave the country,” Laila said, “and he couldn’t stay in hiding forever. He decided it was easier to do the five years, so he gave himself up.” But not necessarily easier for Laila. She became pregnant during her and Ahmed’s brief time on the run, leaving her to tend to a second child, a girl they named Mona, as Ahmed served out his prison sentence.
It was in prison that Ahmed experienced something of an epiphany. By continuing the entente with the United States and Israel that Sadat had begun, Mubarak naturally also inherited the taint of capitulation in the eyes of many of his countrymen. Unable to forge national cohesion by turning to the old external enemy card — after all, Egypt was now in bed with those supposed enemies — Mubarak had devised a more carefully calibrated system to play his secular leftist and militant Islamist oppositions against each other. Ahmed, thrown into prison with both factions, saw firsthand how this strategy played out when it came to even the most basic of human rights. As he would later tell Joe Stork of Human Rights Watch, “The communists would say secretly, ‘It doesn’t matter if Islamists are tortured.’ And the Islamists would say, ‘Why not torture communists?’ ”
Determined to fight for judicial reform, Ahmed devoted himself to studying law in his prison cell. Within a month of his release in 1989, he was admitted to the Egyptian bar.
This placed the ex-political prisoner and his wife at a crossroads. With Laila a tenured professor at Cairo University and Ahmed now a lawyer, the couple had the opportunity to carve out a comfortable existence for themselves among the Cairene elite. Instead, and at ultimately great personal cost, they would plunge ever deeper into Egypt’s widening turmoils, trying to cross the very divides that had for so long been critical to the government’s own survival.
2. Majdi el-Mangoush (Libya) – An Air Force cadet with divided loyalties
A once-prosperous port city roughly 120 miles east of Tripoli, the Libyan capital, Misurata was a main terminus of the old trans-Saharan trade route, the stopping point of camel caravans taking gold and slaves from sub-Saharan Africa for export across the Mediterranean. Ever since, it has been one of Libya’s chief commercial hubs, its residents regarded as industrious and particularly capitalist-minded. Prominent among those inhabitants is the Mangoush clan, so much so that one of the oldest neighborhoods of the city bears the family name. And it was in that neighborhood on July 4, 1986, that Omar and Fatheya el-Mangoush, civil servants for the
Misurata municipal government, welcomed the birth of the youngest of their six children, a boy they named Majdi.
By the time of Majdi’s birth, Libya had been ruled by Muammar el-Qaddafi for 17 years. Viewed in the West as something of a rakish enfant terrible when he and his fellow military plotters overthrew Libya’s king in 1969 — Qaddafi was then himself just 27 — the handsome former signal corps lieutenant was wildly popular among his countrymen in the years immediately following the coup. A key to that popularity was his emulation of Gamal Abdel Nasser in neighboring Egypt. Like Nasser, Qaddafi kindled Arab pride by nationalizing Western business interests, including parts of Libya’s vital oil industry, and standing in vehement opposition to the state of Israel. By spreading the wealth around, he also enabled families like the Mangoushes to live a comfortable middle-class life.
Over time, however, Qaddafi’s rule increasingly bore less resemblance to Egypt’s “soft” dictatorship and more to that of two others influenced by the Nasser model: the Baathist regimes of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Hafez al-Assad in Syria. The parallels were quite striking. In all three countries, the dictators developed elaborate personality cults — their faces adorned posters and murals and postage stamps — and aligned themselves with the “anti-imperialist” bloc of Arab nations, their stances helped along by deepening ties with the Soviet Union. True to the Baathist credo of “Arab socialism” and Qaddafi’s third universal theory, all three countries embarked on fabulously ambitious public works projects, building hospitals and schools and colleges throughout their lands and bankrolling those enterprises with oil receipts (in the cases of Libya and Iraq), or through the patronage of the Soviet Union (in the case of Syria). At the same time, the states established extravagantly bloated governmental structures, such that their ministries and agencies quickly became the main pillars of the economy; eventually more than half of the Libyan work force — Majdi el-Mangoush’s parents among them — was on the government payroll, and the figures in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq were similar. “Everybody was connected to the state somehow,” Majdi explained. “For their housing, for their job. It was impossible to exist outside of it.”
For all their revolutionary rhetoric, the dictators of Libya, Iraq and Syria remained ever mindful that their nations were essentially artificial constructs. What this meant was that many of their subjects’ primary loyalty lay not to the state but to their tribe or, more broadly, to their ethnic group or religious sect. To keep them loyal required both the carrot and the stick. In all three nations, the leaders entered into elaborate and labyrinthine alliances with various tribes and clans. Stay on the dictator’s good side, and your tribe might be given control of a ministry or a lucrative business concession; fall on his bad side, a