Book Review: The unraveling of the Arab World

This books seeks to understand the complex politics of the Middle East through the eyes of six wildly-different individuals.
Updated 25 February 2018

Book Review: The unraveling of the Arab World

This book helps us understand the complex politics of the Middle East since the Arab Spring through the eyes of six individuals: The matriarch of a dissident Egyptian family; a Libyan Air Force cadet with divided loyalties; a Kurdish physician from a prominent warrior clan; a Syrian university student caught in the civil war; an Iraqi activist for women’s rights; and an Iraqi day-laborer-turned-Daesh-fighter. The self-immolation of a poor Tunisian fruit-and-vegetable seller in January 2011 triggered a vast movement of anti-government protests in Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt. For the first time, the people of the Middle East were venting their anger against their rulers.
Over time, four long-standing dictators were overthrown and everything went wrong. Libya and Yemen were plunged into anarchy, Syria was caught in a vicious war and Egypt’s democratically-elected government was deposed by the same activists who had voted for the Islamist President Muhammad Mursi. Finally, Al-Qaeda give way to an offshoot known as Daesh.
While it is difficult to answer why such a promising movement ended in tatters, it is interesting to shed light on the nature of the countries affected. The countries most affected by the Arab Spring are not monarchies. Here a question comes to mind: What did the monarchies have that the republics lacked? We also have to bear in mind that Iraq, Syria and Libya are countries that were created by the Western powers at the beginning of the 20th century. Their respective former leaders — Saddam Hussein, Hafez Assad and Muammar Qaddafi — had fought hard to forge an identity for the state they ruled. Once they were deposed, the dormant forces of tribalism exerted pressure which had never really disappeared. Seif Al-Islam, Qaddafi’s son, declared on many occasions that if his father was ever toppled, Libya would be torn apart by tribal feuds and wars.
The chapter about Kurdistan in this book immediately caught my attention. The Kurds are the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East, but they are still fighting to obtain a country of their own. Author Scott Anderson spoke with Azar Mirkhan, the son of General Heso Mirkhan, a chief lieutenant to Mustafa Barzani who was a warlord. In the early part of 1975, Kurdish guerrilla fighters known as the Peshmerga, meaning the one who faces death, were fighting against the Baathist government in Baghdad and had semi-neutralized the Iraqi army. Their success depended essentially on the weapons supplied by US and Iranian military advisers since Iran was waging a US-sponsored border war against Iraq. However, in March 1975, when the shah of Iran and Saddam Hussein forged a peace treaty, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger put an abrupt end to the aid given to the Kurds.
Few groups have been as unlucky as the Kurds. The Kurdish population is spread across the mountainous regions of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. They have always considered themselves different and have ceaselessly fought for their independence. The governments of these nations do not trust their Kurdish subjects and, at the same time, they have often employed the Kurds as proxy fighters. The number of rebellions and proxy wars involving Kurds is almost impossible to count.
The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 ended the American cooperation with Saddam Hussein. Operation Desert Storm was launched successfully and when Saddam Hussein’s political rule was about to collapse, the Americans encouraged the Iraqi people to rebel. The Shiites and the Kurds responded to the call, but the US once again reversed its policy. To avoid a massacre of the rebels they had encouraged to rebel against the Iraqi ruler, the US leadership established with its allies a protected buffer zone in Kurdistan. In July 1992, the Kurdistan Regional Government, the autonomous union of three Kurdish provinces, was set up.
“The creation of the Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, marked the first dismantling of the colonial borders that had been imposed on the region 75 years earlier, the de facto partition of one of the Middle East’s artificial nations,” Anderson writes.
An aspect of the society that Kurdish officials do not like mentioning is the fact that the KRG has been divided into two rival camps. It is not a political duel between the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, but in fact a deep rivalry between two camps: The Barzani and the Talibani. Consequently, this small state has two of everything: Two leaders, two governments and two armies. “If history is a guide, the Barzani-Talabani schism will worsen and may even lead to another civil war, for part of the hidden history of this place is the series of internecine wars the tribes have waged ever since they first came into contact, a legacy of mutual bloodletting dating back at least half-a-century,” Mirkhan says in the book.
The remaining accounts about Egypt, Libya, Syria and Iraq are equally riveting, but they all lead to the same conclusion — namely that it is impossible to predict what might happen next.
After a 16-month journey across the Middle East, the author shares his thoughts on the fragility of the fabric of civilization, the vigilance required to protect it and the painstaking work of rebuilding it once it has been destroyed. The tragedy is that wars, with all the destruction and despair they create, have still not prevented us from learning a lesson.

What We Are Reading Today: American Default by Sebastian Edwards

Updated 24 September 2018

What We Are Reading Today: American Default by Sebastian Edwards

  • In 1933, when in a bid to pull the US out of depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt depreciated the US dollar in relation to gold, effectively annulling all debt contracts
  • Revaluing the dollar imposed a hefty loss on investors and savers, many of them middle-class American families

JEDDAH: The American economy is strong in large part because nobody believes that America would ever default on its debt. Yet in 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt did just that, when in a bid to pull the country out of depression, he depreciated the US dollar in relation to gold, effectively annulling all debt contracts. American Default is the story of this forgotten chapter in America’s history.

Sebastian Edwards provides a compelling account of the economic and legal drama that embroiled a nation already reeling from global financial collapse.

It began on April 5, 1933, when FDR ordered Americans to sell all their gold holdings to the government. This was followed by the abandonment of the gold standard, the unilateral and retroactive rewriting of contracts, and the devaluation of the dollar.

Anyone who held public and private debt suddenly saw its value reduced by nearly half, and debtors — including the US government — suddenly owed their creditors far less.

Revaluing the dollar imposed a hefty loss on investors and savers, many of them middle-class American families. The banks fought back, and a bitter battle for gold ensued. In early 1935, the case went to the Supreme Court. 

Edwards describes FDR’s rancorous clashes with conservative Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, a confrontation that threatened to finish the New Deal for good— and that led to FDR’s attempt to pack the court in 1937.

At a time when several major economies never approached the brink of default or devaluing or recalling currencies, American Default is a timely account of a little-known yet drastic experiment with these policies, the inevitable backlash, and the ultimate result.