Book review: Storm In The Desert by Mark Muller Stuart

Mark Muller Stuart
Mark Muller Stuart
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In April 2011, Scottish QC Mark Muller Stuart and solicitor Jason McCue made a wild dash across the desert from Egypt to Benghazi, capital of the Libyan uprising against Muammar Gaddafi. McCue represented 150 victims of IRA bombings that had used Libyan-supplied Semtex explosive; he was looking to pursue the case with Libya’s presumed new rulers. Reports of new evidence in the Lockerbie bombing were also a concern. Muller Stuart, with decades of work in the Middle East under his belt, wanted to make connections with Libyan lawyers prominent in the uprising.

The pair set out with ex-SAS bodyguards and an Egyptian driver on a route past the El Alamein battlefield, where they burned confidential documents amid discarded munitions. Asked by his 11-year-old son why he had to go to Libya, he reflects that “the truth was that I was unaccountably attracted to what was going on”.

Most ordinary people in the Middle East want what we want: not religion, ideology and sectarian warfare, but peace, jobs, healthcare, education, “transparent, responsive, representative government”. That is a recurrent message of this sprawling, big-hearted, big-issue book on the Middle East and the fallout from the Arab Spring.

Like the best lawyers, the author states his case at the start: Storm In The Desert, he promises, will explore “the central policy dilemma that faces the UK and the West as a consequence of the Arab Spring and its interventions... namely whether it was or is wise to go out on a limb to back peoples seeking democratic reform”.

For 60 years, Muller Stuart says, the west has cultivated Arab elites who ruled “without the burden of real democracy... Both western governments and the international business community had conveniently come to regard ordinary Arabs as either incapable of or uninterested in aspiring towards the democratic values of the West.” It was one rule for us, another for them.

Broad-ranging, readable, provocative, with an unashamedly personal approach, and a pace driven by the sheer thrill of the chase, this is a remarkable book. It ought to be required reading for each neophyte generation of Middle East policy makers before they repeat the blunders of their predecessors.

Muller Stuart explores “the right to protect” and debates definitions of terrorism vs the “right to self-determination”. He makes the case for cultural diplomacy, for non-government mediators and diplomats with true expertise, for simple respect for human dignity. “UK policy makers would do well to recognise that the demand for human dignity animated much of the protest in 2011, and that such a demand is unlikely to go away any time soon.”

These are not a war correspondent’s memoirs – though the last days of Marie Colvin in Syria are brought vividly to life – but Muller Stuart has been there and done it, from years working for the legal rights of Kurdish activists and journalists in Turkey, to mediation in Bahrain, to close engagement with Syria, a subject he skirts here, with the crisis ongoing. It makes for a powerful and timely volume.

*Storm In The Desert by Mark Muller Stuart, Birlinn, £25