Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1244, (30 April - 6 May 2015)
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1244, (30 April - 6 May 2015)

Ahram Weekly

The legacy of colonialism

The Arabs do not hate the West for its way of life. They only hate Western colonialism and imperialism, writes Hasan Afif El-Hasan

Al-Ahram Weekly

Most of the Arab nation-states are relatively new, left over from the era of Anglo-French imperialism that followed the defeat of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Only Egypt, within the region, had an earlier experience as a nation-state in the years after the rule of Muhammad Ali. All the other Arab states were invented by the British and the French as incipient states in need of guardianship.

Great Britain and France dominated the Middle East in the 19th and 20th centuries, ruling over Egypt, Sudan, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, Aden, the Persian Gulf, Algeria and Tunisia. The French general Napoleon Bonaparte was able to conquer and occupy Egypt in 1798. The French were forced to leave Egypt in 1802, not by the Egyptians or the Turks, but by another imperial force, this time commanded by the British admiral Horatio Nelson.

 Egypt remained a part of the Ottoman Empire, but after 1882 it was under British occupation. For decades, it was turned into a source of cotton for British industry and the Suez Canal became a British-French owned property. It was only in 1952 that the British military finally left the country, ending British imperialism in the region.

 After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, the victorious British and French divided the Fertile Crescent into five entities with new names and frontiers under their spheres of influence. The Arabian Peninsula, with its inaccessible deserts, was at that time thought not worth the effort of claiming. Its rulers were allowed to retain limited independence. Since then, the Arab elites have preserved the state and border demarcations imposed by their former imperial masters.

According to the British historian Jonathan Schneer, in 1916, during World War I, Britain’s foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, was “articulating what might be called the ‘white man’s burden’ to allow the dark-skinned peoples, including the Arabs, to govern themselves. At the same time, the French and British diplomats Francois Georges-Picot and Sir Mark Sykes were redrawing the Middle East map.”

 They sat in a conference room at the Foreign Office in London, crayons in hand and a large map on a table. The two diplomats coloured blue the portions on the map that they agreed to allocate to France, and coloured red the portions they would allocate to Britain. The map defined areas of colonial domination in which France and Britain would be free “to establish such direct or indirect administration or control as they desired,” Schneer writes.

The Palestinian historian George Antonius later wrote, “The Sykes-Picot Agreement is a shocking document. It is not only the product of greed at its worst, that is to say of greed leading to stupidity, but it also stands out as a startling piece of double-dealing.”

Through the agreement, the European imperialists established effective domination over the Middle East and treated it as their own property. In 1917, the then UK foreign secretary Arthur Balfour issued his Declaration to the Zionist leader Baron Rothschild to the effect that Palestine should be the “national home of the Jewish people.”

The declaration facilitated the colonisation of Palestine by the Jews, with Britain and other Western states trying to depopulate Western Europe of unwelcome Jews from Russia and Poland by sending them to Palestine.

 In this way they hoped to solve their own long history of anti-Semitism by granting Palestine, which was not theirs, as a homeland to the Jewish people, without consulting the country’s own people. The West armed the Jewish settlers to go on a rampage in the region, massacre the indigenous Palestinians, settle their land and create a permanent European presence in the Arab world.

While Britain was planning with the French the future of the Arab world and its foreign secretary was reviewing with Baron Rothschild the wording of the Balfour Declaration, the British high commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, was exchanging letters with the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein Bin Ali.

The two agreed that Britain would recognise the independence of the Arab lands in exchange for an Arab uprising against the Ottomans and their fighting alongside the British in World War 1. Hussein kept his side of the agreement by establishing a military force that fought against the Ottomans under the command of his son, Prince Faisal. The British reneged on their promise.



AFTER WORLD WAR II: Until the outbreak of World War II, the British and French were sufficiently strong to maintain the regional order they had designed for the Middle East. Afterwards, the European powers’ capacity to control increasingly restive populations disappeared.

The territories were granted independence, but for all practical purposes they remained within Western imperialist control, and the impact of imperialism on the peoples of the region has been immense. The US stepped in to fill the imperialist vacuum of control and emerged as the principal outside influence.

Nevertheless, the feudal and monarchical governments in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya were overthrown by military leaders in the years after World War II, these proceeding to establish republican governments.

The US then became heavily involved in a series of offences in the Middle East. They have included imperialist aggression in Lebanon, Sudan, Libya and Iraq; helping Israel against the Palestinians; and support for Middle Eastern tyrants against their own people.

Almost a century after World War I, the US military destroyed Iraq and planted the seeds for its division into three political entities, creating anarchy in the Arab world. Then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in office under President George W Bush, even suggested that “creative chaos” was needed in the Middle East as a means to transform it into a “New Middle East.”

But people living in chaos cannot be “creative”. Only imperialist powers with sinister intentions can plan “creative chaos” for them. Rice’s underlying assumption was the same as that of Balfour in 1916, being that the peoples of the Middle East are incapable of running democratic societies and have little capacity for human decency. Rice and all policy-makers in the West assume that there are significant differences between the West and the Arab world with the implicit suggestion that the latter is inferior.

Arab people since have been engaged in civil wars and sectarian violence, turning against each other. Brutal civil wars are raging in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Lebanon. Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria have been in a state of chaos since the so-called “Arab Spring” revolutions swept the Middle East. Sudan’s civil war, which lasted for decades, splintered Sudanese society into many feuding clans and armed tribes, and divided the country into two hostile states.

Millions of Arab civilians have died or been displaced as victims of violence and human rights have been violated. The conflicts and human suffering seen throughout the region are unlikely to improve in the foreseeable future because the political institutions are in disarray. Even the Palestinians, sometimes referred to as “the intellectual elite of the Arab world,” are no less divided and feuding than other Arabs.

They are fractured between rival forces, living under Israeli occupation in disconnected Bantustans in the West Bank and Gaza. Thousands are languishing in Israeli jails, being besieged and murdered in Gaza or abandoned by the world in refugee camps.

Relative stability only exists in those Arab countries ruled by absolute monarchies and sheikdoms, such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Maghreb, Kuwait, the UAE and Oman. But Bahrain has experienced unrest among its Shia citizens, who constitute the majority of the population, with these demanding more representation in government.

Military intervention by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) on behalf of the Sunni ruling minority in Bahrain ended the troubles temporarily. The Bahrain case suggests that the Arab monarchies stick together and mobilise their resources to defend each other.

Unlike the republics, the Arab monarchies have decades of experience in managing the social and economic issues of their citizens. The absolute monarchy as an institution resonates with Arab paternalist culture.

Kings have a unique power to weaken and sometimes end public protest by ordering immediate popular constitutional reforms that include liberalisation and consent to public demands. This has happened in Jordan and Morocco, even if these states do not have the economic resources that the oil-rich Gulf states have to meet activists’ demands.

Governments in modern states are supposed to be trusted by their people to preserve their lives, liberties and freedom. Modern governments enjoy legitimacy as a result of the support of their citizens. But this idea has not been embedded in the political traditions of modern Arab nations. Their governments have rejected democratic participation, sought legitimacy only from their foreign imperialist patrons and behaved as arrogantly absolutist in dealing with their own people.

 In governing people, there should be limits on the powers of the rulers, but in the Arab world the powers of the ruler are often unlimited. Order and justice in civilised societies are universally known to reinforce each other, or at least to be compatible, but in the Arab world the two are conflicting alternative goals of government policies or they are even mutually exclusive.

Order must sustain the universal goal of pursuing happiness in social and political life, but the Arab peoples conduct themselves in conformity with the laws under conditions of fear and insecurity.



ARAB REGIMES TODAY: The main function of the Arab regimes is overwhelmingly to police their people rather than to bring about economic and domestic development. Their armies do not hesitate to kill hundreds or thousands of their own citizens demanding political and economic reforms.

The fusion of military and government roles has produced a set of institutional arrangements that are highly authoritarian. Governments have been militarised and the military politicised.

The 19th-century writer on the Middle East Adolphus Slade wrote that the “old nobility lived on their estates. For the new nobility, the state is their estate.” Western imperialists became the new nobility of the Arab world early in the last century, and they are still acting as if they own it.

This was true when Georges-Picot and Sir Mark Sykes were redrawing the map of the Middle East. It was true when Condoleezza Rice suggested that “creative chaos” was needed in the Middle East. And it is true today when US President Barack Obama declares “the US will lead [in the Middle East] from behind.”

The Arab people do not hate the West for its way of life. They only hate Western colonialism and imperialism and Western support for Arab tyrants.


The writer is a political analyst and author of Is the Two-State Solution Already Dead?

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