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LIKE FIRE FROM DYING EMBERS

Dispatches From the Arab Spring: Understanding the New Middle East Edited by Paul Amar and Vijay Prashad, LeftWord, Rs 550

The book under review is about the revolts and upheavals that crumbled the old edifice of power in some Arab countries, toppled their rulers and made them bite the dust. Dispatches from the Arab Spring is, in fact, articles and essays by intellectuals and activists, academics and political analysts, thinkers and artists from countries where the people had dared to protest against the oppressive existing establishments. With the arrival of globalization and the rise of neo-liberalism, it seemed that resistance movements in countries all over the globe have exhausted themselves. But the upheavals in the Middle East, that spread like fire from dying embers, proved that resistance movements are still capable of changing age-old power structures and replacing them with the new, so that the dreams of the man on the street can be realized.

The disparate articles, which range from discursive to analytical, are attempts at understanding the currents and cross-currents of people’s resistance movements, their social history, the diverse social fragmentation, economic disparity of countries in which in the people managed to raise their voice, and also the role of super powers like the United States of America and its adherents, Israel and Saudi Arabia. It also ventures to show how local, regional and international interests are intertwined in countries of the modern world and how they affect the policies of these countries. The in-depth analyses by social thinkers not only make the region come alive but also inspire thought-provoking notions about other countries, including our own. In the words of the editor, these dispatches are “designed to operate as conduit to investigate the potentiality of resistance in countries and regions across the planet.”

The democratic movements, for the first time, have managed to bring the Arab countries to the outside world, which watched in horror as repressive measures were unleashed on the unarmed public taking part in these revolts. These acts of revolts were unthinkable, especially because any dissent against the existing powers in these countries was viewed as reactionary behaviour against the State. But even in countries of the Arab world where open revolts did not take place, they sent shivers across the whole region with speed and alacrity. It shook the whole Arab world like a storm, changing its perceptions before its own public and the world like never before in the history of modern times. Whether appropriate or not, these revolutions were referred to by the international media as the Arab Spring, an image of a season that ushers in a new lease of life after the bleak winter.

The world viewed the mass uprisings of Egyptians at Tahrir Square in 2011 through the social and visual media that led to protests in different countries of the Arab world. But the essays make us realize that the torch-bearer of these movements was a young street vendor called Mohamed Bouazizi, who immolated himself in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, and lit a fire that not only consumed the regime of Ben Ali but also spread rapidly to other parts of the Arab world, removing powerful leaders like Muammar Gaddafi, who had ruled for 42 years, Hosni Mubarak, who had been at the helm for 30 years, and Ben Ali, who had unquestionably remained the leader of his country for 23 years. The book is a study of deep-seated, manifold and complex but popular aspirations of the common man in the region that had changed the whole concept of thought in the Arab world. It makes us look at the whole region in a new way and helps the world community understand the region better.

The writers and thinkers who have, in a short space of an essay, gathered information and disseminated thoughts with valued judgments are Nouri Gana, Paul Amar, Adam Hanieh, Toby C. Jones, Susan Slyomovics, Merouan Mekouar, Anjali Kamat and Ahmad Shokr, Paul Gabriel Hilu Pinto, Jilian Schwedler, Maya Mikdashi, Toufic Haddad, Haifa Zangana and Khalid Mustafa Medani. Apart from the 13 essays, the introduction by Paul Amar and Vijay Prashad explains the genesis and the motive behind the writing of the book. It is not only a revaluation of how the world apprehends the Arabs or how the Arabs see their own selves, it is also about a change in the ‘paradigm’ of the understanding of popular movements and the governments of the region.

Although all the essays try to go deeper into the countries’ histories, examining the diversity of social fragmentation and the dynamics of the upheavals, flitting from the past to the present and reaching out to the future, they also ask questions that have no simple answers. For example, what made the unarmed protests survive the onslaught of power? Or how could imperial powers as powerful as Egypt and Libya submit tamely to these rising forces? It also examines whether the Arab revolts have challenged the dominance and hegemony of the US as the only superpower in the region. The book downplays the role of the social media or of President Barack Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech in carrying forward the movement. The book is also a succinct study of the surreptitious ways in which imperial power blocs like the US, Europe, the Gulf Arab monarchies and Israel have tried to maintain their hold over the region or to reassert themselves through ways as diverse as the International Monetary Fund and the mask of humanitarian intervention. It does not fail to point out the importance of regional players like Turkey and Iran in the process.

The 13 essays cover diverse countries and dissimilar movements. There is also an insightful essay on the dreams and aspirations of the people of Palestine that is subtly intertwined with the larger Arab protest movements. But though disparate, the different essays in the book can be read like a dramatic piece with fast-developing situations. They culminate into a synthesis that may be tragic but is not without its ray of hope.

The essays are studies and analyses of waves of resistance and show the interesting and intricate ways in which the ideas of the domination of power structures move with the change of guard. Thus while the writings study the colonial pasts of the rulers and show their oppressive methodology in the suppression of people’s movements, they also lead to the future, which may be uncertain, but is not without its own excitement. Almost all the writings are thought-provoking and absorbing pieces for the academic mind as well as for the lay reader. Though the book deals with the Arab revolt, it is a tale of man’s dreams of a better life, his aspirations, frustrations and his innate instinct to raise his voice against oppressive regimes.