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BOOK REVIEW: Will the Middle East implode?

With chaos seemingly looming around the region, Danny Postel reviews Mohammed Ayoob's timely new volume
A truck belonging to the Kurdish Peshmerga speeds through the Iraqi desert (AFP)

It was timely enough to publish a book titled “Will the Middle East Implode?” in the spring of 2014, but the events of this summer - the seizure in June of Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, by ISIS and the international response it has provoked, and the re-eruption in July of Israel's recurrent assault on Gaza - have made Mohammed Ayoob's new volume nothing less than momentous. It is a robust contribution to the growing literature on the Arab uprisings and their aftermath. Polity Press should be marketing it aggressively as the book on the current conflagration convulsing this critical region.

“Will the Middle East Implode?” is an intellectually gripping and insightful book by a wise and accomplished scholar. Among its strengths is that Ayoob possesses both geopolitical expertise -  he is distinguished professor emeritus of International Relations at Michigan State University - and richly textured knowledge of the internal dynamics of the region. His “The Many Faces of Political Islam” (2007) is widely considered a classic in the field. This one-two punch makes Ayoob somewhat rare among commentators on the Middle East. International Relations scholars tend not to focus on domestic politics within countries, while experts on specific countries typically have little to say about the geopolitical realm.

There are deep tensions and contradictory strains in the book, which I'll explore shortly. But first let me briefly sketch its contours and highlight some of its strengths. The book consists of six chapters: on the "Arab Spring"; the role of Islamist movements and parties in the region's changing political landscape; the enduring Israeli-Palestinian conflict; "Regional and Global Rivalries"; the geopolitics of Iran's nuclear program; and a concluding essay on the prospects for the region. In addition, there is an afterword offering brief reflections on three developments that unfolded after the completion of the book's main body: the June 2013 election of Hassan Rouhani as president of Iran, the July 2013 ouster of Mohammad Morsi as president of Egypt, and the August 2013 Syrian chemical-weapons attack and the Obama administration's response to it.

Was the Arab Spring "simply a mirage that will ultimately lead to disillusionment?" asks Ayoob on the book's first page. "Or were these uprisings really a harbinger of better times?" "So far the evidence would seem to give credence to the first interpretation," he writes, expressing his realist proclivities. Yet, "enough of the spark of the original movements survives," he counters, to leave one "optimistic about the long-term future of the Arab world" -  giving voice to the "other" Ayoob, the one who passionately wants to see democratic forces prevail. These two sides of Ayoob wrestle with one another throughout the book. At times, this critical tension is intellectually productive; at others, the book's conceptual fabric comes dangerously close to fraying.

Ayoob is especially lucid and forceful in his discussion of three key themes: the derailing of Egypt's democratic transition, the regional geopolitics of the Syrian conflict, and the dance between Islamism and democracy. He contends - persuasively, in my view - that the July 2013 coup that ousted Morsi from power was a catastrophe for Egyptian democracy, the Arab Spring's "most dramatic and possibly irreversible setback" (p. 147). Moreover, Ayoob argues, the coup is likely to drive the Muslim Brotherhood underground and off the pragmatic-democratic path it pursued over the last several decades. The Muslim Brothers, like other Islamist groups in the region, "enthusiastically embraced the democratic process" (p. 9), demonstrating "ideological flexibility" and an "increasing commitment to peaceful political action" (p. 20). Indeed, he contends, "in several cases the Islamically rooted parties have become the main champions of democratic governance" in the region (p. 20). The coup has all but torpedoed this development. It may lead, Ayoob warns, to disillusionment on the part of a segment of mainstream Islamists with the democracy route and encourage them to adopt violent means, thus vindicating the extremists' argument that Islamist parties will never be allowed to attain and retain power through non-violent and democratic means… (p. 24).

Indeed, given the repression against the Muslim Brotherhood since the coup, including massacres of peaceful demonstrators, "it may not be too far-fetched to imagine the emergence of an ‘al-Qaeda on the Nile'" (p. 35).

In bringing down a democratically elected president, Egyptian liberals showed striking political immaturity and impatience. The coup was a short-cut, one that aborted Egypt's democratic transition. Morsi's opponents would have been wiser to forgo immediate gratification via extra-constitutional means and stay the democratic course, Ayoob argues, for democratisation, if allowed to proceed without hindrance, increasingly levels the playing field between Islamists and their secular opponents. It may even redound to the latter's benefit if they demonstrate adequate patience and let the political credibility of Islamist governments be undermined by their performance or non-performance (p. 23).

By the same token, Ayoob counsels, the Muslim Brothers should not eschew the democratic path but rather show patience. By "increasing popular sympathy" for the victims of the regime's repression, he continues, the coup could "actually prove to be to the Brotherhood's long-term advantage if participatory politics is revived in the country" (p. 24). That's a big if. Mohammad Fadel, professor of law at the University of Toronto, has argued that it "would take a heroic, perhaps superhuman, act of forgiveness and reconciliation" for the Muslim Brotherhood and Egyptian liberals to renew the alliance that united them against the Mubarak regime ("Mohammad Fadel Replies," in the forum "What Killed Egyptian Democracy?" Boston Review, January/February 2014, p. 23). The recent emergence of an anti-coup alliance is a promising development, but the post-coup ditch Egypt will have to climb out of is very deep. I agree with Ayoob that it could prove a "possibly irreversible setback" (p. 147).

One of strengths of the book is Ayoob's discussion of the regional geopolitics of the Middle East. "The Arab Spring," he writes, "was never the autonomous phenomenon most people were led to believe during its initial phase, when Tunisia and Egypt seemed to be leading the way toward a democratic future for the region" (p. 74). "The transition to democracy," he notes, "has been severely curtailed if not aborted by the actions of outside powers" (p. 84). In a particularly brazen case in point, Saudi Arabia intervened to crush the Bahraini democracy movement. That the Saudis did so "without any significant protest" from Washington "flew in the face of President Obama's public position supporting the pro-democracy movements in the Middle East, thus leaving the United States wide open to the charge of hypocrisy" (p. 29).

Ayoob's analysis of how "Regional and Global Rivalries" (Chapter 4) play out in the Syrian conflict is incisive. Syria, he writes, is "the quintessential battleground where several proxy wars are being fought simultaneously" (p. 91) - the geopolitical war of position between the United States and Russia, the regional Cold War between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and various internal Arab conflicts. Hezbollah's popularity in the Arab world has been severely damaged as a result of its intervention on the side of the Assad regime, which has "made a measurable difference to the balance of forces on the ground" (p. 93). Indeed, the International Crisis Group contends that Hezbollah's very identity has transmogrified in the course of its Syrian emprise (see "Lebanon's Hizbollah Turns Eastward to Syria," International Crisis Group, May 27, 2014:; and Sahar Atrache, "How Hezbollah Is Changing the War in Syria—and Vice Versa," Huffington Post, June 6, 2014).

Hamas moved in the opposite direction, pulling its headquarters in exile out of Damascus and siding with the Syrian uprising against the Assad regime. Ayoob attributes this "radical departure" (p. 64) to the role of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, "an ideological sibling of Hamas, as a leading participant in the anti-Assad movement, and the overall Palestinian sympathy for the democratic movement in Syria" (p. 63).

The most compelling element in Ayoob's analysis of the Syrian puzzle is what he calls the "Turkish conundrum" (p. 102). The Arab upheaval has been a "mixed blessing" for Ankara:

One the one hand, it enhanced the popularity of the Turkish model among the Arab publics…. On the other, it posed painful choices for Ankara between its newfound, often authoritarian, friends in the Arab world and the democratic aspirations of the Arab peoples inspired in part by the success of Turkish democracy (p. 103).

Prime Minister Erdogan and Foreign Minister Davutoglu "had invested a considerable degree of political capital in building strong relations with Assad and felt betrayed by his refusal to follow through on the promises for reform he had made to them" (pp. 104-05). In a dramatic departure from its much-discussed "zero problems with neighbours" policy, by August 2011, Ankara had thrown its full support behind the Syrian opposition and has taken in close to a million refugees from the Syrian war. This is a highly contentious issue in Turkish domestic politics, as I recently witnessed during a visit to the Turkish-Syrian border.

Turkey's role in Syria's protracted conflict, Ayoob argues, is a risky strategic proposition. It threatens to destroy "the trust [Turkey] had painstakingly built in its relations with Iran" (p. 105), the Islamic Republic being Assad's principal regional ally and supporter. This is a flashpoint for Ayoob, as "the region's future security and stability," he contends, "can only be guaranteed by a smooth working relationship between Ankara and Tehran." Turkey's Syrian gambit also jeopardizes its growing trade with other countries in the region, "much of which passed overland through Syria," as Ayoob notes.

Turkey's "conundrum" is also in a sense Ayoob's conundrum. Earlier I mentioned that there are competing sensibilities that wrestle with one another throughout his narrative. Like Turkey, there is the Ayoob who strongly supports the democratic aspirations of the people of the Middle East and maintains that Islam and democracy are compatible. But there is also Ayoob the realist, who fears instability and uncertainty above all. "Forces let loose by the Arab Spring," he laments, "have exacerbated pre-existing problems in the Middle East" (p. 159), and the "introduction of a huge amount of uncertainty in Middle Eastern politics" by the democratic revolts of 2010-11 have "led to a highly fluid and potentially combustible state of affairs in this already volatile region" (pp. 1-2).

On an abstract level, these sensibilities are arguably reconcilable. The trouble comes at the concrete level. Ayoob is at odds with himself, for example, when it comes to Syria. He acknowledges that "the fundamental problem facing the Syrian polity" is "an end to the civil war - negotiated or otherwise - that would leave the state structure largely intact while removing the family and sectarian dictatorship that has ruled the country for the past four decades" (p. 167). In discussing the chemical-weapons crisis of August-September 2013, he writes: "Had the United States made good on its threat to strike Syria, it would have turned out to be a major escalation of the conflict and may have tilted the military balance decisively against the Assad regime" (pp. 165-66). Yet he also warns of the danger of Syria's becoming a failed state, "if the United States with or without the help of its European allies launches air attacks on Syrian military and communication facilities using the regime's employment of chemical weapons, if proven, as an excuse…" (p. 97). So the underlying issue in Syria is the Assad regime itself and its potential removal. Had Obama launched the military strike on the regime as he had threatened, it might have brought down the House of Assad; yet doing so would have been calamitous and indeed remains a "danger" (p. 166).

Obviously, these three arguments do not hang together. And Ayoob never proposes a solution to the Syrian conflict. This is not to condemn him. The Syrian nightmare, now in its fourth year, has perplexed and divided the world, leaving no consensus on what is to be done. This is why the book my colleague Nader Hashemi and I assembled on the topic is entitled “The Syria Dilemma.” I don't fault Ayoob for failing to come up with the answer to the Syrian riddle, but there are contradictions in his arguments that make his otherwise illuminating discussion of this crucial issue less than compelling. These criticisms notwithstanding, “Will the Middle East Implode?” is filled with critical insights and much-needed food for thought on some of the central questions of our age.

Danny Postel is Associate Director at the Center for Middle East Studies, Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver

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