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January 31, 2014

The spring of discontent

The New Middle East is a wonderful book for someone who wants to understand the larger picture of the Arab Uprisings but leaves those who want further explication, dissatisfied. 

The new middle east

When the first revolt in the Middle East took place in Tunisia in 2011, its ripples were felt across in other Arab countries. The world watched intrigued as an old order was giving way to the new. The simultaneous uprisings that took place in other countries were looked at as the ‘Spring’ promising to change the face of the Arab countries, ringing in democracy and toppling the old orders of dictatorship. But soon after, its ramifications in each nation became evident. Paul Danahar’s The New Middle East: The World After the Arab Spring sets up an ambitious agenda to give a panoramic view of the Arab uprisings. It attempts to delve into the impact of the revolutions in specific countries and look at the new structures of power and the changes in the religious narratives of the Arab world. It also looks into the role of the West and the future of the entire region, after these uprisings.

Danahar takes the reader through each country affected by the Arab Uprisings and tries to portray the context of the revolutions within them. He says “By examining what made each uprising distinct, and how the societies differed in their religious and political make-up, we can see why each country has since taken a different path after the Big Bang of the revolt.” One important (and obvious) observation made is how before the uprisings, the dictators ruled their country by dividing the people. But the Arab revolts have breathed new life into the schisms within Islam- with the Sunni and Shias facing off against each other in the most volatile areas of the region. Even the Sunni powers seem divided in many areas with competing ideologies and old rivalries. According to Danahar, the resurgence of religion and Islamists is evident and the new power structures that are being built have strong foundations in faith.

The New Middle East looks into why the revolutions happened in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria and Yemen. It concludes that the common point shared was that each of these countries had an unpopular and dictatorial ruler who was able to unite the opposition because, as fractious as these oppositions were, they all had the common cause of ousting their dictator from power. It also looks at why the revolutions did not take place in the other countries. In Bahrain, Morocco and Jordan, the protests were successfully defused because these nations were monarchies. Algeria and the Gulf States had completely different reasons for not having their own versions of the revolutions. Algerians, given their political history, were exhausted of bloodshed and revolutions and hence only watched the uprisings unfold “from their TV screens” seeing the potential of another appalling bloodshed. In the Gulf nations “oil money is sloshed around society at the slightest hint of dissent to try to co-opt the vast majority of the people into a docile acceptance of the status quo.”

As the book progresses, Danahar explores the issues of each of the countries where the revolutions took place. The chapter on Egypt gives an excellent reading of the Muslim Brotherhood, the key players involved and their intrinsic contribution in shaping the country’s politics. It looks at the dichotomies between the present and the past and the evolution of how the Egyptians viewed freedom, revolution and democracy, giving a good analysis of the present situation in the country. His details of the nature of power in Gaddafi’s Libya, the reasons for the revolution in the country and the involvement of the Western nations and NATO, are nuanced. The chapter on Iraq and the American involvement are important but often repetitive. The chaotic American handling of Iraq has been discussed over and many of the points raised are perfunctory. Danahar looks at the Israel-Palestine issue and says that the struggle of the Palestinians is something with which “the Western world is now largely bored”.

Danahar states that the Arab uprisings have presented Israel with its greatest political challenge for a generation as the “rise of political Islam in the Middle East has ended for Israel the era of the cosy deal stitched up in smoky rooms with generals from Arab dictatorship”. The chapter stitches in the problems of Israel and its politics but tends to get caught up in the telling and borders on the superfluous. The last chapter of the book, “Syria: The Arab World’s Broken Heart” is a sincere attempt to explicate the difficulties of finding a solution to the shambolic reality in Syria. The only drawback is that it places the onus on American shoulders. It would have been interesting, if the book touched deeper upon other Middle Eastern countries, Turkey, Russia and China and their role in how the situation has panned out for Syria’s present and the future.

The main drawbacks of The New Middle East are that at times, it tends to be too simplistic and obvious. While it gives the entire picture, it often fails to explore the intricacies of the revolutions, the details of the political upswing and the contention between the players and their interests. For example, the history and the complexity of the Sunni-Shia schism is mildly explained. Given that the book frequently touches upon this, a detailed explanation would have strengthened the narrative and only added depth to the analysis of each of the countries. Danahar’s point that the revolutions have strengthened the Sunni Islam and weakened the Shia Islam is a generalisation, especially given the pliability of Assad in Syria and the support he received from Iran and the Hezbollah. His dramatic statement “God has returned to the Middle East” after the Arab revolution is slightly misplaced. If anyone so much so as scratched the surface of the politics of the Middle East, they would ask, Did God, (or an illusion of God created by sanctimonious leaders) ever leave the Middle East?

The way the book looks at the role of the West is sometimes contradictory. At times, Danahar slips into the role of a critic, berating the Western nations for their Realism and self-interest in not getting too involved in the present discourse in the Middle East, while at others he seems to berate their involvements in the past. When talking about the American involvement in Iraq, Danahar criticises its nature and approach. However while talking about Syria, he advocates for American intervention. At times the books comes across as too optimistic. Agreed that the Middle East and the world at large have changed after the Arab Uprisings but this is an evident fact. While the establishment of democracy is a positive for the Arab world, the reader often feels that the book maybe underplays the resonating impact of the nature of these new political structures.

The weakness and the strength of a book of this nature, written by a journalist, is that it often goes into a generic context with too many anecdotal experiences layering the opinions. Whether Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East or Thomas Friedman’s Beirut to Jerusalem, it is often hard to categorise such books under serious research or simplistic non-fiction. The New Middle East also faces this problem, however Danahar just about manages to balance between the scholarly and the generic. Having been the Middle East bureau chief for the BBC between 2010 and 2013, Danahar does layer many of his opinions and analysis with an effortless authority of anecdotes and experiences. He also weaves this with the commentaries by different scholars, thinkers and bureaucrats and merges it with slight academic research.

The New Middle East has little new to offer in terms of deep and new insights or analysis. But its strength is that the narrative meanders in a structured manner and gives a good account of the historical, political, economic, religious and cultural contexts of the revolutions and the impact of this on the citizens who came onto the streets. It is a wonderful book and an effortless read for someone who wants to look at the larger picture of the Arab revolutions, the thematic overplays and the future possibilities. But it leaves someone, who wants more meat and explication, dissatisfied.


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