The history of the Arab Spring

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.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

13 thoughts on “The history of the Arab Spring”

  1. “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.

  2. 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.

  3. “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.”

  4. “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.”

  5. “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.”

  6. 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.

  7. Al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, Jabhat al-Nusra (“The Support Front”), has taken a central role in the fight against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Mr Zawahiri’s deputy, Abu Khayr al-Masri, released by Iran in a prisoner swap last year, has moved to Syria with several other senior al-Qaeda figures, Western officials say. There is talk that al-Qaeda may soon declare an Islamic “emirate” (one notch down from a caliphate).

    Such worries go some way to explaining the terms of the latest ceasefire in Syria negotiated by America and Russia. Its central bargain is this: if the Russians restrain Mr Assad and allow humanitarian supplies into besieged areas held by rebels, America will join Russia in targeting Jabhat al-Nusra (as well as IS). The first such joint operations since the end of the cold war will start if the ceasefire holds for a week after coming into force on September 12th.

    John Kerry, the American secretary of state, and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, did not agree on a future government for Syria, let alone a timetable for Mr Assad to step down. But Mr Kerry rejects the notion that America has, in effect, bowed to Russia and its intervention to prop up Mr Assad: “Going after Nusra is not a concession to anybody,” he says. “It is profoundly in the interests of the United States to target al-Qaeda.”

    But America risks being seen as doing Mr Assad’s bidding. “This is a conspiracy against the Syrian people to bring their revolution to an end,” says Mostafa Mahamed, the Nusra front’s English-language spokesman. “We are one of the strongest forces fighting the regime, and the world knows it.”

    “Al-Nusra is still an integral part of al-Qaeda despite the name change. The danger is that they are acquiring popular support. If it continues to grow then it could become a genuine mass movement,” says Charles Lister of the Brookings Institution, an American think-tank. “With a large enough majority behind them they could establish an emirate, a kind of protected territorial base on the borders of Europe that the international community would find very hard to root out.”

    The move from avoiding unnecessary friction to taking care of populations is a new stage in al-Qaeda’s pragmatism, which has been visible in Yemen, too. With the collapse into civil war last year, caused by Shia rebels’ armed takeover of much of the country and a Saudi-led intervention to push them back, al-Qaeda took control of the port of al-Mukhalla. It kept it running, levying taxes on oil imports. It administered the city through existing tribal structures. Supplies of water and electricity increased. Visitors described security as better than elsewhere in Yemen. “They wanted to show that they could rule better than anyone else,” says Elisabeth Kendall of Oxford University. By and large, she says, they succeeded.

  8. IS and al-Qaeda may yet swap roles. If and when the IS caliphate is destroyed, say Western officials, it might go global, dispersing among its regional franchises, or turning to full-blown international jihad. It would thus become a bit like the al-Qaeda of yesteryear. And if there is no reasonable settlement to the war in Syria, al-Qaeda will plant stronger local roots. Its future emirate, should it come to it, may be more firmly supported by the local population, and therefore even harder to extirpate, than the barbarous IS caliphate.

  9. From Day 1, Iran saw something else: a chance to make a client state of Iraq, a former enemy against which it fought a war in the 1980s so brutal, with chemical weapons and trench warfare, that historians look to World War I for analogies. If it succeeded, Iraq would never again pose a threat, and it could serve as a jumping-off point to spread Iranian influence around the region.

    In that contest, Iran won, and the United States lost.

    Over the past three years, Americans have focused on the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq, returning more than 5,000 troops to the country and helping to force the militants out of Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul.

    But Iran never lost sight of its mission: to dominate its neighbor so thoroughly that Iraq could never again endanger it militarily, and to use the country to effectively control a corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean.

    “Iranian influence is dominant,” said Hoshyar Zebari, who was ousted last year as finance minister because, he said, Iran distrusted his links to the United States. “It is paramount.”

    The country’s dominance over Iraq has heightened sectarian tensions around the region, with Sunni states, and American allies, like Saudi Arabia mobilizing to oppose Iranian expansionism. But Iraq is only part of Iran’s expansion project; it has also used soft and hard power to extend its influence in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan, and throughout the region.

  10. How did the Russians (and their Iranian allies, who provided most of the fighting strength on the ground) win the war in two years when the United States had fumbled unsuccessfully with the issue since 2011? By being cold-blooded realists, deciding which was the lesser evil (Assad), and then single-mindedly focussing on a military victory.

    By 2015 it was absolutely clear that there were only two possible victors in the Syrian civil war: the brutal but secular and reasonably competent men of the Ba’ath Party that has ruled Syria for the past half-century, or the violent religious fanatics of Isis and al-Nusra.

    So while the US, equally appalled by both parties, spent years trying to find or invent a third ‘moderate’ option that never existed, Russia and Iran just went flat out to save Assad. (The Syrian army was within months of collapse when the Russians intervened in 2015.) They have succeeded, and the US will eventually have to pick up its marbles and go home.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *