The advent of the Arab Spring marked a cataclysmic shift in the way Middle East was perceived across the globe. The Arabs living in the complex countries of this region suddenly saw their hitherto dormant lives brimming with new hopes and aspirations. Chaos, mayhem and bloodshed on an unimaginable scale had seen four dictators being ruthlessly toppled from their seat of power. It almost seemed that time had stopped for decades in this region only to surge ahead in a dramatic fashion. A new history was been written for the Middle East. In order to make sense of the political developments after this event, Paul Danahar, in his book The New Middle East looks to unravel the reconfigurations of power and struggle among the countries who were in the thick of things. His primary focus is to underline the significance of history to make sense of the current turmoil. Also, a concerted effort is made to delve deeper into all the countries that were gripped by the revolt to bring out the nuances of the political reactions of sundry communities, local organisations and interventionist forces.
The author, right in the introductory chapter, is categorical in his thoughts when he says that certain ideologies that dominated the political outlook of the region are set to be reshaped by newly refined religious sentiments. Ba’thism, Pan – Arabism and orthodox Zionism are giving way to the violent power struggles between Shia and Sunnis. The writer emphatically terms this centre stage of religion as the ‘return of God to the Middle East’. This relegation of certain ideologies has however not seen a concomitant change in another entity that has virtually ruled large parts of the region – the Army. An interesting categorising is done to show the relationship of army and the State in all these four Arab Spring countries. It seems to side with the public when it acts as an instrument of the State and not of the ruling regime ( in the case of Egypt and Tunisia ) ; at a time when it is neither with the State nor with the regime, it ceases to remain a potent force and crumbles under its own burden ( as was in the case of Libya ) and finally, when army acts both as an instrument of the State as well as the regime, it brutally suppresses the demands of its people ( as was in the case of Syria ). All these four countries along with Iraq are pondered upon in great details to critically analyse their future prospects. To supplement the role of the army in this new middle east, the author takes recourse to all those elements which shaped the political contours of the region. The centrality of Oil, not just as an economic commodity but as a vital geopolitical tool is highlighted in all the Arab States. Also, the foreign intervention especially since the First World War gets a lion share as far as the manner in which it dictated and moulded the political outcomes of the region. A perceptive critique of the USA’s ham handed foreign policy in particular along with its lopsided diplomatic overtures to the oppositional rebel forces to strengthen their own national interests is what is offered in considerable depth.
An immediate background is provided about the economic reasons that led to the resentment of many Muslims. A sudden spike in the world food prices around the Global recession of 2008 along with heavy dependence on food imports which got exacerbated by five years of continuous droughts are some of the factors that led to helplessness across generations. A particular emphasis is made about Tunisia and the lack of understanding of its society in the international domain. It was the youth of the Middle East that has suffered the most during the insurgency and the frustration was palpable from them coming out in large numbers on the streets protesting against the despotic rule. Nowhere can one trace this kind of a peculiar youth assertion in history. Moving on to the next chapter that talks about Egypt, the Muslim brotherhood’s tussle with the strong incumbent army rule is highlighted, especially since Gamel Abdel Nassers’s era of the 1950’s. How the former was deeply influenced by its founder Al Bana’s philosophy of ‘pragmatism’ and was also at the same time the organisation that inspired terror outfits like Al Qaeda through leaders like Sayyid Qutub is something that will fascinate readers alike. The overweening role of the brotherhood across these countries in either tacitly supporting or overtly domineering particular events becomes clear in the subsequent pages. The downfall of the same led by Mohammad Morsi was equally dramatic as its rise a year ago. At the end, it kept both the army and the people estranged which seems to have painted an image of people ultimately wanting ‘ a moderate Sharia model for social issues and a secular model to guide their personal freedoms. These rapid shift of events in such a short span of time was emblematic of the years of anxiety that was actually symbolised by their Arab Spring slogan of ” Bread, dignity and social justice “.
One of the most intractable conflicts in the Middle East has been between Israel and Palestine. According to the author, the Arabs have failed to really come to terms with the stakes that are involved for them whereas for the Jews, it has all been about survival at any cost. He laments the fact that these two countries, particularly Israel is more often than not understood only through the prism of their conflict and not as independent socio-political entities. The deep fissures between the majority of secular Jews and the ultra orthodox Jews called Haredims along with religious national Jews are dissected with remarkable dexterity to avoid trivializing the entire country as vying for a ruthless Zionist propaganda. The latter minorities happen to be bitter critiques of this political ideology as they fervently believe that it acts as an impediment to effectively realize the religious bliss. What role does religion play in shaping the identity of Jews is increasingly becoming the most pertinent question in Israel. However, this a country that was not directly involved in the Arab Spring and hence the author is perhaps giving it too much importance vis-a`-vis the others that were embroiled in the cascading turmoil. Israel’s staunchest diplomatic partner in the name of the USA has had a more than indirect role to play, more so if one looks at the manner in which it is desperately trying to placate the extremist forces across the region. The fault lines within the American administration are also exposed over here especially between the president and Secretary of State and defence secretaries over the course of time. If the recent mild discord between Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton & the open cold war between Obama and Netanyahu over the question of Iran is anything to go by, it will be interesting to see if it manages to build a cohesion amongst itself in the near future. The rise of the economic might of China in the region and the dangers of flexing of economic muscles by Saudi Arabia and Qatar sans their hitherto American obligations as allies can be a cause of concern for them.
The chapter on Iraq takes back this shaky legacy of an ambiguous, uncertain and incoherent foreign policy of the USA to its abysmal intervention in 2003 on absolutely spurious grounds. The author lays the blame of Iraq’s chaotic present solely on their woeful management on the ground coupled with a wilful ignorance of history. Having had personally covered the invasion of 2003, a systematic link is drawn between the appalling plan of ‘War on terror’ which has led to the current fragmentation of the society. At the same time, nothing original comes across in these pages as the author fails to provide any significant insights apart from the role played by the Great powers. The societal dynamics and changes, as is so well put in the case of Israel, is conspicuous by its absence in the case of Iraq. One argument that remains common in almost all the chapters is about the fate of minorities actually being better before the revolts as compared to the unstable life of the present. The post-revolt bloodshed seems to have made them wary of the possible spill over effects of the Shia-Sunni conflict at large. These type of local conflicts that grip almost the entire society is quite palpable in the case of Libya where the nature of the revolt was ‘absolute’, giving rise to ‘unmanageable small Gadaffi’s’. The country remains a classic case of how a ruthless dictatorship can completely ruin a particular country in terms of its economy. Consequently, the social indicators are in shambles. Taking recourse once more to its historical development, the author stresses on how there were political blunders at regular intervals after the initial one that brought a disparate set of people together with hardly any sense of oneness or belonging to one another. Farcical devolution of power to the people, a superficial shift to Pan-Africanism and African Unity while discarding the Middle eastern ideologies and an over complacency regarding the benefits of the dependency on oil were some of the events that gradually mounted the pressure on Gaddafi.
Following on, in almost a series of increasing delinquency, the author moves to Syria which remains a chapter far from being closed. According to the author, atrocities committed in the civil war by the Assad government will leave a much deeper scar on the Syrian minds than role played by other local militias and even the Islamic State. Staying true to its legacy of profound miscalculations, the anti-Assad group hopelessly failed yet another time to predict Assad’s capacity of sectarianizing the fight. Disparate oppositional groups on the ground which include the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian National Council became emboldened and equally dissipated due to the Great power inaction. The vested interest of the Arab league countries exacerbated the scenario even further. However, Assad managed to acquiesce the angry people with short term measures like that of Pan-Arabism and skilfully played with time by delaying matters in future obscurity, much to the chagrin of the USA. The safeguards provided for minorities in the Syrian parliament since 1970’s also came in handy for his dogged persistence. Throughout the book, the author has quoted many academicians, journalists and even bureaucrats from the side of the interventionist forces to give a glimpse of all viewpoints to the reader. This perfectly jells up with his style of a pacy, journalistic narration backed up by an eye for the details.
Even if the narration style gets a little repetitive, the author commendably weaves a complex narrative that would surely act as more than an authoritative text to decipher future events. He concludes on an optimistic note even in this ocean of pessimism by stating that these Middle eastern countries have shown the willingness to shed their client-nation status. More than anything else, they have managed to keep hold of their greatest gain from the Arab Spring – their voice.
Author – Paul Danahar
Publication – Bloomsbury
Pages – 480
ISBN – 978-1-4088-7017-4
Price – 399
Suraj Kumar Thube is currently pursuing his MA in Political Science from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He is interested in Indian politics and Indian political thought. He spends most of his time reading books, playing football and listening to Hindustani classical music.