Philippa Thomas Online

Occasional thoughts about life, books and news.

“The New Middle East” – an eyewitness account.

Leave a comment

Trying to take the long view on the fallout from the Arab Uprisings?  Here’s my holiday reading.  Paul Danahar’s “The New Middle East”  uncovers the forces behind the turbulence – religious, economic, historic.  

It also reads in part like a geopolitical thriller because, for much of the time, he was there  – in Tahrir Square with the revolutionaries; in Libya talking to Gaddafi and then seeing the dictator’s brutalized body; witnessing the horror, hatred and hunger that’s destroying Syria.

 He gets one thing wrong right away – courtesy of a publication date in summer 2013.

In Egypt, he writes, “the long war between the Brotherhood and the army is over”.  “The army is now watching from the sidelines as the Brotherhood wrestles with the problems of governance. These are issues the military men are glad they have now left behind.”  There’s been another tough turn of the screw since then.
But even looking at Egypt some months on – after the army has stepped back into the arena and banished the Brotherhood from the field of play –  I’m still struck by @pdanahar’s gripping eyewitness reporting, the way he layers on different perspectives, and continually stands back to give us the bigger picture.
308 pages after assuming the Muslim Brotherhood is here to stay, here are his closing thoughts on the country’s democratic potential:
“The Muslim Brotherhood has looked at Turkey as a model. A more realistic one is India. India has the same sectarian divide, the same disastrous infrastructure, a bloated corrupt bureaucracy and huge tracts of poverty. Like Egypt’s, India’s political establishment, with a few notable exceptions, is divided, self-serving and incompetent. But also, 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. The crucial thing for Egypt’s success is to make sure that its army acts like the Indian one, by being subservient to the state, rather than the one across India’s border with Pakistan.”
As he notes elsewhere, the Brotherhood is good at playing the long game. This is the chapter whose facts on the ground are changing most dramatically – and could continue to do so.
Will enough Egyptians continue to believe that “the people and the army are one hand”? – or at least, the least worst alternative?
**************
It may depend what happens across their borders. And the beauty of this book lies in the way it pieces the jigsaw together.   As he recounts the battles of the Arab Spring, Danahar reminds us how much has been shaped by the First World War : in particular, the Sykes-Picot agreement that divided the spoils after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire.  The backroom deal engineered between Britain and France in 1916 coloured the map of the region into blue bits for France, red bits for Britain, and a brown bit, Palestine, where would “be established an international administration”.
And so arose Syria, a French mandate with no natural stability and precious little to unite its people, who suffered coup upon coup, and then decades of repression. “The French, like other European colonialists, wanted to use the downtrodden minorities as their tools to manage the majority. In Syria this meant the Alawites”.
Danahar highlights one key turning point in the battle to topple President Assad:
“The contest for Aleppo was a disaster for the Syrian opposition. They fought a totally uncoordinated battle that did as much damage to their credibility as it did to the city. Many of the fighters came from the surrounding rural areas and not from the city itself. They saw Aleppo as a prize to capture, not to protect”. A last straw?  “Some of the fighters from the Free Syrian Army decided to rob the city. They stole Aleppo’s flour supplies for themselves.”
Writing in the middle of 2013, Danahar believed the opportunity to stop the bloodshed in Syria’s new civil war had already passed.
“There can now only be a policy of containment. The warring sides will have to exhaust themselves into a solution”.
Perhaps, he speculates, the least bloody, most diplomatically acceptable outcome will be an Alawite rump state in the west of Syria. That will mean the Russians can keep their warm water naval facility in Tartus, the Iranians can continue to run guns to Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Assad can keep his head, while Lebanon will escape the unbelievable strain of absorbing a rush of  Alawite refugees fleeing inevitable reprisals.
******
The author – now the BBC’s bureau chief in Washington – is scathing about the feeble response of the Obama administration in Syria – but he can see quite clearly why the politician who rose to national fame as a critic of the Iraq war is simply not going to wade into this one.
The memories of mismanagement in Iraq cast a long shadow.  I’m making these notes just as the US Secretary of State John Kerry warns there’ll be no American boots on the ground to help Iraq’s new government cast Al Qaeda out of Fallujah.  Danahar – who once again was there to see Saddam and his statue brought down – notes the total absence of any cultural understanding of Iraqi society in the wake of “shock and awe”.  As he describes Donald Rumsfeld’s strategy to crush the dictator and be out in time for tea, he notes:
“It was like climbing Mount Everest with just enough oxygen to reach the top”.
And though this may now seem obvious to us all, at the time it was obvious to nobody in Washington, including reporters like myself covering “shock and awe” and its aftermath for 24/7 TV news:
“The US administration made a fundamental misjudgment: being anti-Saddam did not mean you were pro-America”.
The Americans failed to understand, he writes, that colonial rule was still within living memory in Iraq.   It’s the very long shadow of 1917 again, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, when British occupying forces faced down their own insurgency in Iraq by methods including the use of poison gas and the bombing of civilians from the air.
“ ‘Iraq’ was a British invention formed out of three thoroughly disparate provinces of the Ottoman Empire: Baghdad, Basra and Mosul. They had nothing in common apart from, eventually, a loathing of the British. The Kurds in Mosul hated being ruled by Sunnis in Baghdad as much as the Shias in Basra in the south did. Iraq is an artificial construct, which has only ever been held together by force.”
**********
So what of Libya?  It began as another artificial construct, formed yet again by the colonial tussle over Ottoman spoils.
The French had already taken Tunisia, so the Italians seized Libya and in their turn rather brutally reshaped the reality on the ground to meet the demands of twentieth century cartographers.  King Idris declared his country independent in 1951 and then cancelled the only multi party elections his country had ever scheduled. And then came Gaddafi.
Danahar’s book recounts with great flair the unbelievable grip that one man exerted for 42 years. He also paints a vivid picture of the “Year Zero” society that follows the distortions of the Gaddafi years. Libya is a place in which there are many educated engineers and doctors, but middle class oil-rich Libyans just don’t believe in manual labour.
Here’s the farcical exchange between the journalist and his driver after the fall of Tripoli:
‘Why is the rubbish piling up?’ I asked my driver, Farid Ali.
‘Because all the African people have run away’, he said.
‘But if Libyan people don’t clean up the rubbish, who else is going to do it?’ I asked.
‘They are lazy, they are waiting for someone to come and clean.’
  ‘But that has to change doesn’t it?’
‘Yes,’ he said seriously, ‘they are bringing Filipinos.’
Will Libya hold together? Although he traces back to pre-colonial times the fundamental tensions between Tripoli in the west, and Benghazi in the east, Danahar also outlines Libya’s many advantages.
“Unlike Syria, it is a largely homogenous population of Sunni Muslims. Unlike Egypt its population is tiny and literate. Unlike Tunisia it has huge oil reserves. Unlike Iraq its oil industry survived the civil war largely intact… Crucially it has no inherent strategic value to the wider world, and so it should be spared the buffeting winds of geopolitical gamesmanship.”
Some outsiders are still in the game.  Danahar recalls his surreal interview with Gaddafi, in a seaside restaurant in downtown Tripoli, where Libya’s soon to be ex-leader moaned, “It’s Al Qaeda. It’s not my people. They came from outside.”  To which the author adds, “They did come from outside, but it wasn’t Al Qaeda, it was Qatar”.  But he draws the firm conclusion that “Libyans want to determine their own destiny.”
**********
Who will be the new powers in the New Middle East?  There’s a fascinating chapter on the blurring – and waning – of American influence.  The BBC’s new Washington bureau chief seems to believe Washington doesn’t yet have a coherent policy in his old stamping ground.  And it’s interesting that he quotes a veteran Washington pundit saying “Hillary was and is skeptical of taking on issues that look like they are likely to fail.”  What’s emerging above all is pragmatism – protecting core U.S. interests. The “vision thing” is absent.
Will China fill the gap? Danahar asks Zhu Weili, the director of Middle East Studies at Shanghai International University who points out that for the first time, parts of the Arab world are a level playing field for China.  China has cash. And the Chinese leadership doesn’t have Congress or an electorate to hold it back in the pursuit of national economic – and thus – diplomatic interests.
I’d have liked to read more on China, and much more on the politics of the GCC – but we do get a keen sense of the ambitions and fears of the Saudis and Qataris as they seek to turn the new Arab world to their advantage. Throughout the book, there’s a constant awareness of the bigger balancing act between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and of the way these regional power players stoke the fundamental tensions between Sunni and Shia Islam. And Danahar warns of more turbulence to come.
“The Gulf countries have been driving policy since the secular dictatorships began to collapse. It’s hard to see how that can last… Money has bought them time, nothing more… The Arab monarchies are now scared of their people. They should be.”
Is that the next chapter?

Author: philippathomas

I've been a BBC newswoman for 28 years: reporting from around the world. Currently to be seen anchoring BBC World News TV. Main interests - politics, diplomacy, tech, media, arts and all things American. I began this personal blog as a 2011 Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard. You can also find me talking daily news on Twitter at @PhilippaBBC, and sharing anything from travel photos to my year in books on Instagram at @philippanews. Thanks for reading!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s