Dispatches: Roots of a Fragmented Middle East

This piece has been published on The Hindu thREAD.

Nearly eight years have passed since that fateful December in 2010 when Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, set himself alight on the streets of Sidi Bouzid to protest repeated mistreatment by local police and the impossibility of earning a living wage in the country. That event kicked off the Arab Spring, which spread rapidly to other parts of the Arab world and led to millions of people demonstrating against oppressive, authoritarian regimes and the ineffective governance that had prevailed for years.

The Arab Spring has led to varying outcomes. Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen witnessed the overthrow of decades of autocratic rule, although periods of worsening instability have followed in all of the states except Tunisia. Libya and Yemen are crumbling, while Egypt has grappled with regime changes, increasing authoritarianism and a debt-ridden economy. Jordan has undergone changes in its government as a result of the demonstrations and Iraq continues to be gripped by insurgency following the withdrawal of American presence in 2011. In Syria, the ongoing civil war has claimed numerous lives and resulted in widespread displacement of the population. The last accurate measurement was issued by the Syrian Center for Policy Research (SCPR) in 2016, according to which the death toll had amounted to nearly half a million lives.

The Arab Spring began as a result of the erosion over time of the Arab population’s faith in their respective governments and an environment of growing unemployment, poverty, widespread political corruption, suppression of civilian freedoms and frequent human rights violations. Multiple factors, including the relationship between the strength of the state and strength of civil society and the degree of state censorship over various forms of media, influenced the fate of the revolutions in each country.

Foreign policies of western states, however, have historically played a key role in sustaining dictatorial regimes in the Arab world, including that of Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi. It is indicative of a more insidious problem — one of persistent Western interference in the region since the colonial era.

Contradictory promises in the aftermath of World War I

The Arab Revolt of 1916-18 aided colonial powers in ensuring that the Ottoman Empire was ousted as World War I came to an end in the early nineteenth century. The McMahon-Hussein Correspondence refers to a series of ten letters exchanged from 1915-16, prior to the revolt, between the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali, and Sir Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in Egypt. In it, Britain promised the Arabs independence and sovereignty in the Middle East, barring parts, in exchange for Arab support in weakening the Ottomans.

Incidentally, two separate agreements, namely the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement between the British and French and the 1917 Balfour Declaration, were made in direct contradiction to the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence. Post WWI, Britain and France continued to have vast economic, political and cultural interests in the region which represented an easy passage to their colonies in Asia. Based on the Sykes-Picot Agreement, Britain was allocated control of Palestine, Transjordan and modern-day Iraq, while Syria and Lebanon became French protectorates. The 1917 Balfour Declaration subsequently expressed the British government’s support for the establishment of “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine.

The following decades witnessed prolonged British and French presence in the Arab world, the indirect control of territories even after the physical withdrawal of colonial forces and the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 in the region previously known as Mandatory Palestine.

A nation-state system in the Arab world?

The plans drawn up by the colonial powers for partitioning the post-war remains of the Ottoman Empire largely ignored one crucial factor regarding the Arab world, namely that it had not experienced the kind of rise of nationalism that had led to the formation of modern-day nation-states in the West.

Nationalism in Europe and North America relied on the celebration of common roots, be it language, religion or culture, and a regularised ‘othering’ of perceived enemies, in order create a shared identity. This shared identity on the basis of nationalistic ideals proved particularly beneficial in times of war and conflict. The Arab world, however, has been historically comprised of groups of various tribes, clans, cultures and religious sects. Modern Arab nationalism itself only arose around the beginning of the nineteenth century as a result of an increase in suppression of dissent by the Ottoman Empire across its territories. The majority of Arabs, though, continued to remain unaffected by sentiments of nationalism.

The transplantation of a nation-state system onto a territory primarily comprising numerous groups with no shared nationalistic beliefs has led to sectarian violence and a host of other problems that continue to plague to region to this day. Iraq, a country that was carved out of a land that is home to Arabs, Kurds, Turkmens and various other ethnic as well as religious groups, is the quintessential example of a nation-state that is merely a state with physical borders but not a nation in the ideal sense of the word. Another corollary consequence of the implementation of the nation-state system is that of groups being scattered across countries, such as in the case of the Kurdish population in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran.

The end of the Second World War had left the colonial powers gravely depleted of resources. The rise of pan-Arabism, coupled with increasing demands for independence among the local population, finally led to the departure of the British and French from the Middle East and North Africa in the mid-twentieth century. In their wake, however, they left behind a region fraught with deep-seated political and social instability, the consequences of which are felt to this day.

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(photo credit: pixabay)

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