Cairo 2011. As revolution hits the streets, Westerners -- and a handful of members of Egypt’s elite -- cower in the capital’s luxury hotels.
It’s a visceral opening to the first episode of “The Night Manager,” the BBC’s latest espionage saga now airing in the United States on AMC (also available on Amazon).
The series has won deservedly rave reviews. The two leads -- Tom Hiddleston, playing a hotel administrator turned intelligence agent and Hugh Laurie as the evil arms dealer he targets -- are exceptional and magnetic. So is Olivia Coleman as the relatively lowly official who tries to bring the dealer down. The scenery is incredible and the tension unrelenting.
Based on a novel by John le Carré, long a byword for moral ambiguity in the genre, it’s hardly surprising it’s strong. Tales by former British intelligence officials often are. What is most impressive, however, is the way it reflects better than anything else I’ve seen the terrible, awkward journey so many people have been on since the Arab Spring started rocking the world.
That’s a particular achievement, as the original novel was published in 1993. Much of the action then took place in the Caribbean and revolved around dodgy arms deals to Latin America.
Now, inevitably, it’s all about the Middle East -- particularly, at least in later episodes, the toxic ramifications, complications and compromises of the Syrian civil war. Whoever was advising director Susanne Bier and screenwriter Tim Farr in the update, they were very, very good. In an interview with the “Guardian,” Farr says he began the screenplay in 2013, and was struck by how events in the region since in some ways echoed the plot and tone.
The action begins in Cairo at the most evocative moment of the Arab Spring, the 2011 resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Hiddleston’s character, Thomas Pine, is in the hotel kitchen when it happens -- there is a savage roar, a sense of disbelief. “He’s really gone,” screams one of the kitchen workers.
That same night, Pine finds himself in possession of documentary evidence of something he finds morally wrong -- shady arms shipments to deeply repressive governments. He takes what he thinks is the right action. Soon, an innocent person is dead and the rest of the story rolls.
I unfortunately was unable to visit Egypt until two years after the Revolution, by which time disillusion was widespread. But I was in Washington and London in 2011 and the atmosphere -- from meetings of Mideast activists to the corridors of power -- was similarly frenetic.
For sure, there were some early naysayers. “Name me one revolution which wasn’t ultimately hijacked by the hardliners,” one venerable British official told a journalistic colleague, conveniently forgetting the American example.
More broadly, however, there was a feeling that history was moving -- and it was important to be on the right side.
Nowhere was that more true than when it came to Libya and Syria. It wasn’t, several Western officials pointed out, that there were not clear dangers. Many were not particularly enthusiastic about the choices they were making. But doing nothing -- and letting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi crush their people -- would also have been a decision. If not one anyone in authority was willing to take at the time.
Five years on, of course -- in the present day, in which most of The Night Manager is set -- it all looks far different. The sense of positive possibility has been almost entirely dashed. Perhaps most important, the West’s well-meaning decisions have left everyone involved feeling a messy mixture of impotent and compromised.
First, Washington tried to encourage the moderate resistance in Syria but drew the line at providing arms -- with the result that the rebels encouraged to rise up were massacred. Then limited shipments where allowed -- first from Gulf allies and then more directly. Some wound up in the hands of the growing number of extremists -- but there still was not enough to make a difference. Almost whatever the circumstance, the West wound up in the worst of all possible worlds.
It is not quite true to say, according to those who have examined the matter, that on occasion rebels armed by the Pentagon have found themselves fighting those armed by the CIA. But the program has proved spectacularly messy. At the very least, it has been colossally expensive and -- so far, at least -- relatively ineffective.
With Russia now also in the game and Assad clawing back territory, even tougher decisions loom. Some argue that allowing -- perhaps even facilitating, tacitly or otherwise -- a victory for the regime offers the only true route to restoring stability and defeating Islamic State.
Others find that unacceptable. Now, they believe, is the time to ramp up efforts against Assad, to push back at him and Russian President Vladimir Putin and argue that military might alone should never equal right. Just as King George VI did at the outbreak of World War Two.
The drama of “The Night Manager” leaves the minutiae of Syria very much to one side. Exactly where Laurie’s loathsome merchant of death, Richard Roper, is sending his weapons -- or on behalf of whom -- remains appropriately opaque. Much of the plot takes place in Roper’s luxurious Mediterranean villa, far from the consequences of his actions.
Indeed, the idea that a Western intelligence agency -- or even a small element of one -- might genuinely trying to bring down such a figure in the current environment is perhaps one of the larger plot holes in the piece. In the real world, they would be just as likely to use him. An idea unashamedly alluded to in “Night Manager’s” scenes at Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service MI6.
When it comes to the banal arrangements of setting up front companies and concealing details of shipments and cash flow, however, the drama is horribly credible. “Being a man is realizing it’s all rotten,” Roper says in the third episode (to be aired next week). He’s suggesting that profiting from the situation is the only sensible route.
The series hints at a rather different message -- that faced with injustice and evil, sometimes there is no alternative but standing up and fighting.
But, as the shows make clear, making choices about what that could really mean in today’s Middle East is not an easy thing.
About the Author
Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist, writing on international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues. He is also founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21; a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank operating in London, New York and Washington. Before that, he spent 12 years as a reporter for Reuters covering defense, political risk and emerging markets. Since 2016, he also has been an officer in the British Army Reserve. Follow Peter Apps on Twitter
The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.