Posted by Joshua on Monday, March 3rd, 2008
'Dreams and Shadows' By ROBIN WRIGHT
Reviewed by PATRICK COCKBURN in New York Times Sunday Book Review
|Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East by Robin Wright
….Robin Wright argues that there is “a budding culture of change” in the Middle East — and she sets out to document it in this fluent and intelligent book about the future of the region….
She writes, “Islamic extremism is no longer the most important, interesting or dynamic force in the Middle East.”…
It would be good if this were true, but in general the stories Wright relates of brave reformers battling for human and civil rights show them as having had depressingly small influence. She claims there is “a budding culture of change” represented by “defiant judges in Cairo, rebel clerics in Tehran, satellite television station owners in Dubai, imaginative feminists in Rabat and the first female candidates in Kuwait, young techies in Jeddah, daring journalists in Beirut and Casablanca, and brave writers and businessmen in Damascus.” Sadly, her own research largely contradicts this thesis. Of the many opponents of the status quo she writes about, the only ones to have achieved a measure of success are religious movements: Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank and Hezbollah in Lebanon. She does not cover Pakistan, but the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Rawalpindi in December shows that suicide bombers retain their deadly ability to shape events.
Why have moderate reformers failed so uniformly across the Middle East? Not because of lack of courage. Wright describes how in Syria, Riad al Turk, first arrested for opposing a military government in 1952, spent almost 18 years in solitary confinement in an underground cell the length of his body. He kept himself sane by making pictures on the floor out of thousands of hard and inedible grains he had taken out of the prison soup during his years of confinement. Wright also writes of heroes and heroines in a more minor, but still impressive, key, like Noha al Zeiny, a leading official in the prosecutor’s office of the Egyptian Ministry of Justice, who was so disgusted by blatant official ballot rigging in an election she was supervising that she publicly denounced it in one of the few Cairo newspapers that dared to print her testimony.
Autocratic regimes in the Middle East may be sclerotic, corrupt and detested by their own people, but they are very difficult to remove. Governments in Egypt, Syria and Libya that came to power by military coups in the distant past have learned how to protect themselves against their own armies and security forces. In each of those countries the Mubarak, Assad and Qaddafi families are establishing new political dynasties. President Hosni Mubarak, jokingly known to Egyptians as the last pharaoh, has, according to Wright, now held power longer than all but two other leaders in Egypt’s 6,000-year history, and is grooming his son Gamal to replace him. Political reforms have been purely cosmetic. Osama Harb, the editor of a moderate foreign policy journal, International Affairs, denounced Egypt’s supposed reform efforts as a sham but found he could not withdraw from the government’s inner circle without endangering himself. “It should be easy to resign, to say no,” he observed. “But not here. This is Egypt.”
Just one long-established regime in the Arab world has been kicked out by voters in a closely monitored election. It happened on Jan. 25, 2006, when Hamas won a victory over Fatah, Yasir Arafat’s very corrupt nationalist movement. It was the first time, Wright says, that an Arab electorate ousted an autocratic leadership in a free and fair election — a message that resonated throughout the region. The immediate response of the international community was to boycott Hamas. “The United States is like the prince in search of Cinderella,” the Hamas leader Osama Hamdan told Wright. “The Americans have the shoe, and they want to find the kind of people who fit the shoe. If the people who are elected don’t fit into the American shoe, then the Americans will reject them for democracy.” Fatah was encouraged by the United States, Israel and the Western Europeans to ignore the results of the election and build up its military strength. An armed clash became inevitable, leading to the takeover of Gaza by Hamas gunmen in June 2007.
Wright has long been one of the best-informed American journalists covering the Middle East, and her reputation is borne out here. She is refreshingly skeptical of conventional wisdom about what is happening in the region, and her book will be essential reading for anybody who wants to know where it is heading.
She is particularly good on the moribund nature of the regimes that now hold power and know they are too unpopular to allow any open expression of popular will (though some innovations, like satellite television and the Internet, have prized open their control of information). Both the Algerian election in 1992 and the Palestinian poll in 2006 showed that the West will not accept an election won by its enemies. But since the invasion of Iraq it is difficult to imagine a fair poll having any other result.
Why I Have New Hope for The Mideast Robin Wright writes about her own book: B01 (Post) Article | 03/02/2008
… Riad al-Turk is the Nelson Mandela of Syria. He was locked in a windowless underground cell about the length of his body without furniture or a toilet for 18 years. He kept from going mad by using uncooked grains of rice from his evening soup to etch geometric designs on the floor. "You must accept hell as a price to pay for remaining faithful to your convictions," he later reflected.
After his release in 1998, Turk went at it again, lashing out at the Assad dynasty in Damascus for "relying on terror" and demanding that it move "from despotism to democracy." In 2001, he was arrested a fourth time. Freed in 2005 at age 75, the reformed Marxist refused to be silent, even while acknowledging that he was only a starting point.
"The regime will eventually collapse on its own, due to isolation internally and internationally," he told me. "That's what happened in the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. That's what will happen here." …
Not all of the Middle East's new actors will succeed. For all the signs of promise, the region is still full of shadows.
Democracy is about differences, which are bound to explode once disparate sides of society are free to speak and make demands. Opening new space also does not guarantee who or what will fill it. And all the factors contributing to change make the region susceptible to greater turmoil.
Yet what I found most inspiring in my travels was not the dreams that the outside world has for the people of the Middle East. It was the lofty goals they have set for themselves, and begun — only begun — to act on.
Books: 'Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East' Discussion | 03/06/2008
Washington Post diplomatic correspondent Robin Wright takes questions on her new book, "Dreams and Shadows"