May 15, 2015

The New Middle East—Old Feuds

God has returned to the Middle East, believes Paul Danahar.

According to Paul Danahar, things were simple in the “old” Middle East: when there were problems, Washington would call either Israel, the Egyptians, the Saudis or all three at once and let them settle things. The situation was changed in 2010 by the events starting in Tunisia which were collectively named as the Arab Spring. The main cause mentioned of these events is usually an explosive and hazardous cocktail of economics and demographics: a large number of unemployed young men with no prospects in a society where money and power was in the hands of a small group who had created a vast security apparatus to protect themselves. Danahar does not deny these factors, but an explanation based solely on economic inequality does not satisfy him. He thinks that God has returned to the Middle East. Pan-Arabism and Ba’athism as political movements have receded into the background and religion has become the new dominant player. Arabs did not come onto the streets to escape dictatorship only to fall under Sharia law but, at the same time, Islamic values provide the only stability in the lives of many of those who fought on the barricades. Conflicts within religions are becoming increasingly more relevant; for example, Sunni Muslims versus the Shia or Orthodox Jews versus secular.
Danahar dedicates a separate chapter to every country of greater importance—Egypt, Syria, Libya, Iraq, Israel—but sound background knowledge permits generalisation. Thus, the author presents his overview of the contemporary history of Egypt through the prism of the Muslim Brotherhood, to which he refers as one of the most important movements of the 20th century in the whole world. Danahar claims that several members of the Muslim Brotherhood belong to the educated middle class and that the movement’s attitude towards alcohol, marriage and related issues is no more radical than the views of conservative Christians in the US—let this comparison stay on his conscience. One might agree or disagree with Danahar’s judgements, but breaking down the development of the Muslim Brotherhood allows the reader to understand the general trends of both the events of 2011–14 in Egypt and the Arab Spring as a whole. In June 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood gained power democratically for the first time, but it became clear within a year that the movement was incapable of executing power in practical terms after all. This is a pattern that, with some variations, also appeared in other Arab countries that took part in the revolution.
The history and contemporary situation of Libya is relatively little known to northern Europeans and this country has largely become fixed in the consciousness of many as the humble shadow of the colourful dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Danahar remarks: “I was looking at the middle class at war. The fighters were businessmen, students, shopkeepers, farmers.” Here lies the difference between Libya and the other revolutions of the Arab Spring: it was an absolute revolution against the Libya Gaddafi had created, but no one knew exactly what the revolution preferred. This is why killing the dictator did not end the war: “When a man does not know what he is fighting for, then how should he know when the war is over?” asks Danahar rhetorically.
Today’s Libya comprises three historically clearly distinguishable regions: the most powerful was Tripolitania in the west, while Cyrenaica, bordering Egypt, was situated in the east and the third region—Fezzan, settled by the Berbers—was part of the Sahara Desert. The revolution that broke out in Benghazi in February 2011 brought the old divisions to the fore again. In the summer of 2011, Danahar witnessed how the rebels based in Benghazi in the east fought determinedly as far as the border of their historical province—Cyrenaica. But they lacked a serious will to push on to what had once been Tripolitania and get to Tripoli: the part of Libya that they perceived as their homeland had been freed, after all. The cities of Libya were thus largely left under the authority of local armed forces, and the resulting mistrust towards the central administration still lingers.
Danahar is optimistic about the future of Libya: the country is relatively small—5,000,000 inhabitants—and has the world’s tenth-largest oil reserves; people are literate and the middle class is strong; unlike Syria, the population is homogeneous and composed mainly of Sunni Muslims. “Libya could function,” thinks Danahar. The events of the last six months have unfortunately not confirmed this opinion so far.
The bloodiest chapter of the Arab Spring is definitely Syria. The population mainly comprises Sunni Muslims, distinct tribes of Shia Muslims and a smaller Christian community; about one sixth of the population is Kurdish. President Assad cunningly took advantage of this faction in order to split the opposition, and civil war broke out.
The non-interference of the West in Syria is one of the most commented topics of the Arab Spring; the US has been accused of thereby “betraying” the entire Islamic world, and Danahar tends to agree with these accusing voices. Why did no one get involved, even though the suffering of civilians exceeded every “red line” imaginable? Danahar believes that the reasons were both the long, hard US military operation in Iraq and the NATO air raid in Libya in 2011. The latter took place on the basis of a UN Security Council mandate and was assessed, at least at first, to be a successful campaign in preventing mass casualties amongst civilians. But a political solution did not follow in the now-divided Libya; the decisiveness of NATO did, however, elicit a painful reaction from Russia and China. According to Danahar, the experience with Iraq and Libya were “far too eagerly learnt from” and, when the massacre of civilians in Syria began in early 2012, the West no longer possessed the necessary determination to react. Assad was allowed to bring Syrian society to a point where reconciliation was no longer possible.
Danahar claims that the West has always been prejudiced against the Arab world and that the region is simply not understood. The only country that the West thought it knew was Israel. “Why does the country that likes to boast it is the ‘only democracy in the Middle East’ think the Arab Spring was a catastrophe? Why has the bit of the religion we thought was the most like us stopped thinking like us?” asks Danahar. The West certainly knew the stratification of Israel that was and is part of European high culture; the West may also have known the part which originates from the Central European shtetl and the “Let-my-people-go!” period in the Soviet Union. But the Israel of the Sephardi Jews who relocated there from Islamic countries is no longer that familiar to the West. It is not a European country, it is a Middle Eastern country. Danahar explains Israel’s distrust of the Arab Spring largely by the fact that the country is split between Orthodox Jews and the seculars and that the idea of Zionism as such no longer convinces the Israelis themselves.
Indeed, the Orthodox Jews no longer associate themselves with the modern State of Israel. This topic is not usually included in analysis of the conflict in the Middle East; tourist groups do not go to the Orthodox Jewish Mea She’arim quarter in Jerusalem, and in order to experience the local atmosphere, suitable attire must be worn and one should explore it alone. Danahar’s description is therefore fascinating in a cultural sense, but it tends to overplay the role of Israel’s inner conflict. It seems to be more important that the security situation in Israel became unfavourable with the outbreak of civil war in Syria. Before the Arab Spring, Israel had to curb the sporadic missile attacks of Hamas and Hezbollah, which were in reality more of a headache than a mortal danger to the powerful Israeli army. The Syrian and Egyptian borders were peaceful, and the Iron Dome missile system provided security against the Qassam rockets. But now, the changes have brought radical Islamists right to the state border. It is true that Israel shares a common enemy—Iran—with the strong stability-craving Sunni countries such as Saudi Arabia, and, paradoxically, this creates some common interests with them. This is not, however, a partnership to be counted on, but rather a poker game skilfully taking advantage of favourable positions. A new state of affairs in a region without a strong ally is uncomfortable and dangerous for Jerusalem.
Danahar does not even try to hide his critical attitude towards Western policy in the Middle East; he is especially merciless towards the US. “Not only does America not understand the rules of the game, it can’t work out what winning might look like. So it is just roaming around the table looking at everyone else’s hand, offering advice on which card to play, but because it has no stake in the game nobody is really listening.” This passage creates a fine enough image, but it tends to remain only a literary pleasure. Danahar writes that, even though President Obama emphasised the importance of the Middle East when he assumed office, the US was later unable to handle the Muslim Brotherhood’s accession to power through elections or to manage the increasing influence of the Salafists. Danahar’s choice of words betrays that it is also difficult for the author himself to see a subject in the Arab countries, and he continually treats them as the objects of Western politics. This is exactly the kind of attitude of which he irreconcilably accuses the West. For example, he quotes from the memos of the US Embassy in Tunis on the topic of cultural events; the selected pieces leave an impression that the Americans could not tell the difference between a piano and a machine gun and were expecting something similar to a singing revolution to break out. These passages are not the strongest in the book and make it uneven.
Danahar also slightly lifts the lid on Pandora’s box, launching into a debate about state borders and their preservation or modification. Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Libya and some other countries in the region have not yet been in existence for a century as independent states. Conflict was already programmed into many of them at birth, since power was claimed by an ethnic or religious minority and this created tensions in the displaced majority. Questions such as whether the collapse of such countries could be a necessary “correction” and bring more peace to the world are still not willingly discussed in the various Middle East-themed forums. Here too, Danahar emphasises the dominant power of religion: “Men drew the lines that formed the Old Middle East. God will shape the new one.”
As I recall, the Arab Spring brought terms like “Facebook Revolution” and “Twitter Revolution” into use. Danahar does not possess a measuring device for assessing to what extent the social media networks contributed to the fall of dictators. The Western media probably tended to magnify their role rather than diminish it. Many Westerners probably harboured a vision of the New Middle East, with all its recent exotic delight, and governed by young liberals who would mutually tweet with their colleagues from the Old World. It did not turn out so well after all. The Internet and the social media networks certainly had a crucial influence on what happened immediately after the regimes were overthrown, and Danahar dedicates a lot of attention to this. The power shift in countries with vast security structures became possible due to the lack of leaders of the revolution, or because the unofficial leaders—in their Internet anonymity—were out of reach to law-enforcement officials. It turned out that, immediately after the ecstasy of victory wore off, these elusive and unidentified leaders were unable to organise their followers quickly enough. This might have helped the “old-schoolers”, Islamic fundamentalists who had gone through fire, water and prison to seize power. But it could have also created a bloody chaos.
Paul Danahar, who has shaped the BBC newsfeed about the Middle East for a decade, ends his book certain that the Arab world has marked itself with considerably deeper lines on the world map in recent years. He does not undertake the thankless task of describing future scenarios. This has been tried by many authors, but the facts of this region are usually far more interesting than the prognoses. So I rather look forward to Danahar’s new 2015 book with additions about the way developments in the Middle East have been influenced by the conflict in Yemen and the military involvement of Saudi Arabia there, the prospective Iranian nuclear deal, or the Israeli elections. They have certainly had some effect.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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