Monday, 21 February 2011

The Return of History to the Middle East

A number of commentators have compared the uprisings that have been taking place this year across the Middle East to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War during the period 1989-91. However, whilst this comparison is one that I wish to endorse, what is noteworthy is the failure of analysts to expand on this comparison and make clearer in what the relationship consists.

The general argument at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall was that history had "unfrozen". Essentially the Cold War was related to as a kind of peculiar digression in the development of a number of societies although few were adventurous enough to note that this was true also for Russia and the Asian republics, all of whom had also been entombed in a political form that, whilst promising the future, had, in essence, incubated the problems of the past, problems that soon arose to the fore again (particularly in the Balkans but also in the Asian republics). This "unfreezing" was not without consequences and profound costs but was surely, despite that, preferable to the survival of the bizarre political forms that had termed themselves "communist".

The Middle East, it seems to me, is undergoing a similar unfreezing as occurred in Eastern Europe (and east Asia) during that period. The Middle East emerged as a geo-political area with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the close of the First World War which led to new areas of influence being claimed by the European empires, particularly those of Britain and France. The Second World War effectively destroyed these empires also although France fought hard to keep control of Algeria. The arrival of Israel in 1948 also contributed a key element to the mix that became subsequently familiar.

Leaving aside the special case of Israel the countries of the region have essentially failed to make any serious mark on history, being principally the site of concentrations of oil and being an area in which client states of the "superpowers" existed during the Cold War. Turkey, the previous home of the Sultanate during the Ottoman period, has a history during the period that suggests a civil society that has been allowed to assert itself and a corresponding open possibility of development (currently being stymied by the EU). Look elsewhere and a familiar litany begins to emerge of dictatorship, repression and lack of economic development.

In these circumstances it is less surprising than everyone has so far found it that the region should be being wracked by turmoil with the dictatorships of the region being challenged in Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen. It is naturally difficult to see how the struggles in these places, each of which have quite specific characteristics, will play out. But what is clear is that the understanding of them all in terms of the "Palestinian struggle" as has been standard in many circles for some years, is radically defective. It is also evident that the Western powers have played an effectively reckless game in the area.

The Gulf Wars aside the interventions of the Western powers in the region have rarely been undertaken with the purpose of pursuing political and civil development in the region and the Gulf Wars themselves were hardly successful in terms of identifying means of strengthening civil society! Western powers backed dictators in the region in relation to narrow conceptions of their own interests as was dictated by the doctrine of "realism". The result was that the populations of the area were never related to as having any importance in international calculations. The result of this is now coming into view: such societies were always inherently unstable and, under the weight of adverse economic conditions, are coming apart. The departure of such figures as Mubarak and Gadaffi would be welcome but the development of a Western engagement with the area that aimed at fostering civil society in post-revolutionary circumstances would be even more so. The return of historical development in these societies in the sense of the emergence of their populations as actors in the region's dramas is likely to have multi-faceted effects but is necessary if the countries in question are ever to be able to shape a destiny of their own rather than being clients of others.

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