The Middle East: New Order or Disorder?

cover image

By: Mohammed Aman
Mary Jo Aman , Editor

Publisher: Westphalia Press

Washington, DC: Westphalia Press, 2016. 476pp. $18.95. ISBN: 978-1633912847

Volume: 4 Issue: 12

December 2016

Review by:

Marwa Fikry Abdel Samei, PhD

Cairo University

Cairo, Egypt

Six years after the first spark of the Arab uprisings, the region’s future cannot be any more uncertain. With the possible exception of Tunisia, post-revolutionary Arab countries have failed in democratization, to either plunge in civil wars, or incredibly retrograde to authoritarianism. Aman and Aman’s The Middle East: New Order or Disorder? addresses the “varied political, social issues and security issues facing the countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and the deteriorating conditions that these countries are presently facing” (p. xi). The book is a collection of twenty chapters (most of which originally published as articles in either Digest of Middle East Studies (DOMES) or the annual Middle East Dialogue (MED) that examines the various aspects of the region’s dilemmas.

The volume exposes the different sets of challenge to stability and security in the region and the various regional ramifications of the revolutionary wave. The chapters present various aspects of the religious, historical, and political context of the Arab uprisings, as well as diverse approaches to how to conceptualize the unfolding of events, including case studies to cross regional focus. Although the book is not subdivided into sections based on common themes, readers can easily group particular chapters together. The following review does not follow the order of the chapters in the book; neither does it cover all of them. However, it clusters number of chapters together which share either a common theme or a common perspective.

Some chapters are case-oriented. For example, a chapter by M. S. Catino’s suggests that the failure of the “green movement” was due to regime’s capabilities that went beyond “brutal crackdown” (p. 2), reflected in “cohesive institutional backing of the state, comprehensive operational skills, mass tactical ground support and ideological strength … which effectively mobilized large segments of Iran’s population against the reformers” (p.2). Whereas the regime’s capabilities subverted the protest movement in Iran and maintained stability, Brandt Smith sheds light on how the lack of qualified leadership that satisfies the expectations of the citizens in Iraq lies at the heart of instability in the country. He argues that anarchy and chaos will continue to plague Iraq unless changes take place on the leadership level. Related to the instability issue comes the language policy in Sudan as discussed by Abderrahman Zouhir. By examining the complexity, arbitrariness and fluctuation of the Sudanese language policy in its historical, political and educational contexts, Zouhir argues that Arabization provoked identity conflict crystallizing in the separation of South Sudan.

In contrast to this salient focus on instability and protest, Yaghi and Boateng’s chapter sheds lights on the factors affecting UAE voters’ preferences in the elections of federal national councils. According to their survey results, the religious, political, and personal appearance did not play a significant role in voters’ decision. It was candidates’ personal characteristics, campaigns and patron-client networks that played the major role in the vote. Noureddine Miladi investigates the impact of social media with regard to political campaigning and social empowerment. Drawing on examples of social media networks in Tunisia and Egypt, he argues that online spheres mark the emergence of virtual vibrant space, particularly for the youth and the marginalized.

The political earthquake that hit some Arab countries has shaken other regional grounds too. Another group of chapters provide a regional and/or sub-regional perspective with regard to the impact of, and the reaction to, the revolutionary wave. Binhuwaidin discusses the “essential threats to the security of the GCC countries in the post-Arab Spring era”. In his view, the Arab Spring has produced three main threats to the GCC countries: political liberal ideas, political Islamic movements, and sectarianism. Preserving the conservative structure of the political systems of these countries, he argues, is necessary to maintaining peace and security.

While Binhuwaidin emphasizes preserving the status-quo, Sidik and Boundel investigate the political outcomes of the Arab Spring in terms of reform in the Maghreb. By focusing on Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, the authors show how these countries embarked on reform initiatives as a first reaction to the protest tide in the region, although the significance and sustainability of these initiatives have differed from one case to the other. Olmert, for his part, assesses the Israeli attitudes towards the Arab Spring and the implications of Israeli elections on its regional policies and evaluates the challenges and opportunities facing Israel in the new Middle East. Complementing these examples that focus on non-Arab Spring countries, Wiebelhaus-Brahn examines transitional justice politics in Arab Spring countries and concludes that retributive justice has been more common that restorative transitional justice.

The religious aspect was the hub of some other chapters. In his chapter, for instance, Wayel Azmeh argues that “corporal punishments can be reinterpreted to only represent an upper limit never to be exceeded, favoring more lenient non-corporal punishments, or even no punishment at all by the state” (p. 37). In his view, this interpretation would “contribute to eroding the ideological basis of the extremists’ propaganda machine” (p. 37). Amr Osman explains the clear contradictions of Sunni Muslim scholars towards the July 3rd coup in Egypt with reference to the contradictory positions of medieval Sunni scholars towards certain events in early Islam. For his part, Michal Allon expresses gender inequality in the Israeli society with reference to the patriarchal culture and sexism of Judaism and Islam and the lack of separation between state and religion.

A fourth group of chapters focuses on the international/external aspects. Andrew Wender argues that contemporary intervention in the Middle East involves several contradictions, on top of which is the claim that intervention serves the self-interest of states, regardless of the fact that intervention transgresses the principle of non-intervention on which the modern international political order was established. In his view, the main agents of change currently in the Middle East are numerous and diverse, spanning from global to sub-state actors.

For his part, Ahmed Ibrahim argues that the uprisings were a lost opportunity for the US due to its incoherent and inconsistent policy on them. Ahmed Abushouk contextualizes the Arab Spring within the democratization wave paradigm. He discusses the causes, features, and transition process in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen in correlation to Huntington’s theorization on the third wave. In his view, the Arab Spring is a fourth regional wave of democratization that “shares some facets with the third global wave in terms of causative factors, features, and democratic transitions” (p. 339).

The book brings various perspectives to the situation in the Middle East in a way that improves our understanding of certain topics and issues. It shows the interrelation among political, religious and cultural aspects. Azmeh’s argument, for example, is interesting in terms of its attempts to overcome the violence experienced now in the region through re-reading Quranic verses relating to corporal punishments. He, however, does not dig deep enough in the inherent complexity of the issue and how it involves (or should involve) the entire traditional view of Islam. Such a complexity was clearly addressed in Osman’s argument where he demonstrates how opposing political stances can perfectly find reference in Islamic history, exposing thereby the sophisticated relationship between Islam and politics.

The Arab Spring, generally speaking, was an act of people’s will. Therefore, understanding what affects popular attitudes and choices is important in any serious attempt to make sense of the factors contributing to order and/or disorder in the region. Here comes the importance of Yaghi and Boateng’s chapter on Emirati voters. Examining voting behavior in the GCC countries is not prevalent and the chapter fills in an obvious gap in this respect. Despite the authors’ remarkable results, generalizing the results to “Emirates” voters can be questioned on the basis that the overwhelming majority of the sample came from Abu Dhabi only. Regrettably, furthermore, the authors do not reflect on what these results suggest about politics in UAE.

The book also sheds light on the regional and international dynamics related to the Arab Spring. Binhuwaidin’s chapter presents the GCC countries’ perception of the uprisings as a threat. Such a perception explains many of the political stances taken and choices made by these countries towards the “Arab Spring” countries. While the author stresses the need for preserving the conservative structure of the GCC political systems and blames Iran for “manufacturing sectarianism” in the region, he remains silent on the impact of authoritarianism itself on provoking sectarianism and security issues. The focus of Ibrahim’s chapter on the US stance towards the Arab Spring provides an objective evaluation of this stance. However, he does not elaborate enough on the reasons for the US fickle policy; readers would wonder if that is a result of a leadership perception or a realist approach from the Obama administration. Tackling these questions may help readers grasp the possible change and continuity of the US policy towards the region under a new administration.

Talking about order/ disorder in revolutionary contexts necessarily involves discussing transitional justice. Therefore, Brahn’s chapter discusses one of the mechanisms that helps society in dealing with its past grievances and looking forward to the future. His argument would be enhanced by a discussion of the policies of transitional justice within the larger context of transition and how the modes of transition may influence the process of transitional justice.

That the volume consists of assembled articles is evident in its lack of a clear structure as well as in the (expected) disparity in the depth of discussion among its chapters. A possible organization of the volume would be dividing it into three parts, each dealing with a particular circle: domestic, regional and international/external. An explanation of the significance of the title of the book and the relevance of its various chapters to it would also be helpful. It is hard, for example, to locate Abdullah F. Alrebh’s chapter on “The emergent kingdom in the orientalist press: Ibn Saud’s authority in Western media” within the larger topic of the book.  A conclusion putting together different approaches and arguments would significantly contribute to the usefulness of the volume. Finally, readers would appreciate the typical inclusion in the volume itself of the short biographies of its contributors. Overall, the book presents an interesting collection of topics that contributes to our understanding of the complexity of change in the Middle East as well as many aspects of the past and current situation in the region and its future prospects.

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