I had just been appointed a senior lecturer at the UK-based Markfield Institute of Higher Education in the autumn of 2000 when the newly appointed director, Dr. Zaghlul Al-Najjar, summoned me to his office. He spent the first few days of his tenure in office acquainting himself with the academic staff. On that day, it was my turn.
After a few introductory remarks, he handed a copy of my CV over to me and said: “I want you to correct the mistakes in it and then bring it back to me.” Curiously, I flipped through the few CV pages only to find that he had crossed with red ink every single “Middle East” phrase within my CV. Politely, I asked him: “But what is wrong with the Middle East?” He said: “It does not exist, it never existed.”
This, at the time, seemed like a joke. For how could I change the title of my book “Islam and Secularism in the Middle East” or change the titles of some of my papers as well as of the many conferences and seminars I organised or attended? However, the rejectionist sentiment expressed by Dr. Al-Najjar, who is not a political scientist anyway, is shared by many activists and intellectuals of his generation who regard the Middle East a colonial invention. For them, it expressed the vision of the colonial powers of a region that was, for centuries, until the onset of colonialism the very heart of the Ummah, the Muslims’ global community.
In as much as the creation of the Middle East was the product of a change in the global and regional balances of power, another historic change could, indeed, lead to the disappearance of this category and the emergence of a new reality.
The struggle for undoing what colonialism did to this region never ceased. However, reform and national liberation projects aimed at accomplishing this objective have mostly reached a dead end. Reversing the process that saw the creation and consolidation of the mosaic of modern territorial states across the region proved to be a formidable, even near impossible, task.
The elites governing these territorial states seemed to inherit from the colonial powers their contempt for the populations under their rule. Most of these post-colonial entities, notwithstanding the claims of independence, ended up being some sort of feudal properties exclusively owned by Mafias, whether dynasties or some military juntas, that seized absolute control of almost all material and human resources.
As the ruling classes grew richer and richer the ruled, especially in densely populated states, grew poorer and poorer. Dissent, or mere criticism, was always suppressed and brutally punished. The majority of prison populations consisted of political activists and opponents. The two most common features across much of the Arab despotic Middle East were corruption and lack of respect for basic human rights.
When the Arab uprising of 2011 succeeded in bringing down four dictators who tormented their populations for decades in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen and seemed to threaten so many others, hopes were raised that a new order was perhaps in the making. Jubilant masses took to the streets in many other places in the hope of bringing about similar changes to their own communities, sending alarm bells ringing in the palaces of horrified kings and presidents. A new Middle East seemed to be in the making.
How would such a new Middle East have looked like?
Well, to start with governments would have been representative of the people and government functions and institutions would have been supervised by, and checked and made accountable to, elected parliaments. There was absolutely no need to reinvent the wheel; representative democracy had already been in place and functioning fairly well for centuries in the West. Indeed, this was what Egypt and Tunisia headed for. Had democratic transition in those two countries been successful and complete, other entities in the region would have enthusiastically followed their example.
Imagine for a minute what would have happened had the three neighbouring countries Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, who had just rid themselves of their dictators, been fully democratic. The people of Algeria next door, followed most probably by Morocco and Mauritania, would have not settled for anything less. One can easily imagine, from then onwards, that the peoples of those ‘democracies’ would have wanted their representative governments to remove the obstacles that were put in place by defunct dictatorships and that for so many decades limited freedom of movement and divided with artificial lines drawn in the sand by the old colonial powers a people who to a large extent spoke the same language, shared the same heritage, hailed from the same ancestry and followed the same religion. One could easily envisage that, within few years, confederations, or federations, or even full unions, would have formed.
Moving to the Arab east, and using a similar intellectual exercise, imagine what would have happened had Syria and Yemen, both of which rose after Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, had become democracies. The young and educated in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the in rest of the ultra-rich Gulf ‘principalities’ would have not settled for anything less than genuine political reform, to say the least. It is no wonder that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the State of Kuwait paid billions of dollars to fund the Egyptian army’s coup against the nascent regime and the arrest of democratic transformation not only in Egypt but also in Tunisia, Libya and Yemen.
Looking farther into the more distant future, had democratic transition been successful, one could envisage the creation of what might have become known as the United States of the Middle East, a formidable power with enormous resources, both human and material, and with considerable potential.
The impact of such transformation would have been unprecedented. It would have been no less significant and history-making than the American and the French revolutions. The emergence of such a magnificent regional power would have immediately put an end to Iranian expansionist and imperial ambitions in the region. It is no wonder that Iran, which today has a regime that claims to have been itself the product of a popular revolution against tyranny, was a staunch opponent of the popular Arab Spring revolutions. The emerging power would not have just been more genuinely democratic but it would have also been Sunni. It would have had the immediate impact of inciting the oppressed peoples of Iran, many of whom happen to be Sunnis or Arab Shiites, to rise and seek emancipation from a Shiite theocracy disguised as some kind of ‘democracy’. Iran’s endeavour to self-promote as the model for the oppressed peoples of Central Asia, Africa and the Middle East to follow would have been dealt a fatal blow. The emergence of a successful Sunni democratic model would have signalled the beginning of the end of the self-proclaimed role of global Muslim leadership by the Islamic Republic of Iran.
On another front, the emerging new regional power would, for the first time since Israel was created in Palestine in 1948, radically tilt the balance in the chronic Palestinian-Israeli conflict, or what used to be referred to in the old days as the Arab-Israeli conflict, in favour of the Palestinians. Arab unilateral peace treaties concluded with Israel at the expense of the Palestinians and without the consent of the Arab populations would, out of necessity, be revisited. It is no wonder that Israel seemed most concerned when the Egyptian people delivered to power, through the ballot box, a leader belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood and why it seemed most pleased when the Egyptian military toppled him in a bloody coup that almost fatally crushed the Islamic group.
So, the success of the Arab uprising would have eventually delivered a Middle East that is free from despotism, free from Iranian influence, free from division and free from Israeli occupation.
The 3 July 2013 military coup against the first democratically elected civilian president in the history of Egypt brought to an end what felt like a sweet dream. Since then, the Middle East has been living through a nightmare.
One may produce a list of reasons why the Arab Spring revolutions ended up in a mess. The most obvious reason has been the counterrevolution. The deep state, representing the interests of individuals and groups that were likely to lose as a result of change and reform, joined hands with regional powers and players, such as Iran, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, that were horrified at the prospect of democratisation succeeding in the neighbourhood as well as with some world powers, such as the United States, the EU and Russia, that feared the rise of Islamic groups to power via the ballot box. While the Russian attitude was not surprising, the betrayal of Middle East democracy by the world’s leading democracy in the West was scandalous.
Not only did this alliance bring to a standstill the dynamic that promised a better future; in fact, it contributed directly to the empowerment of the most radical elements within Middle Eastern societies and to the radicalisation of a large numbers of young men and women who swelled the ranks of ISIS. (From Deep State to Islamic State, The Arab Counter-Revolution and its Jihadi Legacy by Jean-Pierre Filiu; OUP, 2015.)
So far, the cost has been astronomical. Much of Syria is in ruin and nearly half of its population has been displaced internally or forced into exile.
The sectarian conflicts in Iraq and Yemen are pulling both countries toward the same abyss. Libya is already divided and is having its own ‘light’ civil wars while Egypt, which is being led by the coup authorities from one disaster into another, has never been worse.
The countries that funded the counterrevolution and contributed to the mess are showing signs of strain too. This is particularly true in the case of Saudi Arabia, which squandered billions over a series of misadventures from Egypt to Yemen forcing it to impose austerity measures on its own population at home.
Indeed, today, the mayhem prevails across the region and the crisis is only likely to grow deeper for a while. The war on terrorism has invariably only begotten more terrorism and is only destined to generate more of the same so long as political and economic reform is non-existent. All signs indicate that the Middle East will never be the same.
Yet, sometime soon – perhaps in a few years or at most in a decade or two – the next cycle of revolutions will begin. Revolutions that change the course of history usually come in cycles and achieve their objectives when their successive cycles manage to change not only regional and global balances of power but also the mindset and attitude of the people concerned.
Despite the heavy blow suffered by mainstream Islamic movements across the Arab world, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood, they continue to be the most credible and most popular political parties in the Middle East. Leftist, nationalist and liberal opposition groups that initially identified with the Arab Spring and cheered on as its revolutions erupted one after the other soon afterwards jumped ship and joined the counterrevolution when it became apparent to them that free and fair elections were being won by the Islamists in one country after the other.
The repressive measures used to marginalise or exclude the Islamists have always succeeded only briefly. It does not usually take long before they come back and rise once more. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, who won the presidential elections and the parliamentary elections in 2012 were previously almost completely annihilated twice, in 1954 and in 1965, by Egypt’s former military dictator Gamal Abd Al-Nassir. As they bounced back several times before, they will bounce back again simply because their persecution and their steadfastness coupled with their moderate and tolerant interpretation of Islam only add to their credibility and popularity.
The counterrevolution has now all but been fully exposed for what it is, even to many of those who were deluded by it. Wherever one travels in the Middle East today, nothing, not even terrorism, supersedes people’s concern about the deterioration in living conditions and the deepening crises at all levels. Many people see terrorism as an outcome rather than a cause whereas they believe the source of all evils to be despotism.
There is one obvious reason why change is inevitable and is definitely on its way. The counterrevolution has made things much worse than what they used to be when the Arab Spring revolutions erupted.
The pressure cooker will once again explode and a new generation of young men and women will take to the streets to resume the dynamic. Just like before, they will look for leadership and will find it nowhere but with those who have been truthful to the cause, those who paid with their lives and wealth, in order to bring about a new Arab dawn.