Middle East chaos in historical perspective
By Seth J. Frantzman
The chaos that has seemingly engulfed one Arab country after another in the last five years, and now appears to be swamping Egypt and Yemen, is part of a broader pattern that a clear reading of history reveals.
The U.S invasion of Iraq in 2003 seemingly began a process of democratization and hope that has unraveled several Arab countries. The resulting insurgency in Iraq didn’t peak until 2005-2007.
At around the same time Prime Minister of Lebanon Rafic Hariri was murdered in a massive car bombing unleashing protests, which forced Syria to withdraw from that country. Then in January of 2006 Hamas won the Palestinian elections ushering in a year-and-a-half of low level violence that resulted in Hamas’ conquest of the Gaza Strip. That was followed by the sudden collapse of Tunisia’s government.
The internal pattern played out in these four countries has been roughly similar. Each was previously ruled by secular-nationalist governments led by strongmen. In Iraq it was Saddam Hussein who ruled for roughly 24 years. In Lebanon it was Syria which occupied the country for almost 30 years.
The fall of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia ended a 24-year reign and has seemingly sealed the fate of the ruling party which has been in power since 1957.
In the Palestinian territories the rise of Hamas didn’t overthrow the ruling Fatah party but it seriously challenged its power. Fatah, the main political element in the Palestinian Authority, has been the leading power behind the Palestinian movement for 30 years.
What becomes clear is that the process of collapse has taken place after years of political stagnation and one party rule. But the internal logic behind the descent into chaos has been brought on by a number of factors and has affected, so far, only a certain type of regime.
Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon are all legacies of the 1950s Arab nationalist awakening. It must be remembered that until 1918 many of these countries were under Ottoman Turkish imperial rule. In the case of Tunisia and Egypt the two countries fell under colonial rule, by the French and British respectively, in 1881-1882. Prior the 1880s both Egypt and Tunis were ruled by hereditary monarchies.
After the defeat of the Ottomans in World War I, the Middle East entered an interesting period. An Arab revolt led by a leading family from Mecca and supported by the British and various Bedouin tribes helped to drive the Turks out of the region. The leaders of this revolt, the Hussein family, attempted to install themselves in power.
Eventually they were able to retain only the kingdoms of Jordan and Iraq. In Palestine the British mandate resulted in division of the country between Jews and Arabs. In Lebanon the French mandate ensured the creation of a unique sectarian political system that ensured power sharing between its various groups.
The major movement in the Arab world from the 1920s was a type of Arab nationalism that borrowed heavily from imported European ideas and blended modernity, democracy, secularism and socialism. The Arab revolutionary regimes that came to power in the 1950s in Egypt (1952), Tunisia (1957) and Iraq (1958) proclaimed their countries to be republics.
While the regimes were different and often at odds with one another they shared hostility to the traditional monarchies found in Jordan and Saudi Arabia and viewed themselves as secular and socialist. They tended to side with the non-aligned nations during the Cold War but received weaponry and advisors from the U.S.S.R.
After 1973 Egypt increasingly found itself a key ally of the U.S. Saddam, a U.S ally in the 1980s, fell out of favor after the momentous invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The Palestinian leadership under Yasser Arafat also moved from a Soviet oriented orbit to moderation and understanding with the U.S. in the 1990s. Lebanon has been a key Western ally since its independence in 1943, an alliance that saw American soldiers arriving in the country in 1958 and the 1980s to prevent civil strife.
Now however these secular-national regimes appear to be on their last legs. Fifty-eight years of rule by the Nasserist political party of Egypt have stagnated the country. The opposition is made up of secular liberals and Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood.
The same types of opposition, in different forms, are found in Lebanon, Iraq, Tunisia and Palestine. In Lebanon Hezbullah, a Shia Islamist party, has now played a key role in bringing down the government and appointing the most recent Prime Minister Najib Mikati. Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al Malaki began his career as an Islamist Shia dissident of the Dawa party.
As noted above, Palestine’s political landscape is divided between the secular-nationalist government in Ramallah run by Mahmud Abbas and the Islamist Hamas in Gaza. Tunisia’s Islamist movement is quite small compared to the other countries surveyed.
The fall, like dominos, of the secular-national governments in the Middle East mirrors a process that stretches back to the 19th century. It is part of a larger cycle. Whether the current wave of chaotic political change will also affect the Gulf monarchies, Jordan, Libya or Morocco awaits to be seen.
The author is a post-doctoral researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute of Market Studies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.