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Book – The New Middle East

Paul Danahar is not afraid of challenges, and his book The New Middle East probably is the best possible proof of this. In fact, in writing it, the former BBC bureau chief in the region, who has now taken up the same job in Washington, embarked on an almost impossible task: moving away from what he describes as the crumbling ‘certainties of the old Middle East’, in order to draw the outlines of the future balance of powers in the area.

The author identifies the main features of this new political scenario and the most powerful forces operating to shape it from the first pages of the introduction, where he writes: ‘The old Middle East stopped making sense years ago’. It took schoolteachers, farmers and accountants to achieve what generations of diplomats and world leaders failed to do. The creation of a new Middle East. But revolution is a process, not a result. We can see now that this journey is leaving behind the old Socialist ideologies of Baathism and pan-Arabism and those carried by the founders of Zionism. There is a stronger Sunni, and a weaker Shia, Islam. There is a growing religious divide in Israel. The regional powers are now more strongly divided along sectarian lines. Christians and other minorities wonder if they still have a safe place in the new societies being formed. Religion, not nationalism or Arabism, is now the dominant forceî. Also the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is seen as an increasingly less relevant issue in this framework.

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Despite being the work of a senior reporter and including some glimpses of life and interviews with common people, The New Middle East takes the form of an essay, where the analysis of academics, senior politicians and military figures are the main drivers of the author’s reflections. In his effort to give the reader the broadest possible picture of what is happening, Danahar also goes back in time, when he thinks it is necessary for a better understanding of the current events: in his discussion of Egypt, for example, he retraces the history of the Muslim Brotherhood movement back to its founder Hasan al-Banna and to the ideologue Sayyid Qutb. Such digressions, in the majority of cases, prove to be useful, but some others (as happens when coming to the differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims) seem to be aimed at a more ordinary public than the one that will likely read the book.

In order to develop his thesis, in fact, the author needs more than 400 pages, in the course of which he even goes beyond the boundaries of the states that were involved in the so called ‘Arab spring revolts’: the attention given to Tunisia is limited, and Bahrain and Yemen are barely mentioned. Instead – in addition to Libya, Syria and Egypt, to which he dedicates a chapter each – Danahar covers countries such as Iraq and Israel, and the Palestinian territories, too. A major interest of his is also US policy in the region (more specifically analyzed in the fifth chapter, ‘America’s pillars of sand’) which, actually, is one of the interpretive keys that allow the author to confirm his premisses. Throughout the pages of the book, the US are by far the most quoted country, among those not belonging to the region: neither Russia, nor England and France, despite – respectively – Moscowís geopolitical interests in the area and London and Paris’s roles in the history of the Middle East are given as much attention.

According to Danahar, the US attitude towards authoritarian regimes like the Egyptian one in the past decades, helped to shape the old Middle East, and the behavior of the two presidents, Bush and Obama, is likely do the same for the new one: ‘George W. Bush led America into Iraq without a plan. Barack Obama kept America out of Syria without a plan. The Obama administration made a mistake in allowing the untried and undemocratic Gulf states to run the show at the beginning. The opportunity to stop the descent into bloodlust had been lost’, the afterword reads.

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Religion is another category Danahar frequently recurs to, because in his opinion, ‘God has returned to the Middle East. Religious belief is taken into account in examining both the situation in Israel, whose society is increasingly ‘split along ultra-Orthodox, religious Zionist and secular lines’, and the sectarian strife between Sunni and Shia Muslims, which is particularly evident in Syria. Despite the fact that, as he also writes ìmen shaped the lines of the old Middle Eastî but ‘God will draw the new ones’, Danahar thinks that this will not be an obstacle for democracy to consolidate in the region. He clearly challenges the still oft-quoted idea according to which Israel is the only democratic government in the area, saying – in short – that the new Arab democracies of the Middle East might not be perfect at this stage, but a few have undoubtedly been established.

Actually, some might challenge this reconstruction on the basis of what happened since the book was printed, especially Mohammed Morsiís ousting in Egypt. Indeed, the author is well aware of the complexity of the themes he is dealing with and does not pretend that his conclusions can be considered valid once and for all; in the end, however, one must admit that The New Middle East, at least in some parts, falls short on the promise made by its title, due to the still undefined nature of the events it aims to describe.

(D.M.)

Paul Danahar, The New Middle East: the World After the Arab Spring, 2014, Bloomsbury 480pp.

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