Dispatches: Roots of a Fragmented Middle East

The Arab Spring, which commenced with the Tunisian Revolution in 2010 and rapidly spread to other parts of the Arab world, has yielded a range of 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. Jordan has undergone changes in its government as a result of the demonstrations; Iraq continues to be gripped by insurgency following the withdrawal of American presence in 2011. In Syria, the initial demonstrations have escalated into a full-blown ongoing civil war that has claimed almost half a million lives, according to the Syrian Center for Policy Research (SCPR), and resulted in widespread displacement of the population.

The Arab Spring began as a result of the erosion over time of the Arab population’s faith in their respective governments. Numerous factors are said to have contributed to the revolution, including growing unemployment, poverty, widespread political corruption, suppression of civilian freedoms and frequent human rights violations. Foreign policy of countries such as the United States, however, have played a key role in sustaining and supporting these dictatorial regimes in the Arab world, including that of Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi. It is indicative of a deeper problem – one of Western interference that has persisted since the colonial era.

Contradictory Promises and the Aftermath of World War I 

The end of World War I in early nineteenth century saw the demise of the long-standing Ottoman Empire. The Arab Revolt of 1916-18 aided colonial powers in ensuring the ousting of Ottoman rule. The Hussein-McMahon Correspondence, referring to the series of letters exchanged from 1915-16 between the Sharif of Mecca – Hussein bin Ali – and Sir Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in Egypt, contained details of the future of territories under Ottoman rule at the time. In exchange for Arab support in weakening the Ottomans, Britain assured Arab independence and sovereignty in the territories, barring parts.

However, other agreements, namely the 1916 Sykes-Pikot Agreement and the 1917 Balfour Declaration, were in direct contradiction to the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence. Britain and France continued to have vast economic, political and cultural interests in regions of the Middle East, which represented an easy passage to their colonies in Asia. The following decades witnessed prolonged British and French presence in the Arab world, the establishment of the State of Israel in the region previously known as Mandatory Palestine, and indirect control of territories even after the withdrawal of physical presence.

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

The Incongruity of a Nation-State System in the Arab World 

Nationalism in Europe and North America relied on celebrating shared roots, be it language, religion or culture, and a regularised ‘othering’ of their perceived enemies in order create a common bond. This proved particularly beneficial in times of war and conflict. The Arab world, however, was largely 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 increasing suppression of dissent by the Ottoman Empire across its territories. The majority of Arabs, however, continued to remain unaffected by sentiments of nationalism.

The transplantation of a nation-state system onto a territory primarily comprised of various groups with no shared nationalistic beliefs led to a host of problems that continue to plague to region to this day. Despite attempts to foster a shared national identity, sectarian violence has plagued numerous countries across the Middle East. Iraq is a quintessential example of a nation-state that is merely a state comprised of borders but not a nation in the ideal sense of the word.

Rising pan-Arabism and a desire for independence, coupled with the fact that a second world war had left the colonial powers depleted of its resources, finally led to the departure of the British and the French from the Middle East and North Africa in mid-twentieth century. In their wake, however, they left behind a region fraught with deep-seated political and social instability.

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(photo credit: pixabay)

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