This book review of Paul Danahar’s The New Middle East: The World After the Arab Spring was first published in Pragati- The Indian National Interest Review on January 31st, 2014.
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.
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.
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.”
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 entire piece can be read here.