And Then All Hell Broke Loose | Richard Engel

Summary of: And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle East
By: Richard Engel


Travel back in time to the 1990s, the era of the ‘Arab big men’, dictators who held power with an iron fist and shaped the Middle East. The book ‘And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle East’ by Richard Engel offers a fascinating account of this dynamic and complex region. The summary highlights the rise and fall of these dictators, the spread of religious fundamentalism, and the aftermath of US intervention in Iraq. Get ready to dive deep into the intricate politics, the rich history, and the lives of those most affected by the seismic shifts in the Middle East.

The Era of Arab Big Men

In the 1990s, Arab big men ruled the Middle East, including Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak, Hafez al-Assad, Zine Al Abidine Bin Ali, and Mu’ammar Gadhafi. Despite their secularism, corruption, and brutality, these dictators were predictable and maintained their power for decades. However, by 2013, they were gone, replaced by chaos instead of the democracies promised by George W. Bush. Although evil and bloodthirsty, the big men knew how far they could push. The Middle East underwent a significant transformation, marking the end of an era.

Reporting from Middle East

Upon arriving in Egypt in 1996, journalist Richard Engel saw the Middle East as a breeding ground for intriguing stories due to the hidden dissent and resentment within dictatorships. He observed religious extremists’ disapproval of the tyrants’ secularism and the impoverished condition in which citizens lived, aggravating resentments. Engel’s perception of the rot underneath the façade of Middle Eastern governments inspired him to pursue stories that revealed the inefficiencies and contradictions present in the region and to report unbiased news to the world.

Reporting from Cairo

In “Reporter,” Richard Engel recounts his experiences as a fledgling journalist in Cairo, Egypt. Engel became a reporter and editor for the Middle East Times, a weekly with readership that included Cairo’s diplomats, tourists, and foreign businessmen. As he delved deeper into Egypt’s political landscape, Engel made contact with the Muslim Brotherhood and interviewed their leader, Mustafa Mashhur. The Egyptian government took notice of Engel’s reporting on the Brotherhood and began to surveil him. Due to Egypt’s lack of a free press, the paper had to be submitted to government censors before publication. Engel interviewed the censor and ran a story headlined “Censor Denies Censorship in Egypt,” an ironic title the censor allowed the paper to print. Engel’s experiences in Cairo helped shape his career and led him to focus on reporting from war zones.

The Roots of Muslim Extremism

With the rise of al Qaeda and the September 11 terrorist attacks, Richard Engel took an in-depth look at the history of the Middle East and what would lead to such violent extremism. He explores how the rise of Islamic extremism is rooted in the past, dating back over 1,300 years to the days of Mohammed. Engel takes readers through a history of Islamic prosperity during the eighth through 11th centuries, which later declined due to the Crusades and incursions by European powers. The author notes how the Ottoman Empire failed to keep up with Europe’s technological advances, which eventually led to their downfall. Engel also notes how the post-World War I agreements divided the Kurds among five nations and split up Iraq to encompass Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds, giving rise to perpetual religious tensions. Engel argues that these events, combined with poor governing and emotional religious sentiment, helped lay the groundwork for modern religious extremism. The book is a well-researched account of the historical seeds that led to radical Islamic groups acting on a global stage.

Unearthing the World of Salafi Jihadists

Engel’s encounter with Salafi jihadists in Egypt revealed a fundamentalist group that advocated for a return to asceticism and rejection of Western influence. While preaching the possibility of afterlife rewards, members banned music, art, alcohol, and mingling between genders. More worrisome was their emphasis on destroying the Jewish banking system and wresting power from the West instead of developing infrastructure. The author’s explorations depict the stark spirituality of a Salafi jihadist group gaining ground in Egypt and the wider Middle East.

Engel’s Middle East Journey

In this book snippet, Engel shares his experiences as a freelance journalist in the Middle East shortly after leaving the Middle East Times. He discusses the efficiency of Israel’s public relations and the limitations placed on Palestinian mobility through zone systems. Engel attributes the instability and unrest in the Middle East to the flawed treaties of World War I. The collapse of the peace process in 2002 is explored, detailing the shift towards Palestinian self-rule and the heated conflict of the Second Intifada. Engel’s insights provide a unique perspective on the region’s complex political landscape, ultimately leading him to the heart of journalistic action in Baghdad during President George W. Bush’s efforts to oust Saddam Hussein.

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