By Hasan Afif El-Hasan
Most of the Arab nation-states are relatively new, left over from the era of Anglo-French imperialists following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire. Only Egypt has had earlier experience as an empire with its own cultural entity under Muhammad Ali. Others were invented by the British and the French colonialists as incipient states in need of guardianship.
Great Britain and France dominated the Middle East in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They ruled Egypt, Sudan, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, Aden, the Persian Gulf, Algeria, and Tunisia. The French General Napoleon Bonaparte was able to conquer and occupy Egypt in 1878. The French were forced to leave Egypt in 1882, not by the Egyptians or the Turks, but by another imperial force commanded by the British admiral Horatio Nelson. Egypt remains a part of the Ottoman Empire, but under British occupation; and for decades, it was turned into a cotton base for the British industry and its Suez Canal a British-French owned property. It was 1952, when the British military left the country and ended its imperialist aims.
After the defeat of the Ottoman Sultanate in World War I (WWI), the victorious British and French divided the Fertile Crescent into five entities with new names and frontiers under their spheres of influence. The Arabian Peninsula, with its inaccessible deserts, was at that time thought not worth the effort of taking over. Its rulers were allowed to retain limited independence. The Arab elites have preserved the state-building and border demarcations that were imposed by their former imperial masters.
According to the British historian Jonathan Schneer, in 1916 during WWI, Britain’s Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey was “articulating what might be called ‘White man’s burden’, to allow the dark skinned peoples including the Arabs, to govern themselves. At the same time, the French and British diplomats Francois Georges-Picot and Sir Mark Sykes were redrawing the Middle East map.” They were sitting in a conference room at the Foreign Office, crayons in hand and a large map on a table. The two diplomats were coloring blue the portions on the map that they agreed to allocate to France, and they colored red the portions they would allocate to Britain. The map defined areas of colonial domination in which France and Britain were free “to establish such direct or indirect administration or control as they desire.” The Palestinian historian, George Antonius wrote: “the Sykes-Picot agreement is a shocking document. It is not only the product of greed at its worst that is to say, of greed leading to stupidity [Their imperial rivalry led them to war]; it also stands out as a startling piece of double-dealing.”
The European imperialists established effective domination over the Middle East and treated it as their own property. In 1917, then United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour issued his declaration to the Zionist leader Baron Rothschild that Palestine should be the national home of the Jewish people. The declaration facilitated the colonization of the land by world-wide Jews. Britain and other Western states tried to depopulate Western Europe of unwelcomed Jews coming from Russia and Poland. They solved their long history of anti-Semitism by granting Palestine, which is not theirs, as a homeland to the Jewish People settlers without consulting its own people. The West armed the Jewish settlers to go into a rampage in the region, massacre the indigenous Palestinians, settled the land, and created a permanent European presence in the Arab World.
While Britain was planning with the French the future of the Arab land and its foreign secretary was reviewing with Baron Rothschild the wording of “Balfour Declaration”, the British High Commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahan was exchanging letters with Sharif of Mecca, Hussein Bin Ali. The two agreed that Britain would recognize the independence of the Arab lands in exchange for Arab up-rise against the Turks and fight along-side the British. Hussein kept his side of the agreement by establishing a military force that fought against the Turks under the command of his son, Prince Faisal. The British reneged on their promise.
Until World War II (WWII), the British and French were sufficiently strong to maintain the regional order they had designed for the Middle East in. Afterward the European Power’s capacity to control increasingly restive population disappeared. The territories were granted independence but for all practical purposes, they remained within the Western imperial domain and the impact of imperialism on the people in the region has been immense. The US stepped in to fill the imperialism vacuum and emerged as the principal outside influence. The feudal and monarchical governments in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya were overthrown by their military leaders who proceeded to establish secular governments.
The US became heavily involved in a litany of perceived offenses in the Middle East. They include imperialist aggression in Lebanon, Khartoum, Libya, Iraq, helping Israel against the Palestinians, and support for Middle East tyrants against their own people.
Almost a century after WWI, the US military was destroying Iraq and planting the seeds of dividing it into three political entities and creating real anarchy in the Arab World. Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice under President George W. Bush suggested that “creative chaos” was needed to take place in the Middle East as the means to transform it into a “New Middle East.”
People living in chaos cannot be creative; only imperial powers with sinister intentions can plan a “creative chaos” for them!!
Secretary Rice underlying assumption as that of Sir Edward Grey of 1916 is that people in the Middle East are incapable of running a democratic society and have no capacity for human decency. Condoleezza Rice and all policy makers in the West assume that there are significant differences between the Western World and the Arab World with tacit assumption that the latter is inferior.
Arab people since then have been engaged in civil wars, sectarian violence and they are turning against each other. Things cannot be worse! Brutal civil wars are raging in autocratic republics of Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and Lebanon. Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria have been in a state of chaos since the so called “Arab Spring Resolution” swept the Middle East; and Sudan’s civil war that has lasted decades splintered the Sudanese society into many feuding clans and armed tribes, and divided the country into two hostile states. Millions of civilian Arabs have died or displaced as victims of violence, human rights have been violated and the conflicts and the human suffering are unlikely to improve in the foreseeable future because the political institutions are in disarray. Even the Palestinians who sometimes are referred to as “the intellectual elite of the Arab World” are no less divided and feuding than other Arab societies. They are fractured between rival forces while living under occupation in disconnected Bantustans in the West Bank and Jerusalem, thousands have been languishing in Israeli jails, besieged and murdered in Gaza, and abandoned by everybody in refugee camps.
Relative stability and normality exists only in Arab countries ruled by absolute monarchies and sheikdoms of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Al-Maghreb, Kuwait, the UAE and Oman. Only Bahrain Kingdom experienced unrest among its Shiia’ citizens who constitute the majority of the population and demanded more representation in government, but military intervention by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) on behalf of the Sunni ruling minority ended the troubles temporarily. The Bahrain case suggests that Arab monarchies stick together and mobilize their resources to defend each other.
Unlike the autocratic republics, Arab monarchies have decades of experience in managing the social and economic issues of their citizens. The absolute monarchy as an institution resonates with Arab paternal culture. Kings have the unique power to weaken and sometimes end public protest by ordering immediate popular constitutional reforms that include liberalization and consent to public demand as happened in Jordan and Morocco even while they do not have the economic resources that the oil rich Gulf States used to meet some of civic activists’ demands.
Governments in modern states are supposed to be trust on behalf of the people to preserve their lives, liberties and freedom. Modern governments enjoy legitimacy by the support of their citizens. But this idea has not been imbedded in modern Arab nations’ political tradition. Their governments rejected democratic participation, sought legitimacy only from their foreign imperial patrons and behave as arrogant absolutist in dealing with their own people. In governing people, there should be limits on the powers on the rulers, but in the Arab World the powers of the ruler are unlimited. Order and justice in civilized societies are universally known to reinforce each other or at least to be compatible, but in the Arab World, the two are conflicting alternative goals of governments’ policies or they are even mutually exclusive. Order must sustain the universal goals of pursuing happiness in social and political life, but Arab people conduct themselves in conformity with laws under conditions of fear and insecurity. The main function of Arab regimes is overwhelmingly policing their people rather than economic and domestic development. Their armies do not hesitate to kill hundreds and thousands of their own citizens who demand political and economic reforms. The fusion of the military and government roles produced a set of institutional arrangements that are highly authoritarian. The government is militarized and the military politicized.
The nineteenth-century writer on the Middle East Adolphus Slade wrote, “Old nobility lived on their estates. For the new nobility, the state is their estate.” Western imperialists became the new nobility of the Arab World and they act as if they own it. This was true when Georges-Picot and Sir Mark Sykes were redrawing the Middle East map. It was true when Condoleezza Rice suggested that “creative chaos” was needed to take place in the Middle East. And it is true today when President Obama declared “the US will lead [in the Middle East] from behind.”
The Arab people do not hate the West for its way of life. They only hate the West colonialism and imperialism and its support of the Arab tyrants.
– Hasan Afif El-Hasan, Ph.D. is a political analyst. His latest book, Is The Two-State Solution Already Dead? (Algora Publishing, New York), now available on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.