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A 100 year battle for independence
The liberating calls for democracy yell out from the Arab street in a language that is easily understood by Western democratic societies and institutions. Yet this struggle for freedom and independence began with the onset of European colonialism, and later neo-colonialism, which have claimed millions of lives and decimated the aspirations of many millions more.
In this brief article I set out to provide the context and foundations that underlay the events unfolding at the present time across the Arab world. The focus is largely historical and is aimed at broadening and historicising our understanding of why the Arab peoples are reacting in the ways they are.
It is our burden not only to support the Arab uprisings but to understand the historic imbalances and exploitations that have given rise to their conditions. Failing to do so will send the message that collective political engagement is not enough to gain freedom. From that point onwards, the only inevitability will be recourse to collective violence.
Nationalism, rivalry, and oil
Under Ottoman rule, the Arab peoples fought forcefully for their independence. The two superpowers of the day, Great Britain and France, felt that this fight was going to be victorious, due to the general weakness of the Ottoman Empire. Already in the 19th Century, the British and the French, who exploited this weakness, managed to establish their presence in some parts of the Arab World, mainly in the East and South of the Arabian Peninsula, Sudan and Northern Africa.
While pretending that they would help the Arabs to get their independence, the French and British did their best to prevent the national Arab movement from achieving its goal. They managed directly to frustrate it, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, by occupying larger parts of the Arab World and expanding their control over the entire Middle East and North Africa. This historical development took place, while two very important messages were being circulated across the world. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, in his famous letter to the Eastern peoples in 1918, and American President Woodrow Wilson, with his famous Fourteen Points, set out, as the basis for international co-operation, the rights of nations for self-determination and independence.
One could argue that this is only history, because the British and The French have already left their acquisitions in the Arab World, and the United Nations Organization has among its members 21 different Arab countries including one observer, which is Palestine. However the masked presence of the British, French and later the Americans, continues until this very day. Those three Western powers installed carefully chosen figures as rulers in the Arab countries, none of whom were elected but all of whom were ready to serve Western interests rather than the interests of their own people. The Arab street has always felt that Arab leaders, with few exceptions, were appointed directly or indirectly by the West. What we see now in the Arab World is an uprising against these leaderships that the Arab peoples did not choose. The unbearable lives of many and the failures to achieve collective and independent national goals are grounded in a hundred years of frustration.
In the first half of the 19th century, the British managed to bring under their control what they then called the Trucial States, the Arabian Gulf countries of today, as well as Oman and South Yemen. France invaded Algeria at the same time, before expanding its occupation to Morocco and Tunisia. As a result of World War One, Britain and France acquired control over the rest of the Arab World, including some countries with established royal regimes such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom of Hejaz, the Mutawakili Kingdom of Yemen, The Sultanate of Oman, and Morocco. Italy only managed to occupy Libya, from 1910 until 1947.
In 1912 the British, already aroused by the imminence of oil in Iraq, could not yet exploit it while Iraq remained under Ottoman rule and in a state of war. Upon Britain’s discovery of oil in Kirkuk (in northern Iraq) in 1927, they decided they would tighten their grip on the entire region, thereby increasing its strategic importance and potential benefit during World War Two.
While the British prepared for this war against Germany, in 1938 an American expedition infiltrated the Arabian Peninsula, then under British hegemony, and discovered the oil fields of Saudi Arabia. These events have massively affected all political developments in the Middle East since, and to some extent those of the wider world. Soon after this discovery, with the eruption of the Second World War and the emergence of the American superpower, plans began to take shape in order to exploit the Saudi treasure.
US President Roosevelt met King Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia in 1945 and to his amazement found a man worried for his future. The threats to the Saudi dynasty at that time came from their mentor the British Empire, who were providing dual support to the Hashemite dynasty, arch enemy of the House of Saud from the north in Jordan and Iraq, as well as small Arab sultanates, sheikhdoms and emirates in the east and south of the Arabian Peninsula also under British protection. Roosevelt and the Saudi king struck a deal, which more than 75 years later remains in place. According to this deal the US simply undertook to protect the rule of the House of Saud in exchange for the newly discovered oil. The then Saudi king could not see the dangers of becoming wholly dependent on American protection.
By crucially assisting British efforts during World War II, the Americans were able to help the House of Saud to stabilise its rule. Reluctantly, the British allowed the Americans to exploit the Saudi oil reserves and were happy to be left to exploit the large oil reserves discovered in Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the Arab Emirates and Oman.
Seeing the lost opportunity for independence, after World War One the Arab peoples were boiling with anger. Between the First and the Second World Wars, significant Arab national uprisings took place: in Egypt in 1919, Iraq in 1920, Syria in 1925, Palestine in 1929, in 1936 and in 1947, and Iraq again in 1946. Most of these uprisings were brutally crushed, leaving behind a deeper feeling of national humiliation, entrenched by implementation of the Balfour Declaration and the creation of a Jewish colonial entity, later the state of Israel, in Palestine in 1948. The culmination of this bitterness led to a military coup in Egypt in 1952 by a nationalist group of officers who, led by Gamal Abdul Nasser, toppled the Western-endorsed royal regime.
Nasser’s revolution was a turning point in the history of the Arab World. Preaching for national Arab unity, independence and for the removal of puppet regimes in the Arab World, he directly threatened Western interests in the Middle East. Nationalist sentiments in the Arab streets rose to unprecedented levels.
Hastily the British conspired together with the French and agreed to use Israel’s military to defeat Nasser by an open war over the Suez Canal in 1956, provoking even stronger nationalist feeling across the Arab World. Then in 1958, General Abdul Karim Qasim led another group of nationalist officers to a military coup in Iraq, toppling another Western-friendly royal family; thus threatening the precious oil reserves, which the British enjoyed in that country. In 1962 a third royal regime collapsed in Yemen as Mutawakili Imam was overthrown by pro-Nasser army officers. The fourth followed in 1969, as the Sinusi royal family of Libya was overthrown by Colonel Mu’amar AlGaddafi. Arab nationalists were also active in South Yemen, and in 1967 managed to overthrow the old British rule there. A similar movement was active against the Western puppet regime of Sultan of Oman in Dhufar, the Western district of Oman, but was extinguished with the help of the British army in the late 1970s.
Despite continuing its conspiracies against Arab national ambitions, as in the Suez war, France was the first to relinquish its colonies in North Africa. In 1954 the Algerian people revolted against the French colonial regime. While the French managed to install a monarchy in Morocco early in 1956, they found difficulty achieving the same in Tunisia. A semi-national republican regime was installed in 1957, with Alhabib Bourgaiba as president / dictator. He ruled Tunisia for 30 years until he was replaced by Zein Al’abedin Ben Ali, who was the head of his security services. After decades of violent popular uprising, the French were obliged to leave Algeria in 1962 where their rule was replaced by a national military autocracy, which remains in power today.
On the other hand, after a presence of more than hundred years, the British protectorates in the Arabian Gulf were under threat by national activists who raised the banner of independence. Meanwhile, British imperialist policy watched as the Americans forged a remarkably productive relationship with the House of Saud; the equation was simple: protection of the Saudi dynasty in return for oil. The British adopted the same formula and implemented it using the tribal dynasties of the Trucial States. In order to prevent these states from falling into the hands of Arab nationalists, the British appointed local tribal leaders as rulers, wholly dependent on the British for support. Leaving Kuwait in 1961, followed by Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in 1971, the British ensured those states remained loyal to the UK and in constant need of British support against the nationalist movements.
Nasser had set a model in Egypt, which unfortunately was followed by other ruling nationalist army officers in other Arab countries, mainly Iraq, Syria, Algeria, Yemen, Sudan, Libya and later in Mauritania. The model was simple: the installation of a republican regime inspired by Arab nationalism and led by a military autocracy, which relied on the army instead of the people. Gradually, or from the outset in some cases like Iraq and Syria, such military autocracies were brutal and dictatorial in the extreme. This gave birth to the contradiction of Arab nationalist dictatorship that for the sake of its own self-preservation would steamroll its own people’s freedoms in the name of the nationalist slogans of the Arab street against Imperialism and for national independence. Local opposition from across the political spectrum were all too often mercilessly oppressed.
The Americans, who unlike the British were relatively new to the Middle East, understood that the new wave of nationalism in the Arab World threatened their allies such as the House of Saud, and that they had to deal with it in order to keep a tight grip on the Saudi oil treasure. The strategic planners of US presidents Dwight Eisenhower and later John Kennedy worked hard to install contingency plans to protect this treasure.
Firstly, the American Administrations used what could be called a ‘stunt’, by effecting some complementary steps towards quelling raging Arab nationalist feelings. Eisenhower openly opposed the British, French and Israeli invasion of Egypt in 1956, and joined forces with the Soviet Government to force the Israelis to withdraw from Sinai. Kennedy went further by supporting the right of return for the Palestinian refugees.
Secondly, the American strategic planners noticed how the Suez war united the Arab World from east to west. The Arab nation was fully consumed by the Israeli attack on Egypt, to an extent that the American presence in Saudi Arabia was all but forgotten, while Arab anger was instead directed against the British, French and Israelis. This anger was instrumental in hastening British and the French decisions to withdraw their ground forces from much of the Arab World, instead relying on local tribal leaders. Most important for the Americans, was the discovery that the Israelis, used by the British and French in the Suez war, could be a perfect tool to pre-occupy Arab nationalist movements from the Saudi prize. A new formula was quickly worked out by American strategists on how to deal with raging Arab nationalism and defuse the danger it posed to the free-flow and control of Saudi treasure, namely by directing it toward Israel. This new formula consisted of arming Israel to the teeth, pushing it to fight not only its direct bordering neighbours, as in 1967, but also Iraq in 1981, and Tunisia twice, in 1985 and 1988. The intension was to let Israel cause the heaviest possible humiliation to the Arab nation and to Arab dignity, ensuring that the attention of the whole Arab nation be directed towards Israel and away from the greatest prize of all- Saudi oil.
The role of Israel
Initially, America faced some problems with their Israeli tool. In the 1950s Israel, under the first Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, realising that the post WW2 World had became polarized between two major superpowers, the US and USSR, reasoned that it would be safer for Israel to be attached to the second class superpowers of Britain and France.
Ben Gurion relied heavily on the American Jewish lobby of that time, which served the Israeli cause while remaining independent from the internal American political divisions and party intrigues. The American administration of President Kennedy was obliged first and foremost to subjugate or overmaster the Israel lobby, by dissolving the old pro-Ben Gurion one and creating a new one. For this purpose a new lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), was created in 1963 under President Kennedy’s supervision. This helped American administrations use Israel as a tool in much the same way as can be seen today.
Secondly, it was decided to oust Ben Gurion, who was considered as an obstacle to American-Israeli cooperation. A forceful campaign was waged to expose the failures of Ben Gurion, forcing him to resign in 1963, thus opening the way for full American control over Israel.
The Israelis agreed to play the role dictated by America, thereby enabling them to expand their borders, occupying the whole of historic Palestine, the Syrian Golan heights and some parts of Lebanon; as well as other territories which they were later forced to return to Egypt and Lebanon respectively. The Israelis did not take into consideration the grave results of their actions in humiliating and antagonizing the Arab nation. Drunk on their own successes, Israel and the West in general gradually lost all foresight, failing to notice the accumulated bitterness of the Arab street, instead conceiving that a status quo of their own design could last for ever.
On the Arab side, military regimes aware of this American game utilised the notion of Israel as the ‘bogey’, diverting the attention of their own peoples from internal political, economic and social affairs. This policy of distraction was most recently used during the present Arab uprisings, where Israel was accused openly by various leaders, including the Libyan President Mu’amar AlGaddafi and the Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, of inciting the Arab masses against their leaders. These claims of course were plied in tandem with the louder nationalist slogans.
In the late seventies, the Egyptian dictatorship under Anwar Sadat proved that abandoning nationalist slogans, and forging a peace treaty with Israel, did not change the regime’s attitude towards its own people. The Egyptian people considered the Camp David peace accord with Israel the most grave of humiliations not only to the Egyptians but the whole Arab nation. The accord was signed without a referendum or any kind of social consensus.
The lack of transparency over Sadat’s U-turn has indeed given rise to numerous conspiracy theories. It was clear that America achieved a great success in winning over Sadat from the nationalist Arab camp. With a cheap US package of $ 1.5bn as an annual help to Sadat and his army, they changed the position of Egypt from a threat to the House of Saud and the American oil interests to an ally or more precisely a guard of these interests, on top of becoming a good friend of Israel.
Sadat paid for this U-turn with his life, while his successor Husni Mubarak continued on the same course. Gradually other Arab nationalist regimes followed suit. Although few of them, like Tunisia, Yemen and Libya, softened their rhetoric against or established relations with Israel, they all opened a new chapter in their relations with the House of Saud in 1980s, including the Ba’athist regimes of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Hafez Asad in Syria.
The assassination of Sadat in 1981 provided a good lesson to the Egyptian people, which became clear last January. Killing a king, a president or a prime minister does not mean a change of regime. Real political change from dictatorship to democracy will not happen by individual acts, but instead requires the collective actions of a mass uprising.
The anti-democratic and brutal treatment of the people together with the abuse of power by Mubarak and the other military autocrats encouraged the ruling Arab dynasties to do the same in their own countries. Because of the lack of transparency, the real number of victims of those regimes is still unknown. There is no exaggeration in saying that, in the last fifty years the whole Arab World seemed to have sunk into an abyss of tyranny, corruption and lawlessness, where the ordinary person in the street could feel unsafe for their own life and livelihood. Both military autocrats and royal dynasties understood the above ‘game’ properly, accepting or to some extent enjoying their respective roles, which in the main were designed to Western interests in the region. This is exactly the feeling of the ordinary person in the Arab World.
Unfortunately none of the 22 Arab countries have real independence. For the West they are 22 different markets for Western products as well as sources of energy and other raw materials. Several Arab countries are rich with oil and/or natural gas (Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, UAE, Oman, Libya and Algeria), while others have also substantial reserves of oil and gas (Yemen, Sudan, Egypt, Bahrain, and Syria). The citizens of oil-rich Arab countries are aware of how their oil is exported abroad and sold cheaply by their governments who in turn are not in control of the revenues deposited in the Western banks. Only a small percentage is paid directly to the rulers and there is no control over the way in which it is spent. None of the oil-exporting countries are allowed to invest their revenues to create new jobs for their own people or other Arab countries, let alone the rest of the Third World.
Some Arab countries have even become dependent on Western aid, thus allowing a US sponsored corruption to emerge. Jordan for instance, after numerous financial scandals, maintains an American employee appointed by the US government, not to eradicate the wide corruption phenomenon, but to make sure that the American aid will not entirely go to the pockets of the local corrupt officials.
The Caesars of Rome used to say ‘if the Roman Empire gets hungry Egypt will feed it all’. This was long before Israeli settlers occupied Palestinian lands and flooded EU supermarkets with fruits and vegetables. In the past the economy of the Arab World was based on agriculture. The population was relatively small and more or less self-sufficient. Over the last hundred years this population has increased nine-fold (to nearly 350 millions), while the cultivated lands have shrunk to an extent that the Arab World became dependent on Western food supplies, mainly from the US.
Poverty, unemployment, oppression, corruption and most importantly national humiliation are the prevalent set of characteristics that plague the peoples of the Arab World, accompanied by daily reminders of a lack of real independence. The ground has therefore become fertile for change. The Arab people understood that it is unnecessary to commit the same mistake of assassinating heads of states or initiating military coups. It is not true that the Arab uprisings are a youth led movement as the media tried to show. The role of Facebook and other internet sites has also been exaggerated. People of all ages and from all walks of life, men and women, filled the streets of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Algeria, Morocco, Iraq and lately Syria demanding change.
It is too early to survey what has been achieved. The fall of the two presidents, Ben Ali of Tunisia and Mubarak of Egypt, is undoubtedly a great achievement but the greatest of all achievements of the present uprisings is the boost of self-confidence among the masses in the Arab World, who have realised that when they are united they are capable of making real change, and opening new pages in the history of their countries.