Reflections on recent changes in the Middle East and North Africa - 2

A Historical Perspective


by Rajiva Wijesinha

The current division of the Middle East and North Africa into different countries is largely the result of decisions made by European countries. This indeed goes for Africa as a whole, for the carve up of that continent took place when colonialism was at its height, and there could be no local input with regard to the drawing up of boundaries in the drawing rooms of Europe. The most notable example of this occurred at the Berlin Conference of I think 1888, which handed over the Congo as his personal property to that rapacious old rascal, Leopold of the Belgians. But the process had begun before, and continued well into the 20th century.

By and large however those divisions were almost accidental. It was in the settlement after the First World War that strategic considerations dominated, with the dismembering of the Turkish Empire. While there were many reasons for that War, not all of them entirely amoral, one principal reason for fighting it to a total finish of the enemy was the urge to destroy the old land empires, the German, the Austrian and the Turkish.

The first two occupied much of Central and Eastern Europe. Given all the rhetoric about freedom, as well as geographical considerations, it would not have done for the victorious European powers, Britain and France, to have carved up those empires for themselves. Instead they created a number of independent states, though these had to be large enough to withstand possible future aggression. Hence the portmanteau nature of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, and the relative size of Poland and Rumania.

With different races in a more distant location however empire could reassert itself. Thus, contrary to the promises extended to the Arabs by Lawrence of Arabia and his ilk in the main theatre of action against the Turks, there was no question of independence for the Arabs. Total subjugation would however have been impossible, given the propaganda that had been encouraged, and so various mechanisms were devised to make control less obvious. There were Mandates which meant direct control, and Protectorates, which meant effective control, though there was a titular ruler with absolute monarchical powers, subject only to direction by the local representatives of His Imperial Majesty in London.

And there was even one independent state, Arabia, which was presumably considered of no consequence because it was largely desert. Just to make sure that it was innocuous, it had its corners cut off, like an elegant sandwich, with strong British garrisons stationed at the points which controlled the sea routes. A quick glance at a map will make it clear why some local chieftains were subsumed under states such as Arabia and Iraq and Syria, while others were endowed with supreme powers, though of course under British supervision.

The latter chieftains were those who held promontories such as Bahrain and what are now the United Arab Emirates and vital coastal areas such as Oman and Yemen – and of course the head of the Gulf, which in time became the independent state of Kuwait. The coast of the Mediterranean was even more important so, without any beating about the bush, it was brought under direct British and French control, through Mandates for Lebanon and Palestine (though the brilliant plan of establishing a fully Europeanized ally in the latter area was I suspect not a widely known plan at the time, as opposed to simply a gleam in the sharp eyes and fertile brains of a few, both beneficiaries and intriguers).

Obviously, having been created nearly a hundred years ago, such states soon took on a life of their own, and their continuing independence should not be a question. Saddam Hussein was particularly foolish in assuming that he could revert to an earlier dispensation and invade Kuwait, and it is understandable that the United Nations did not hesitate to use force to drive him out.

It is also understandable, given the small size of such states, that they continued to accept the system of government the European colonial dispensation set up, and to remain aligned with the West. There are signs of that changing now, but I suspect things will remain much the same, in part because of the relative prosperity of these places, in part because their sizes make them easier to control.

It was quite otherwise in the bigger states that were set up, and which were granted independence after the Second World War. Egypt was the first to undergo a revolution. It had been different initially too, given the different form of government it had had while in theory under the Turkish Empire, with early European involvement because of its strategic importance that led to the construction and then takeover of the Suez Canal . It had had its share of early nationalism, as we know well because of Arabi Pasha who was exiled to Sri Lanka. It then saw increasing tensions after the First World War, like India, which also suffered from a sense of betrayal when the Great War of Liberation in Europe was seen to have been fought to promote only European interests. And very soon after the Second World War, it got rid of its monarch, and became a Republic.

Though that revolution was led initially by General Neguib, it was inspired by Colonel Nasser, who thus became an icon for the Middle East. His example was followed in the decade that followed by military men in both Iraq and Syria, though with more violence and bloodshed. Nasser himself, and those who created the new dispensation in Egypt, were more sophisticated and more idealistic. In essence they were like the politicians who had come to power in India but, given the different trajectories of political development in the two countries, it was the thinkers in the military in Egypt who came to the fore.

And, like their counterparts in India, they were socialists in their political outlook. This was the generation that had come to maturity during the heyday of social democracy in Britain, when Laski dominated political thought and Beveridge social policy. Given that in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East such thinkers came to power through revolution, their interpretation of socialism was both more populist and more authoritarian. This set the stage for further conflict, but that requires a separate article.

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