I think it was the long and rather odd title of Neil MacFarquhar’s book that caught my attention when I saw it in the Quality Paperback Book Club catalog. A few months later, when I was fortunate enough to find it sitting on the shelf at my public library I decided to take a closer look. After inspection I grabbed it, adding MacFarquhar’s book the growing mountain of library books in my “to read” pile. After finishing it early yesterday morning I’m glad I took a chance on this book with the strange title. I was not disappointed.
Much like Thomas Friedman’s 1990 classic From Beirut to Jerusalem, MacFarquhar’s The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday: Unexpected Encounters in the Changing Middle East is a sweeping portrait of the challenges facing the beleaguered peoples of today’s Middle East. From Morocco to Yemen and almost all points in between, MacFarquhar traverses the simmering region interviewing dissidents, clerics, local journalists and a myriad of government officials. Emerging from his travels and conversations is a detailed picture of a region that wants change, but is denied. Denied by various authoritarian regimes compounded by the paucity of civil institutions and attitudes such as independent judiciary, free media, gender equality, separation of religion and state, as well as free and independent political parties which can settle disputes non-violently in the peaceful arena of legislation.
The picture of the region painted by MacFarquhar is region of contradictions. Egypt, while technically having a parliament, is nothing more than an authoritarian regime dominated by an unelected president. Jordan, while granting citizenship to its large Palestinian population, bars them from the military and as a result, treats close to half the nation’s population as a potential fifth column. Lastly, Morocco, Jordan and Syria, ruled by the sons of their former respective heads of state, who rule perhaps not as complete autocrats, still rule with a firm, (and in the case of Syria, an iron), hand crushing the emergent hopes of their subjects who might have dreamed of a much freer society under their new rulers.
In perhaps the greatest contradiction of them all, MacFarquhar explores the dangers of free and fair elections in a region known for an abundance of Islamic extremism and a lack of democratic traditions. With Hamas and Hizbollah both posting gains at the ballot box and Algeria’s Islamic opposition party almost succeeding electorally, the notion that a potentially dangerous Islamic faction could gain control of a regime peacefully and legally is certainly not out of the question. And if such a party did win control of the government, would that group in turn ban future elections thereby refusing to ever relinquish power, following the formula mentioned by MacFarquhar, as “one man, one vote, one time.”
This is a readable and insightful look into the present state of the Middle East, mainly from the standpoint of the individual citizens of the region. Even if the author seems more concerned with the intelligentsia than the less sophisticated bulk of the population, I still recommend MacFarquhar’s book.