Culbertson, Shelly, The Fires of Spring, A Post-Arab Spring Journey Through the Turbulent New Middle East, Turkey, Iraq, Qatar, Jordan, Egypt, and Tunisia, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2016
The Fires of Spring, A Post-Arab Spring Journey Through the Turbulent New Middle East is a travel journal by author Shelly Culbertson as she went through five countries to see how the Middle East had changed after the Arab Spring protests of 2011-12. She tried to give a brief history of each nation and then interviewed several people to try to find out what direction each country was going in. It’s a good introduction to the politics and societies of the region in the 2010s.
Culbertson picked Tunisia, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Qatar and Egypt to go through because they each had different experiences during the Arab Spring. In Tunisia and Egypt the autocratic leaders were overthrown but then the ancien regime returned. In the other countries protests pushed for reforms. There were plenty of people disillusioned with what happened because there wasn’t the dramatic change they hoped for. Others took the long view that things would eventually get better. Culbertson supported the latter. She wrote that democracy shouldn’t be the benchmark for whether the Arab Spring was successful or not arguing that societal change was enough. She also wrote that the impact of the protests might not be felt until the younger generation took power. That seemed like a justification for the status quo rather than a real embrace of any kinds of transformation in the Middle East. On the other hand, it might be more realistic as the powers that be are so entrenched in these countries that only time has a real chance to make a difference.
Another point made by the book is that all of these countries are full of contradictions. Iraq was a perfect example. Culbertson came to Iraq in 2014 or 2015 right at the start of the war against the Islamic State. She believed that IS was a reaction to the autocratic governments of the Mideast and pushed for a new form of religious regime which challenged the whole concept of the nation state. Then there were several interviews with different people. The Army Chief of Staff General Hamad Amin thought the war versus IS would unite the country behind a common enemy. Former minister Ali Allawi felt the opposite that the conflict had almost destroyed the dream of a unified Iraq and the country might break up as a result. Professor Fanar Haddad said it was impossible to redraw the borders of Iraq and that meant Iraqis needed to work out their problems with each other even though he was skeptical of any institutional changes. Former U.S. Ambassador James Jeffrey believed that the Iraqi state was weak because politicians had failed to govern and provide basic needs to the public just like other Arab states but it was what people had to work with whether they liked it or not. Finally, investor Zaab Sethna felt there were many economic opportunities in Iraq despite its flaws and had faith in young people coming up with new ideas and enterprises. Culberton’s interviews are by far the best part of her book. She talked to interesting people who expressed different views about their countries’ future. Sometimes they were activists, sometimes they were politicians, but they gave a range of views from optimism to cynicism which again helped the reader understand what the Middle East was going through.
The Fires of Spring is an entertaining book. It provides enough background for the general reader and the people Shelly Culbertson talked with gave it some depth as well. She included women, Islamists, politicians, the young and the old to try to present different perspectives on what was happening across the Middle East which was appreciated. The Arab Spring and the countries they took place in are complicated and the impact varied from place to place. That’s what the book tried to capture.
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