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Book Review: The New Middle East

An ambitious attempt to put the Arab Spring in perspective succeeds despite its subject.

Book: The New Middle East: The World after the Arab Spring

Author: Paul Danahar

Publication: Bloomsbury

Pages: 467

Price: Rs 599

The question that might come back to haunt Barack Obama is not whether he did the right thing with the interim nuclear deal with Iran, but whether he did right by the Syrian people.

BBC’s former Middle East bureau chief Paul Danahar’s The New Middle East puts that question in the reader’s head, although it didn’t see the turning of the tide in favour of Bashar al-Assad. Predicting the Middle East is never a wise thing to do, even for one who has lived there and witnessed much of the Arab Spring firsthand. 

Yet, Danahar’s ambitious project to put the Arab Spring in perspective — and understand how what has been happening since Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid on December 17, 2010 will continue to unfold and impact the Middle East and beyond — is recommended reading not only for scholars of the most complex stretch of land and sea on the planet but also for anybody interested in the art of handling a difficult, over-exhausted subject and turning it into lucid and illuminating material. Danahar’s book succeeds despite its subject.

Events have already overtaken the narrative’s timeline and buried in the sand quite a few of his speculations. But if you want to trace the arc of young Arabs from their disempowered ennui verging on despair to the toppling of dictators, some of whom had got a second lease of life thanks to 9/11, this is as good a book as you can put your money on.

A little more than half a year ago, Mohammed Morsi was still Egypt’s president and Iran was losing its grip on the region having invested heavily in Assad and his ally Hezbollah. Now, Morsi is history and Vladimir Putin has rescued the Damascus regime. Messrs Obama and John Kerry have stepped in to alter the dynamic with the Geneva deal for Iran.

But what hasn’t changed, and will not in the near future, is that the Middle East, with the exception of non-Arab Iran and Turkey as well as Israel, still hasn’t defined the idea of the “nation state” for itself.
Among the “certainties of the old Middle East” that have disappeared is the “perverse simplicity” of dealing with dictators of Cold War vintage. Once the buffer against communism and the Ayatollah’s Islamic Revolution, these rulers had enforced a system of lifetime government jobs to buy peace on the street, limit ambition and allow a trickle-down of power for some.

Most importantly, they ensured business as usual. But, like the Arab Spring itself, they didn’t foresee the global recession. The recession broke against the demographic wall — the Arab “youth bulge”. Together, the two wrecked the state, as government after government failed to address the crisis. For a hopeless youth with no future, Bouazizi was the trigger that set off a chain reaction, igniting “the uncontrollable rage of a generation”.

Eschewing reportage and incorporating countless observations from diplomats and academics, Danahar doesn’t offer much that is new. Most of us have been tuned in since Tahrir Square 2011, but his exploration of how god “returned to the Middle East” is the theme holding it together.

The victory of Islamist parties harks back to the Spring’s original faultline — the distance between the urban, secular middle class and the rural poor. For instance, the Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral success — since ousted, chastised and finally banned as a terrorist outfit — is symptomatic of a fracture as irreparable as the Shia-Sunni schism. Unfortunately, the treatment of that wider schism lacks insight, while the chapter on Iraq is disappointing, although Danahar had reported the US army’s march to Baghdad in 2003.

A pleasant surprise instead is the inclusion of Israel in the story and Danahar’s delicate, exacting analysis of how the rise of religious Israelis is changing the country’s identity and erasing its founding principles. God has finally found his way home apparently. It is still too soon to say how far and how deep the Arab Spring will play out. But it is constantly posing the toughest foreign policy question the US has faced: should it stay or get out?

There can be only one of two outcomes — Barack Obama will either be a hero who cut his losses and took America out in the nick of time. Or the president who jettisoned US interests and destroyed the Middle East by leaving it to its fate when he could have sought a new equilibrium or just maintained status quo.

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