How the Arab Spring, mostly led by common people, has irreversibly changed the Middle East
The Arab Spring has irreversibly changed the Middle East. Paul Danahar is sanguine that “democracy has arrived in the Middle East” and there will be no return to dictatorships. But democracy here will take unique forms that may differ drastically from the western mould. The dominant force of the new Middle East, he asserts, is religion and, though not antithetical to democracy, societies of the region will struggle to come to agreement on the role and reach of religion in their lives.
Reporting for BBC during the invasion of Iraq and later as BBC’s Middle East Bureau Chief, Danahar’s first-hand experience of events surrounding the Arab Spring is unsurpassed. From witnessing the decapitation of Saddam Hussain’s statue and taking rock hits on his hardhat in Tahrir Square, to dodging Libyan bullets in the merciless trenches of Misrata and recoiling at the horrors in Gaza, Danahar combines gripping reportage with sound research and analysis. Scores of interviews with political and religious leaders, scholars, diplomats and, importantly, with common folk at the heart of the uprisings, add grist to his exploration of the New Middle East.
The problem with writing a book like this one is the absence of closure. The New Middle East is very much a work in progress with events unfolding by the day. Since its publication, the military is back in the saddle in Cairo and attempting to push through a self-serving constitution; elections in Iran reflect a tilt towards moderation and a willingness to engage with the West to loosen the siege; warring Syrian factions are attempting to negotiate and international teams have been tasked with rooting out chemical weapons. These are huge developments that can play out in a variety of scenarios.
Danahar’s assertion of “a stronger Sunni and a weaker Shia” presence may prove mistaken in the long term; Gulf monarchies may increasingly find their wealth alone insufficient to suppress internal dissent and may go the way of the dictatorships. To Danahar’s credit, his conclusions nonetheless remain relevant, and his book is an important reference point in understanding the upheavals that the Middle East will undergo for several years yet.
Stoked by aspirations of youth — who comprise roughly half the population of most of the countries of the region — the uprisings shaping ‘the new Middle East’ were led by common people largely unburdened by ideologies. Afflicted with endemic corruption and massive unemployment, iron-handed repression and lack of choices and outlets for youthful energy, Middle East societies were ticking bombs that Arab dictators had neither the sensitivity nor imagination to defuse. Al Jazeera and the internet brought the world into Arab homes and if the label “Facebook Revolution” is apt, it is because the feared security apparatus of the state was not equipped to deal with social media. The revolutionaries craved dignity, freedoms and opportunities that the old regime had no means of satisfying.
For decades Arab dictators had smugly asserted: “Islamist extremists or me.” To safeguard their oil supplies, Western governments conveniently chose to believe this. Ignoring the Arab people’s yearning for democracy, promotion of democratic values in the region was not seen as worth upsetting the status quo.
It was George W. Bush, in the aftermath of 9/11, who championed democratisation of the Arab world. His ‘Freedom Agenda’ called for free elections, but wished to select the winner too. This has been the hallmark of the West’s approach to the Arab uprisings: reluctance to accept the people’s verdict if it did not suit the given template. Danahar feels that as a result of years of mishandling the Middle East, the U.S. faces a greater challenge there than during the Cold War; but he senses that the U.S. is inclined to retreat. As shale gas exploitation in the U.S. brings oil self-sufficiency, of the three traditional pillars — Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia — of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, only the first will stay critical.
Like the rest of the region, Israel too has changed radically. God and the role of religion in society and politics lie at the heart of Israel’s existential debate. Ultra-orthodox Jews, like Salafists in neighbouring countries, are increasingly assertive in the political space. Israeli attitudes towards Palestine have hardened in reaction to Muslim Brotherhood support for Hamas and the growing influence of Salafists across their borders. Describing Gaza as “one of the most depressing places to be on earth”, Danahar is repelled by Israeli policy in Gaza that is calibrated to keep the population barely above malnutrition.
Of all the Arab Spring uprisings, Danahar says “the Libyan revolution was unique….. for its totality”. Although the sight of “small Gaddafis” roaming with guns slung like guitars is disconcerting, the revolution was primarily directed at ‘Gaddafi’s Libya’ which was successfully obliterated. Libya looks like being able to survive its fractiousness. That, however, cannot be said of Syria where Assad’s savage violence continues unabated and sectarian fragmentation is deepening. Western resistance to intervention and President Obama’s “betrayal” of the beleaguered Syrian opposition has accentuated the Shia-Sunni divide.
The U.S. bungling in post-invasion Iraq — of which Danahar provides an ironic account — tipped the balance toward Iran and allowed the Shia to extend their influence across the region, which the Saudis are determined to curtail. While Shias and Sunnis tear Iraq and Syria apart, the U.N. says the conflict there has produced the greatest humanitarian crisis the institution has had to tackle. As societies of the region grapple with issues of religion and politics, hopefully the Middle Eastern flux will eventually point the way to new and lasting solutions.
Searching for models to emulate, Danahar suggests India as a realistic one for the new Egypt: “like Egypt, India is a democracy with a huge, ambitious, educated middle class that believes its nation’s manifest destiny is to be great again. India works despite its politicians. Egypt is going to have to learn to do the same….[and crucially]….to make sure that its army acts like the Indian one, by being subservient to the state, rather than [like] the one across India’s border”.