Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Born of the Great Game - echoes of the past?

The following is hastily compiled, poorly researched and slightly off topic... but hopefully draws a little attention to something that is missing from recent news coverage about the recent revolutions in Arab countries.

Since the Tunisian revolt and removal of the repressive regime of President Ben Ali dissent has spread throughout "the Arab World". The Dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt followed with more protests occurring in other countries in the region notably Bahrain, Yemen and Libya.

While some partisan commentators were quick to spruik the threat of Islamic this or Islamic that, and others the "incompetence" of the Obama administration for not predicting these incidents, a few have attempted to identify the common themes.

In Food, civil unrest and anarchy I linked to some articles suggesting that food price was one common theme.
Arabs rejoin the world
David Hirst (from The Guardian), The Age.

No other such geopolitical ensemble has so long boasted such a collection of dinosaurs, such inveterate survivors from an earlier, totalitarian era; no other has so completely missed out on the waves of ''people's power'' that swept away the Soviet empire and despotisms in Latin America, Asia and Africa. In rallying at last to this now universal but essentially Western value called democracy, they are in effect rejoining the world, catching up with history that has left them behind.

If it was in Tunis that the celebrated ''Arab street'' first moved, the country in which - apart from their own - Arabs everywhere immediately hoped that it would move next was Egypt.
Mr Hirst then gives his own reasons for Egypt being important in shaping the views and thoughts of the region, but forgets probably the most important. For centuries the Universities and Schools of Egypt have been at the centre of Arabic and Islamic thinking.
[The] burning questions will be about where the Arab democratic revolution strikes next. Though Europe in 1989 is the obvious precedent, the kings and presidents may not fall like dominoes as the Honeckers (East Germany) and Ceausescus (Romania) did. And, in the wake of Ben Ali and Mubarak, others may not fall so easily or prettily either. That is already apparent from the two latest, and most dramatic, episodes in the almost unceasing pro-democracy turbulence that grips a good half-dozen Arab countries.

The 200-year-old Bahraini monarchy may have currently retreated into an attempt at reconciliation, but this regime has already shown how tenacious and tough - and bloody - it can be.

As for Libya, there could hardly ever have been much doubt that Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, cruellest and most capricious of Arab dictators, would seek to do what he has always openly proclaimed he would do to any opponent of his 41-year-old Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab State of the Masses: which is to ''cut them to pieces''.

But most regimes are candidates. Among the few likely exceptions, perhaps the most important, and certainly the most apt, is Lebanon. Ever turbulent, ever the most exposed of Arabs to the consequences of what other Arabs do, it might logically seem destined to be among the first to go. But it isn't - mainly because, alone in the region, it has always been a democracy of sorts.
All very democratically inspiring - and forgetful. Jeremy Bowen at the BBC has a slightly better interpretation.
Mid-East unrest: The discontent shaping new Arab world
Jeremy Bowen

[Now] it is clear that no Arab ruler can afford to feel safe. And the protests in Iran have started again as well.

The Iranian authorities, and the Arab ones in Yemen, Libya, Algeria and Bahrain are fighting back. Other leaders, and their secret policemen, wonder when it will start in their countries.

All have home-grown reasons for discontent. But they share some common characteristics.

One is government that is to a greater or lesser degree repressive.
Another is the frustration of young and growing populations, who know more about the outside world than any generation before them.
Leaders [believed] they could manipulate the way people thought.
Pan-Arab satellite TV has been tearing away at taboos about what can be discussed since the mid 1990s. And now social media mean that everybody can join in.

Countries can't be shut off anymore. But their rulers have often continued to behave as if it was still 1960.

For years, the Sunni royal family has been trying to tighten its hold over a population that is 70% Shia.

It has brought in Sunnis from other countries to try to change the population balance. They've been given passports and other inducements that can include jobs with the security forces.

Unrest among Bahraini Shias disturbs the Saudi royal family. The eastern province, which is where most of the oil is, has a large Shia population. It has been regarded as fifth column for the Shia rulers of Iran - though without much evidence.

Perhaps the Saudi royal family should feel nervous. The king and the crown prince are both old and ill.

And if the Saudis are worried, imagine the calculations that are being made in Washington, London and other Western capitals.

For years countries that pride themselves on democracy and human rights have backed undemocratic regimes that to varying degrees oppress their people. It has been a useful piece of diplomatic hypocrisy.

But now Western countries are going to have to deal with a new Middle East. And no-one at the moment has any idea how it will turn out.
But, I would have thought a well educated Brit or two might have some further inklings the distant historical genesis of the story.
British Mandates from The Map Room

The Great Game
is the phrase used to describe the conflicts, posturing and colonisation between the then "Great Powers" of Europe for control of Central Asia and the Middle East. In the century leading up to The Great War European countries conquered, colonized or otherwise controlled lands in Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa. One of the most effective strategies employed by a smaller force of invading colonisers to maintain control was the strategy of Divide and Rule.
Typical elements of this technique are said to involve
  • creating or encouraging divisions among the subjects in order to forestall alliances that could challenge the sovereign.
  • aiding and promoting those who are willing to cooperate with the sovereign.
  • fostering distrust and enmity between local rulers.
  • encouraging frivolous expenditures that leave little money for political and military ends.
Examples include;
India - a system of weak divided states,
Iraq - an imported Royal backed by Assyrian soldiers,
Lebanon - coastal Syrian towns (mainly Muslim) added to Maronite center. This restricted Syrian coastal access and increased division in Lebanon.
and the current rulers of Bahrain.

Prior to WWI, the Ottoman Empire began to weaken. The French and British conspired to organize an Arab revolt; a strategy designed to keep Turkish troops occupied in the Middle East taking pressure off the Western Front. This became an urgent matter as the Russian Revolution and subsequent peace treaty with Germany meant that German troops from the Eastern Front could be deployed on the Western Front. However, the French and British had devised a secret plan (Sykes-Picot Agreement) to control the "Liberated" areas of the Middle East.

The reason a small minority of elite Sunni "Royals" rule is partly becuase that is how the British set it up. Even after Egypt finally overcame British control, after a brief period its leaders (i.e. the recently evicted despot) became close (too close?) allies of the US.

In the article cited above (David Hirst), the author forgets to mention that so many of the regimes swept away by,
the the waves of ''people's power'' that swept away the Soviet empire and despotisms in Latin America, Asia and Africa.
were from places where the despots were frequently aided, abetted and supported by successive European and US Governments (from Pinochet to Soeharto etc).

So while it is nice that "democratic" reforms look like being adopted (is the revolution over?), 'we' shouldn't pat ourselves on our collective backs just yet. AND perhaps the wisest thing other countries can do is nothing (or nearly so) - lest the new leaders be seen as yet another attempt at rule by proxy.

Note: France employed similar tactics in its North African dominion - now the countries of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco & Libya.

Links (usual internet caveats apply)
Divide and Rule: the impress of British separation policies
Mechanisms of Western Domination: A Short History of Iraq and Kuwait
An interesting collection of articles at The Map Room
Where’s the American Outrage Against U.S. Support of Dictatorships?

No comments: