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NPR Arts & Life

Robert Worth's 'A Rage For Order' Takes On Troubled Middle East


It was the tumultuous end of autocratic rule and the hopeful birth of a new Egypt. Reporter Robert Worth was there in Cairo in February of 2011 to witness the wild moment when news spread that President Hosni Mubarak had resigned.

ROBERT WORTH: (Reading) In the street, a man running past almost knocked me down, screaming at the top of his lungs - our freedom, our freedom. A few yards away, another man, dressed in laborer's clothes, arrived at the edge of the square on Talaat Harb Street and dropped to his hands and knees, kissing the filthy asphalt. A young girl in a head scarf leapt onto a car and began shaking her hips in an ecstatic dance. The crowds in the square were surging around wildly as if drunk.

BLOCK: That's Robert Worth reading from his new book "A Rage For Order." He covered the revolutions of the Arab Spring for The New York Times in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria, a time, he writes, when he saw the world being remade before his eyes. His chapter on Libya is titled "Revenge."

When you write about Libya after the fall Moammar Gadhafi, you focus on a militia interrogator named Nasser. And he ends up interrogating the Gadhafi loyalists who had tortured prisoners and even killed his own brother. What was that like?

WORTH: That was one of the most intense moments I've ever had as a reporter. They had created their own militia quarters in the basement. They had this makeshift jail. And they - Nasser , who had always been kind of a black sheep of his family, was in a deep state of grief about his brother who'd been the leading son of the family - a successful pediatrician and a very, very brave man.

And Nasser wanted to sort of vindicate himself somehow by creating some sort of justice out of this. And that was why he refused to take revenge. He had this guy in his - in the palm of his hands who had killed his own brother. But he insisted on treating him with what he saw as justice.

BLOCK: The prisoners who had been held by these militias and turned over to the government - what happened to them?

WORTH: They were kept for a long time in expectation of a real government forming. But finally, when the civil conflict got worse and worse in 2013, they were set free and given guns. And they ended up joining in the civil war, and I haven't heard anything. I mean, Libya's so chaotic now that it can be difficult to track any given person. But last I heard, they were still fighting.

BLOCK: Yeah.

You write in the epilogue about what happened to one of the leaders of the youth movement in Egypt, the movement that helped topple the Mubarak regime. It's a young man named Ahmed Darrawi. He had helped lead the revolution in Tahrir Square. He ran for Parliament and lost. And then he disappeared. What did you find out about what happened to him?

WORTH: Gradually, when he saw the polarization taking place and he saw the people who'd been together in Tahrir Square attacking each other in the street, he progressively lost hope. He became very, very depressed and then eventually fled without telling any of his relatives where he was going. And he went to Syria, and he ultimately joined ISIS. And he died in a suicide bombing.

BLOCK: How do you account for that? How do you try to make sense of that journey from a young man presumably thinking about democracy - thinking about a democratic change in Egypt - joining ISIS and signing on with a jihadist group like that?

WORTH: I think it partly is a measure of just how transformative that moment in Tahrir Square was. People who had become resigned to living under a dictatorship, to, you know, having reduced expectations, to being surrounded by corruption and misery and lack of hope, suddenly saw the possibility for something much, much better.

And they - you know, Ahmed Darrawi essentially stopped working at his job - he had a very good job - because he thought this was the moment. You know, this was his lifetime chance to make something better, and then it all came crashing to the ground. And I think that sense of disappointment was so extreme that he went and searched for something that was, you know, a vision of the future - that was equally radical and uncompromising. And of course, it was totally, totally different from what he'd been fighting for in Tahrir Square.

BLOCK: I'm thinking about what you write in the introduction about what a Syrian friend of yours told you when you told her you were going to be writing this book about the Arab Spring and what happened. What did she tell you? What did she not want you to do?

WORTH: She said please don't make it seem as if we're just condemned to repeat the past, which I think, you know, as with the Balkans conflict in the '90s, there was this fear that - you know, that the rest of the world will look at them and say well, these are these awful, ancient sectarian cleavages, what can you expect? You know, it was bound to happen.

BLOCK: Yeah.

WORTH: And I don't think that's true. I think what you had here was a group of dictators who fought ferociously after these uprisings spread - to retain their power, to claw back their power. And they used sect. They used everything they could to divide people again.

BLOCK: That's Robert Worth. He's contributing writer with The New York Times Magazine. And his new book is "A Rage For Order." Robert, thanks so much.

WORTH: Oh, it's a pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.