Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising
by Gilbert Achcar
Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016. 226 pp. $65 ($21.95, paper)
Reviewed by Saliba Sarsar
Middle East Quarterly
In Morbid Symptoms, a sequel to his 2013 The People Want, Achcar of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London dissects the recent Arab uprisings, focusing mainly on Syria and Egypt and, to a lesser extent, Libya and Yemen. His assessment is both critical and pessimistic with a socialist-oriented eye trained on the abandonment of the Syrian people as well as the apparent hijacking of the people's will in Egypt, accompanied by a strengthening of that country's military-security apparatus.
According to Achcar, the main culprits in this tragedy are the old regimes and Islamism, with the Arab Left faulted for failing to open a third way. He also levels much blame at the U.S. government, specifically the Obama administration, for its misreading of the Middle East: "Obama managed to take the disaster bequeathed to him by his predecessor to new and significantly lower depths."
Despite a glimmer of optimism in his concluding chapter, "'Arab Winter' and Hope," Achcar is hardly hopeful, suggesting that the Arab region is "doomed to remain caught in the inferno of the clash of barbarisms" until it develops "the resolutely independent, progressive leadership that has hitherto been so cruelly lacking." Truth be told, in an Arab environment plagued by a plethora of "isms" and badly in need of dynamic economic and social progress, such leadership is unlikely to evolve anytime soon.
Achcar's socialist biases lead him off course when he shifts the blame for this sorry state of affairs onto the West (read the United States). Yes, the West has made mistakes, but holding it responsible for turmoil in the Arab region underestimates the "isms" and the widespread crisis of legitimacy. The loss of life in Iraq, Syria, and beyond is truly regrettable, but Achcar should recognize that he cannot have it both ways: assigning blame for outside intervention as in Iraq while condemning non-intervention, as in Syria. More balance and honesty are needed.
Related Topics: Saliba Sarsar | Spring 2017 MEQ
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