Friday 10 January 2014

Arab Spring


Normally I would be very sceptical of picking up a book on the Middle East by a western journalist because often their views tend to be  biased and I guess are designed to cater to their local audience. Not so in the case of Paul Danahar’s insightful book The New Middle East: The world after the Arab spring (Bloomsbury). Paul Danahar was the BBC’s Middle East Bureau Chief from 2010 to 2013 and hence was a witness at close quarters to the startling events which started unfolding in the Middle East starting with Tunisia in January 2011 and then engulfed Egypt, Libya and Syria. Paul devotes a chapter analysing each of these countries, pre and post the people’s revolution and also looks at Iraq, Israel and the American Middle East policy and its implications in details in separate chapters. It is quite evident that the way the dictators of these countries had been brutally suppressing   their own people in the past (Be it Ben Ali of Tunisia or Muammar Gaddafi of Libya) this revolution was waiting to happen and it only need a spark for ignition. The spark   was provided by the death of a fruit seller in Tunisia who immolated himself on 17th December 2010 after being repeatedly harassed by govt officials for bribe. He died on 4 January 2011 and ‘the old Middle East died with him’. The most remarkable thing about the overthrow of the dictator in Tunisia was that it was accomplished without any bloodshed or any external intervention. Alas, the same cannot be said of other countries caught in this awakening. Militia are still calling the shots in Libya, Syria is in the throes of a civil war with mounting causalities and Egypt is again facing a crisis after the recent coup by the Army.

The author traces the history (right from the inception of each of the state) of each country and offers a detailed political and social analysis of their society right upto 2013 including the reasons for the revolutions and what the future holds. As Jason Burke says in the blurb, ‘Anyone interested in the Middle East, its present, past or future, should read this book’.

I particularly found the chapter on Egypt very interesting. Two major forces (The Muslim Brotherhood and the army) have had a strong effect on every aspect of the Egyptian society since long and it is the tussle between these two that will continue to shape the future of Egypt. Both these organisations have been led by some amazing people in the past-Nasser and Sadat for the Army and Al-Banna (founder of Muslim Brotherhood) and Sayyid Qutb (described by some as the intellectual grandfather to Osama Bin Laden and his fellow terrorists’) for the Muslim Brotherhood. Knowing the details about their lives makes for a fascinating read. Muslim Brotherhood came into power in the elections held after Mubarak was forced to resign in 2011.However, after only a year the army is now back in power after a coup and even as I write , both are locked in a bloody duel for power.

Paul is very scathing in his criticism of the US in the chapter dealing with Iraq and rightly so. The country is still paying a heavy price (more than 1 lac Iraqi’s have lost their lives since the war was officially declared over by President Bush) for USA’s inept handling of the post Saddam era (‘The invasion of Iraq was a military success. The occupation of Iraq was a disaster’) which has lead to frequent clashes between the Shia and Sunni communities. The shocking behaviour of the American soldiers at Abu Gharib prison further alienated the Iraqi public. It is however  surprising that  the author makes no mention of his home country, Britain, which blindly (remember how Tony Blair was often referred to as George Bush’s poodle!) went along with all of USA’s disastrous decisions in Iraq. Surely they need to take their part of the blame.

You may find the chapter on Israel a tad lengthy as Paul delves deep into the Israeli society to understand the divisions within the society. However, it is clear that whatever may be the fault lines in the Israeli society, there does not seem to be any solution in sight for the contentious Palestine issue. The Obama administration does not trust the right wing Israeli Prime Minister, Netanyahu and vice-versa. Mahmud Abbas is getting nowhere with his conciliatory approach whereas Hamas, with its aggression, continues to get stronger in the Gaza strip. Also Paul seems to go soft when it comes to highlighting the atrocities committed by Israeli Army against the Palestinians. However, this seems to be a minor hiccup in this otherwise comprehensive book on understanding the recent changes in the Middle East.

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