Roger Hercz sticks his face once more in the hornets nest – challenges the West’s policies towards the Middle East

here is a note to Mrs. Chapman in previous post; calm down dear, and carry on! Mr. Økland mentioned in same post should probably read Donald Duck. (and apologies for translation,  90% google translate job…)

The West and The Middle East

by Roger Hercz
Published 3 september – 1273 views Post
The upheavals in the Arab world is not just about an attempt to win freedom. Today it is more about tearing down the world order that was established almost 100 years ago.

JAFFA (Dagsavisen): In May 1916, while the First World War still raged in Europe, French and British diplomats met in London for secret talks. The goal was to transform the Middle East. Before them on the table, large maps were rolled out.  After a period of negotiations, the French Francois Georges-Picot and British Mark Sykes agreed to place a ruler on the map, and then draw a new political line that cut right through the Middle East from east to west.

The Ottoman Empire, with its seat in Istanbul, had not yet fallen. But France and Britain were ready to divide up the lands of the weakened empire in their own spheres of interest. The area north of the line on the map would become known as Mandated Syria and Lebanon, and fell under French control. The area south of the line would be Palestine, Transjordan and Iraq, and fell under British control. The problem with the line drawn on the map in 1916, and which shaped the Middle East as we know it, was that the boundaries did not take into account local conditions. Today, nearly a hundred years later, it is crumbling

Take, for example, Syria. The regime in Damascus has for decades been among the Middle East’s most brutal, and there is no doubt that many Syrians dream of a better future than the dictator Bashar Assad has managed to offer. But the problem is that this is not just a struggle between a dictator and a people who dreamt of a democracy. In a country whose political boundaries were set by France, the thought of a Syrian identity has not always been imagined. Often other identities have been more prominent, and many in the country feel just as attached to their religious group – as the Christians, the Sunni or Alawites – or  ethnic group, such as the Kurds. These identities were reinforced already under the Ottoman Empire, where minorities often had a large degree of autonomy.

This complex background has strong ramifications for the uprising of today. Many Christians today support President Assad – not because their lives are so brilliant under the dictators rule, but because they fear that an eventual Sunni majority rule would create greater difficulties for them. They fear therefore that such a rule would be more Sunni than Syrian, meaning that the Syrian Christians will be excluded and suppressed.

The Assad family itself, which belongs to the Alawite minority, knows these conditions well. And they know how to exploit them. When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, another one of those states that were created around the negotiating table in London, Assad did what he could to split the neighboring country so that Washington would not be able to establish himself at his doorstep. He used the divisions that already existed between Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq as a precision weapon, and armed one group to fight the other.

Assad does the same in Lebanon today. In a signal to neighboring countries and world powers that the Middle East will be dangerous if he falls, he whips up the internal tensions between Shiite and Sunni Muslims in Lebanon. As you may have guessed, Lebanon was established by France. And in Jordan too, which was established by the British, internal tensions are now growing.

But although the European colonial powers’ actions still cause havoc for the situation in the Middle East, it has not all been entirely negative. One of the reasons that the power transfer in Egypt has gone smoother than elsewhere during the Arab democratic spring, is that a Western-oriented Egyptian leader already in 1900-century established state institutions that are still relevant. Crucially, Egypt has had a parliament since the 1880s.

This show the Middle East’s history has been influenced by Western aspirations, for better or worse. And it will probably continue. Even Islamists have to adapt to an increasingly globalized world, and must find a way to build a  relationship with Europe and the USA. Nonetheless, many in the West fail to recognize that the picture is not always black and white, and thus end up with inaccurate analyzes of the Arab democratic spring.

For example, Egypt’s ex-President Hosni Mubarak, who maintained peace with Israel, has often been portrayed almost as an Israeli collaborator. But Mubarak and Anwar Sadat before him, did not include peace with Israel because they suddenly became Zionists. They did it because they saw it as an Egyptian interest. After wars in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973 concluded that Egypt’s economy could never salvaged if  the destruction of war was not stopped.

This understanding is important to appreciate  if one is to analyze the Muslim Brotherhood’s way forward. Today is finally the Islamists’ turn to offer their solutions to Egypt’s historic problem. But since it will be important for the Brotherhood to consolidate its grip on power, it is likely that they will be cautious in its foreign policy vis-à-vis the West, and rather direct their resources towards changing Egyptian society in accordance with their ideals.

Published on Dagsavisen debate pages the same day.