During the past months, several Arab countries have experienced revolutionary movements. These events, which sometimes seem chaotic when viewed from a distance, and even the anger in the people’s reactions and voices become understandable, in my opinion, if we examine them through the lens of the Middle East’s recent history.
Behind these events, at least partly, is the last two decades’ phenomenon called globalisation – the rapid and almost unobstructed expansion of global capitalism. This expansion has sometimes been overtly violent and coercive. Additionally, since the Gulf War in 1990 – 1991, the political development in the Middle East – even in almost all of the Islamic world – has revealed its Janus-face’s belligerent and aggressive side. Also, many alliances derive from this war, produced by the assembled coalition. Today, these alliances backfire, for instance, by causing the removal of political leaders.
The crowd storming the street during the last months did not emerge out of nothing. Concerning the Middle East, we may say that Aladdin’s enchanted lamp had gathered very much pressure. Even a small vibration was able to relieve the lamp’s genie. The people in both Tunisia and Egypt ran out of patience on a grand scale. Finally, this blew the lid of Pandora’s box – opened already slightly by the violence of the last decades – completely away.
The sentiments of the crowds reacting in the streets are a mix of: the disappointments of several decades; promises betrayed one after another; a political atmosphere poisoned by unresolved conflicts; the permanent perception of being dominated by foreign powers, anchored in the centuries of colonial power, colonialism, and imperialism; and wounds torn open by wars. All of this contributes to an anger which makes the people ready to sacrifice their own lives for freedom.
In Egypt, at least, this development was influenced by the neoliberal economic policy dictated by the World Bank and responsible for impoverishing the population. In the whole region, a contributing factor has been the humiliation caused by the so-called War on Terror, perceived as unjust, and the political leaders’ commitment to it. The concepts of honor and justice are significant everywhere in forming the public opinion. In the Arab world, the so-called Arab street, which has shown its power during the last months, derives its strength exactly from this feeling of manifold humiliation.
The historical memory of the people, fostered by the age-old cultures of the Middle East, is long. Consequently, historical analogies can be heard and seen in connection with the current revolutionary movements. Here is a short listing of topics occurring in the discussions and writings in Egypt, just to mention a few. First, the large people’s movements against British colonial rule after the First World War; second, the officers’ successful revolt against the monarchy in 1952; and third, the long presidency of Gamal Abdel Nasser (1956 – 1970), have been mentioned. Nowhere, not even in Tunisia, did the contemporary societal crisis as a driving force behind the unrest overshadow the concern about the Palestinians and the concern about the broken-up society of Iraq.
From my viewpoint as a historian and expert on the recent history of the Middle East, the rise of these issues into the public discussion looks well justified and natural. The series of broken promises to the Arab national movements already started during the last years of the Ottoman Empire and before and after the First World War. Additionally, secret diplomatic agreements were concluded. Of these the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, between Great Britain and France, dividing the Arab territories into areas administered either by the British of the French, is the best known. In the Balfour declaration of 1917, the British promised the Zionist movement’s leaders a homeland in Palestine, which officially at the time still formed a part of the Turkish provinces. Following the Second World War and the ending of the British and French mandates, an avalanche of political changes resulted. The state of Israel and many independent Arab states were formed.
During the Cold War era, put under pressure by power politics, the independence of the Arabic countries remained, however, largely symbolic. The legitimacy of the political leaders had already suffered due to the political manipulations during the independence process. These manipulations raised families and clans to power who had been chosen and approved by their former colonial masters. I claim that these issues have always affected the Persian Gulf monarchies and, for example, Jordan. Even this spring, these countries could not avoid protests in the streets and ”Days of Wrath”.
The legitimacy and credibility of political leaders also suffered decisively from the Cold War-era practices. The superpowers, fighting for influence in the Middle East, were ready to back any head of state, however undemocratic, theocratic, or dictatorial his rule might be. The only precondition for support was the loyalty towards the superpower.
A well known phrase from the Cold War era is: ”He may be a sonofabitch, but he’s our sonofabitch.” This phrase was too true in the Middle East as well. The tragedy is that despite promises, nothing changed – not even when the Cold War turned into a Pax Americana, a US predominance in the area. As before, the dictators were necessary, for “strategic reasons”.
Thus, the current “street revolution” is breaking the socio-political dams, which have been building up for decades. Moreover, it mixes up the region’s military and political power balance more than any other change has in decades, including the end of the Cold War.
On 17 February 2011, while writing this, I may predict that the strategy of military intervention, prepared by the US since the mid-1970s, is unlikely to work in a scenario where, for example, a Persian Gulf monarch is dethroned and the opposing force of the intervention are the people on the streets. Bahrain, an important cornerstone of US power in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean areas since the Second World War, is currently in flames, and the situation there threatens to escalate into a violent confrontation.
Even if the events in Bahrain do not lead to great changes or even if the strong machinery of oppression should still succeed in violently suppressing the uprising, the peace in the Persian Gulf area has already been irrevocably disturbed. The core issue in this area, as in North Africa, is the legitimacy of the rulers and ruling families. The oil monarchies could nowadays be ruled by people other than those chosen by the grace of the former colonial masters. The reason for their being chosen was to have ruling families sufficiently loyal to secure the access to the Persian Gulf oil supply.
These countries have not, however, been predestined to remain oligarchic hereditary monarchies. Democracy, even a republican form of government, has – even in this region – been the dream of the opposition, forced into an underground existence and illegality by repressive actions. The image according to which these societies would be standing monolithically behind their monarchs is simply wrong.
This ideal image has been formed by propaganda, and the people’s mental obstacles have been constructed. Their breaking frightens both the dictatorial rulers of the region and the powers which have ensured their domination over the region by their military presence and by their military support of the region’s rulers.
According to my understanding, the main issue behind the rising anger is still, as has been in the previous century, the question of independent statehood – sovereignty. The political independency in many cases remained almost a dead letter, and economic independency a distant hope. These wounds have been torn open by globalisation, to the terms of which the local economies were forced to adhere. From the common people’s point of view, the outcomes of the nominal independence during the last decades have been a disappointment. Along with this, the ruling elites’ subordination as lackeys to external actors ignites the rage in both the Persian Gulf area and North Africa.
In this situation, the political leadership puts itself into a precarious position by allying itself both politically and militarily with powers striving to uphold the predominance of outside powers and the status quo in the region. During the last decades, this external dominating power and, consequently, the preventer of domestic changes has been the United States.
It seems that all of the Middle East unexpectedly has to pay the bill of this development now. The overall extent of the movement that started in Tunisia remains to be guessed. In my opinion, it seems clear that this spring will cause a historic change in the Middle East. After this, it is hard to imagine that the region’s people will quietly succumb to terms dictated from the outside or from above. Neither will the soldiers in and outside of the Middle East, who have mapped the region on their strategic maps, avoid new map-making exercises.
The mob called the Arab street has quite an impressive power!
Pertti Multanen PhD, M.Soc.Sc. Adjunct Professor in International Relations, specialized in Middle Eastern affairs, has followed the events in the Middle East for four decades, starting in the late 1960s. The topic of his doctoral thesis was Egypt during the Nasser era, 1952 – 1970. His working career has been mostly as an administrator, leader, and teacher at the Institute of Development Studies of the University of Helsinki. Currently, he is a teacher in the discipline of Development Studies in the Department of Political and Economic Studies of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Helsinki. He is both a renowned teacher and a commentator of Middle Eastern Affairs in the public media. He was a board member of the Foundation of the Finnish Institute in the Middle East from 1998 to 2009.
Translated by Timmy Trümpler