A Concise History of the Arabs

Author: John McHugo

Volume Volume 44, Issue 3, 2013, Asian Affairs

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Since the Arab Spring was triggered in 2010 in Tunisia by the self-immolation of a young greengrocer in Sidi Bouzid, Mohamed Bouazizi, the repercussions have been felt across much of the Arab world. In a chain reaction, the revolution spread from Tunisia to other Arab states where populations were also calling for more democratic and human rights as well as for an improvement in living conditions. The revolutions took place on such a scale and with such speed that the existing power structures of these states were shaken to their very foundations. In this social turmoil, autocratic regimes that had ruled for decades were overthrown. Suddenly, a new increasing feeling of self-worth among the people was evident because now everything seemed to be possible. However, the long-term structural change many people had hoped for failed to materialise because countries like Egypt were mired in political chaos and discontent: the recurrence of riots in Tunisia caused by a national crisis and the assassination of the opposition leaders, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, as well as the disempowerment of Egypt’s former President, Mohamed Morsi, and his government illustrate this.
In order better to understand current Arab events, it is important to place them in a historical context. John McHugo’s book does this, providing a valuable introduction to Arab history. It is addressed, according to the author, to readers who are unfamiliar with the subject and is therefore intended for a general readership.
Over the course of nine chapters and a Conclusion, McHugo, who is an international lawyer and Arabic linguist with work experience in several Arab countries over more than 40 years, takes us from the Graeco-Roman world, through the Prophet Muhammad’s birth in about AD 570 to later significant historical events and finally to the contemporary events of the Arab Spring. He links events of the past to current political issues such as ideologies of terrorism or the role of the Muslim Brotherhood. Among the significant events discussed are the period of Rashidun, which refers to the first four caliphs, namely Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali, and the divide between Sunnis and Shi’ites. He also addresses the Western occupation of the Arab region, the Palestine conflict and the failed Oslo Peace Process, secularism and Islamism as well as the Six-Day War in 1967 between Egypt and Israel, and the strengthening of autocratic Arab regimes. In support of his account, the author makes use of translated Qur’an passages, quotations from specialist literature, a glossary of Arabic words, and maps.
Arguably, the attitude of the West, and specifically of Europe, towards the Arab Spring has been somewhat ambivalent. At times, European countries have appeared to be overwhelmed by these events and at a loss to know how to respond. On the one hand, there has been a wish to support Arab populations with the establishment of democratic institutions. On the other hand, there have been fears about uncontrolled immigration to Europe and the loss of geopolitical strategies in the context of oil supplies and regional stability. These and similar concerns are not new, however. When we go back in European history, it becomes obvious that political developments in the Arab world have impacted on European politics and security for centuries. In A Concise History of the Arabs the reader can learn about these developments and how they are interconnected and indeed how the commonly used, though controversial, distinction between the ‘Western world’ and the ‘Eastern world’ arose. It is a distinction which the author disputes.
In summary, this book is to be recommended for anyone wishing to learn more about the multifaceted history of the Arab world and its relevance to modern day events.
Benjamin Biebl C.2013
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