Dialogue Series, Regional Studies

CIRS Book Launch: Contemporary Politics in the Middle East


“There is always a sense of timeliness about the politics of the Middle East,” and a pressing sense of the issues, according to Beverley Milton-Edwards, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. “It doesn’t matter what day of the week it is, what time of year it is—the Middle East is always in the headlines.” Milton-Edwards is a professor of politics at Queen’s University in Belfast, and a security theme leader at the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice. She has lived in the Middle East for thirty years as a researcher, and was at CIRS on March 21, 2018, to launch the fourth edition of her book, Contemporary Politics in the Middle East.  

Milton-Edwards focuses her research on security sector governance in the Middle East and the challenges of political Islam. The author said she found the need to publish a fourth edition of her book because the Middle East is such a dynamic region, internally and externally. The book covers issues ranging from colonialism, political economy, conflict and lack of peace, nationalism, women, ethnicity, and minorities. She said her ambition in writing the book was modest and that it is meant to provide understandings for people new to the study of the region.

Milton-Edwards discussed the entirety of the volume, as well as what the book meant to her personally, noting: “I have been in the region for some of the most pivotal political moments in recent times, being caught up in events where leaders have been assassinated, where regimes have crumbled, populations have revolted, and peace on occasion may have looked possible. And because of these field experiences, I was also afforded the opportunity to be able to make small contributions on the ground, in particular, to management of conflict and the achievement of peace, because I do believe that the Middle East deserves peace.”

The author’s research for the book is based on extensive on-the-ground fieldwork “whether in overcrowded refugee camps, presidential compounds, or in the shadowy, complex lairs of rebel leaders or urban battle zones,” she said. Milton-Edwards argued that it is impossible to study the region only from textbooks or media sources; that one must learn from various experiences that are diverse in nature. She wrote the book through interacting with different cross-sections of society—state and non-state actors alike—to understand the essence of their myriad perspectives.

“I am not attempting to change the world one student at a time, but I feel that the book is a resource that can open up the opportunities for looking at a region in other ways.”

Milton-Edwards said that her work as a researcher gave her unique insight into political and social interactions in various situations, such as corruption, foreign policy, the interaction of states in Middle East with Western policymakers and politicians, and, most importantly, security dimensions. Over decades, her research has charted the rise and collapse of state nationalist projects, the fixation on what she calls “strong man politics and the tragic consequences of states waging wars against their own populations or against other states in the region in order to distract from the problems at home.”

What struck her when speaking with ordinary people was issues such as “regional wealth, inequality, labor mobility and unemployment, Islamism, the Palestinian–Israeli conflict, and the US in the Middle East.” These everyday concerns are the themes and contents of the book, and her way of “making sense of the politics of this vast ethnically, politically, religiously, and socioeconomically diverse region.” One of the main points she makes in the book is that “the politics of the contemporary Middle East is not as exceptional as many in the West would have us believe.” She said the curious thing is why the world sees itself as different from the Middle East. The region reflects the lasting effects of “colonialism, power relations, lack of political participation or apathy, poor economic growth, increasing urbanization, and a return to faith and faith-based discourses,” she argued. The contemporary politics of the Middle East is driven by the same broad dynamics of change over the last century as elsewhere across the globe.

Milton-Edwards also argued that, for the foreseeable future, the “politics of the region—within the region and between the people and the state, as well as by the region and other parts of the globe—will stay animated in one way or another to one degree or another by these same issues.” She pointed to youth as one such issue. In the UK in 2017, youth were central to the emergence of new forms of political mobilization in the general elections, and, in the US, youth are challenging the powerful gun lobby. “Youth in the region represent a powerful intersectionality of class, gender, nationality, and faith,” as evidenced by the role they played in the Arab uprisings. “The same grievances are levied, the same challenge to authority, and dismissal of obsolete and out of touch political structures—the same intergenerational struggles,” she said.

“I am not attempting to change the world one student at a time,” Milton-Edwards said, “but I feel that the book is a resource that can open up the opportunities for looking at a region in other ways.” This is because, as each chapter, theme, and case study illustrates, the context does actually matter and shapes the issue under scrutiny, she said, and local context and history matter. For this reason, the book goes back in history and explores the profound impact of colonialism. For so many political constituencies in the Middle East, “the past is still very much present,” affecting people’s lives in what she called “everyday insecurities.” She also cited the example of violence, arguing that it is a “reaction to the politics of authoritarianism, ethnic domination, rights denied, and freedoms reneged on,” which explains the phenomenon of terrorism and violence in the Middle East.

Concerning where we are today and where we go from here, Milton-Edwards pointed to the last chapter of the book titled, “The Arab Spring and the New Era of Uncertainty.” She read a segment from the chapter: “The future of the region is almost impossible to predict. Many of the issues outlined in this book, such as political economy, political Islam, and the state and its rulers will probably continue to determine the political systems which will develop over the next decade. Not least of which will be the unfolding legacy of the Arab Spring, and the resilience of authoritarian regimes. They will continue to be tested and challenged by the region’s citizens.”


Article by Khansa Maria, CIRS Student Assistant

Beverley Milton-Edwards is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. She is professor of politics at Queen’s University Belfast and security theme leader at the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice. She is known for having pioneered both scholarship and practice in the field of conflict management, including ceasefires. She was the principal investigator to the European Union’s Civil Police Mission to the Palestinian Territories Program in 2006–2010. Her recent books include: The Muslim Brotherhood, the Arab Spring, and its Future Face (2016); Islamic Fundamentalism since 1945 (2013); Jordan: A Hashemite Legacy (2012); The Israeli–Palestinian Conflict, A People’s War (2011); and Hamas: The Islamic Resistance Movement (2010).