The history of the Arab Spring

2016-08-11

in Bombs and rockets, Books and literature, Economics, History, Oxford, Photography, Politics, Security, Writing

The New York Times has published an exceptional long article by Scott Anderson about the history of the Middle East since 2003. It’s an ambitious text to have written, not a trivial task to read, and perhaps a suggestion that print journalism is enduring in its dedication to telling complicated stories, despite ongoing challenges to the business model and staffs of many of the most important print sources. It also includes some remarkable photography by Paolo Pellegrin.

A summary, early in the article, attributes special importance to the post-Ottoman settlement:

Yet one pattern does emerge, and it is striking. While most of the 22 nations that make up the Arab world have been buffeted to some degree by the Arab Spring, the six most profoundly affected — Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen — are all republics, rather than monarchies. And of these six, the three that have disintegrated so completely as to raise doubt that they will ever again exist as functioning states — Iraq, Syria and Libya — are all members of that small list of Arab countries created by Western imperial powers in the early 20th century. In each, little thought was given to national coherence, and even less to tribal or sectarian divisions. Certainly, these same internal divisions exist in many of the region’s other republics, as well as in its monarchies, but it would seem undeniable that those two factors operating in concert — the lack of an intrinsic sense of national identity joined to a form of government that supplanted the traditional organizing principle of society — left Iraq, Syria and Libya especially vulnerable when the storms of change descended.

This accords closely to Middle Eastern history as interpreted by many of the sources we read in my Oxford M.Phil. In particular, it reminds me of David Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan August 11, 2016 at 9:22 pm

“To maintain dominion over these fractious territories, the European powers adopted the same divide-and-conquer approach that served them so well in the colonization of sub-Saharan Africa. This consisted of empowering a local ethnic or religious minority to serve as their local administrators, confident that this minority would never rebel against their foreign overseers lest they be engulfed by the disenfranchised majority.”

Or, as expressed satirically on “Yes, Prime Minister!”:

Sir Richard Wharton: We made the real mistake giving them their independence.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Wasn’t that right? Wind of change and all?

Sir Richard Wharton: Yes, but not that way. We should have partitioned the island.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Like we did in India, Cyprus and Palestine? And Ireland?

Sir Richard Wharton: Yes, that was our invariable practice with the colonies. It always worked.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: But didn’t partition always lead to civil war? As in India, Cyprus, Palestine and Ireland.

Sir Richard Wharton: Yes, but it kept them busy. Instead of fighting other people, they fought each other.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Yes, rather good. Saved us having a policy. Cheers.

Milan August 11, 2016 at 9:48 pm

An interesting comparison, and a provocative claim from the preface of the article:

This was only the most overt level of the Europeans’ divide-and-conquer strategy, however, for just beneath the sectarian and regional divisions in these “nations” there lay extraordinarily complex tapestries of tribes and subtribes and clans, ancient social orders that remained the populations’ principal source of identification and allegiance. Much as the United States Army and white settlers did with Indian tribes in the conquest of the American West, so the British and French and Italians proved adept at pitting these groups against one another, bestowing favors — weapons or food or sinecures — to one faction in return for fighting another. The great difference, of course, is that in the American West, the settlers stayed and the tribal system was essentially destroyed. In the Arab world, the Europeans eventually left, but the sectarian and tribal schisms they fueled remained.

. August 16, 2016 at 5:52 pm

“But [Laila Soueif] was also quite aware that her activism — and the government’s grudging tolerance of it — fit neatly into the divide-and-rule strategy that Hosni Mubarak had employed since assuming power in 1981. In the past, Egyptian governments were able to gin up bipartisan support when needed by playing the anti-West, anti-Israel card, but Anwar Sadat traded that card away by making peace with Israel and going on the American payroll. The new strategy consisted of allowing an expanded level of political dissent among the small, urban educated class, while swiftly moving to crush any sign of growing influence by the far more numerous — and therefore, far more dangerous — Islamists.”

. August 16, 2016 at 5:56 pm

“By late 2005, when I spent six weeks traveling through Egypt, growing contempt for the government was evident everywhere. To be sure, much of that antipathy derived from the nation’s economic stagnation and from the corruption that had enabled a small handful of politicians and generals to become fabulously rich — the Mubarak family financial portfolio alone was reported to run into the billions — but it also had a strong anti-American component, and pointed up a profound disjuncture. At the same time that Egypt was regarded in Washington as one of the United States’ most reliable allies in the Arab world, in no small part because of its continuing entente with Israel, over the course of scores of interviews with Egyptians of most every political and religious persuasion, I failed to meet a single one who supported the Israeli peace settlement, or who regarded the American subsidies to the Mubarak government, then approaching $2 billion a year, as anything other than a source of national shame.”

. August 29, 2016 at 11:00 am

“Animating that resistance, beyond the traditional Kurdish antipathy for the regime in Baghdad, was what the Iraqi Army collapse in 2014 brought down on the K.R.G. [Kurdistan Regional Government]. The Iraqis, by abandoning their American-supplied heavy weaponry and vehicles to ISIS — in most cases, they didn’t even have the presence of mind to destroy it — had virtually overnight converted the guerrilla force into one of the best-equipped armies in the region, and it was the Kurds who paid the price.”

Milan August 31, 2016 at 8:04 pm

The photos of migrants in Part V are especially striking.

Milan September 5, 2016 at 3:14 pm

In Part V, the article considers one mechanism for maintaining post-Ottoman nation state borders, while separating the inhabitants by ethnicity:

For 25 years, the K.R.G. has existed as a stable quasidemocracy, part of Iraq in name only. Perhaps the answer is to replicate that model for the rest of Iraq, to create a trifurcated nation rather than the currently bifurcated one. Give the Sunnis their own “Sunni Regional Government,” with all the accouterments the Kurds already enjoy: a head of state, internal borders, an autonomous military and civil government. Iraq could still exist on paper and a mechanism could be instituted to ensure that oil revenue is equitably divided between the three — and if it works in Iraq, perhaps this is a future solution for a Balkanized Libya or a disintegrated Syria.

Even proponents acknowledge that such separations would not be easy. What to do with the thoroughly “mixed” populations of cities like Baghdad or Aleppo? In Iraq, many tribes are divided into Shia and Sunni subgroups, and in Libya by geographic dispersions going back centuries. Do these people choose to go with tribe or sect or homeland? In fact, parallels in history suggest that such a course would be both wrenching and murderous — witness the postwar “de-Germanization” policy in Eastern Europe and the 1947 partition of the Indian subcontinent — but despite the misery and potential body count entailed in getting there, maybe this is the last, best option available to prevent the failed states of the Middle East from devolving into even more brutal slaughter.

It’s not complacent about how violent this option would be, however:

The problem, though, is that once such subdividing begins, it’s hard to see where it would end. Just beneath the ethnic and religious divisions that the Iraq invasion and the Arab Spring tore open are those of tribe and clan and subclan — and in this respect, the Kurdistan Regional Government appears not so much a model but a warning.

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