The Unraveling Middle East

Against the Current, No. 189, July/August 2017

Kit Adam Wainer

Shifting Sands:
The Unraveling of the Old Order in the Middle East
Raja Shehadeh and Penny Johnson, editors
Olive Branch Press, 2016, Northampton, MA, 261 pages, $17.95 paperback.

RAJA SHEHADEH AND Penny Johnson have made a valuable contribution with a collection of brief and easy-to-read essays. These outline some of the main contours of the Arab Spring and place modern events in historical context.

The authors, who live in Ramallah in the West Bank, are deeply involved in the struggles of Palestinian life under occupation, although that is not their focus here.

Raja Shehadeh, a leading Palestinian writer, is also a lawyer and the founder of the pioneering Palestinian human rights organisation Al-Haq. His books include Strangers in the House and Occupation Diaries and 2008 Orwell Prize winner Palestinian Walks. Penny Johnson is an academic in the Women’s Studies Department at Birzeit University, a contributing author to the journal Middle East Report and a veteran researcher of articles and books on Palestine. (A Youtube lecture by the authors on the theme of “Shifting Sands” can be viewed at — ed.)

Historical Sweep

The essays by Israeli “New Historian” Avi Shlaim and British author James Barr provide global context for the current crises of Arab regimes by tracing their roots to the imperial settlements following World War I. The Versailles Treaty and the growth of Turkish nationalism led to the destruction of the Ottoman empire and the establishment of British and French mandates — quasi colonies — over much of the Arab world.

Both essays suggest that the postwar redrawing of the Middle East was both the product of imperial grand design and episodic but consequential blunders. In Barr’s account the historic Sykes-Picot agreement, which established the blueprint of a Franco-British division of post-Ottoman territories, was driven mostly by rivalries between Paris and London.

The British were concerned with preventing Islamic uprisings in North Africa and South Asia, and keeping the French out of the Suez Canal. To do so they enlisted the support of the Hashemite clan (which attributes its ancestry to the prophet Muhammad) and placed their family members on the thrones of Transjordan and Iraq.

The French were adamant about increasing the British presence on the German front, and ultimately accepted a smaller share of Ottoman spoils in exchange for control of the long-contested Alsace-Lorraine region.

Avi Shlaim details the diplomatic intrigues that allowed London to harness the Hashemite clan leaders to British imperial interests. But British policies were often contradictory and ill-informed.

Shlaim argues, for example, that the infamous Balfour Declaration of 1917, which articulated British support for a Jewish “national home” in Palestine, was driven by narrow war aims and misunderstandings. He argues that David Lloyd George, a believer in anti-Semitic myths of Jewish global power, hoped to win Jewish support throughout Europe for the British cause.

“Issuing the Balfour Declaration,” Shlaim writes, “turned out to be one of the most colossal blunders in British imperial history. It brought Britain much ill will in the Arab world and no corresponding benefits, not even the gratitude of its Jewish protégés.” (21)

In conclusion Shlaim argues:

“In the aftermath of the war [the Allies] built a new political and territorial order in the region on the ruins of the old order. They refashioned the Middle East in their own image. They created states, they nominated persons to govern them, and they laid down frontiers between them. But the new states, for the most part, were small and unstable and the rulers lacked legitimacy, while the frontiers were arbitrary, illogical, and unjust giving rise to powerful irredentist tendencies.” (31)

The turmoil and conflict resulting from the Entente impositions created what Shlaim calls the “post-Ottoman syndrome.” (32)

Domestic Historical Development

There is sometimes a tendency on the left to view the histories of the Middle East, Latin America and Africa entirely through the lens of imperialism and anti-imperialism. The shortcoming of such an approach is that it tends to ignore domestic social-class developments and their role in history.

Khaled Fahmy’s essay offers a useful antidote to that approach. In the days after Mubarak’s resignation Fahmy participated in a government committee which investigated the origins of the Egyptian revolution. Fahmy slides deep into Egyptian history and argued that the 21st-century uprisings have roots in class-based revolts going back to the early 19th century.

Summarizing the history of peasant revolts and rebellions by urban intellectuals against Egyptian states, Fahmy writes: “In contrast to what we are told in our schools, we did not revolt only against foreign invaders, be they French or British. We also resisted this domestic leviathan by every means at our disposal.” (75)

This collection would have been stronger, however, had it included essays on the histories of the modern labor and women’s movements. That would have made it easier for the reader to contextualize the rise of political Islam and the decay of Arab nationalism. The absence of such work weakens the second section of the book, which addresses current developments.

Essays on labor or women’s movements might also have left the reader with a more accurate picture of the Arab Spring. Unfortunately Tamim al-Barghouti’s essay highlights this weakness. While the author does a good job tracing the historical failures of Arab nationalist states, he suggests that the resistance to them took the form of ideas which circulated with minimal agency.

The Iraq War of 2003, he argues, shattered any illusion that Arab states could defend their populations. Consequently, new unorganized types of resistance arose.

Explaining the origins of the Tahrir Square protests of 2011-2013 in Egypt, he writes, “Web-like entities, networks whose node is a cloud of ideas and narratives, float across the region through word of mouth, poetry, music, religious sermons, and news bulletins. … Here, narrative replaces structure, conviction replaces command, and improvisation from the margins replaces central planning.” (87)

This description discounts both the role of rank-and-file labor organizing that bubbled up within Egypt’s official unions for several years prior to 2011 and the history of women’s organizations dating back to the 1950s. Essays on such topics would have offered a more balanced picture.

In the final section Ramita Davai’s contribution on the current economic and political situation in Iran is quite useful, as is Alev Scott’s description of modern protest movements in Turkey and the responses of the Turkish state. Dawn Chatty’s and Robin Yassin-Kassab’s essays on Syria are particularly strong.

Chatty does a very good job breaking down the ethnic dimensions of the Syrian crisis and the role of the bedouins in the resistance. Yassin-Kassab analyzes the role of the Local Coordinating Committees as revolutionary actors and offers a slightly more hopeful picture of the Syrian revolution than we normally see.

Despite some weaknesses Shifting Sands has much to offer. It provides a strong basic introduction to Middle Eastern history and useful, even if somewhat disconnected, descriptions of recent developments throughout the region.

July-August 2017, ATC 189