By Ali Habib and Hoda Mohanna
‘Who do I blame for the current crisis? The British, French and Russian governments, Ottoman decline, Arthur Balfour, Francois Georges-Picot, Mark Sykes, Theodor Herzl, David Ben-Gurion, Gamal Abdul Nasser, Hafez Al-Assad, Yasser Arafat … I could go on forever.’
Not long after making this general thought public on Facebook, I came to find many messages from people asking what I meant… which brings me to this article. After said enquiries for clarification (as well as being asked by the editor) I decided to write a short piece to expand on my brief Facebook status. Historical context is important in when analysing and configuring most, if not all, current conflicts in the world; an argument which I deem to be especially necessary in the cases of Palestine, Iraq, Egypt and Syria.
The Ottoman Empire, at its height, controlled thirty-two provinces extending from North Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. During the 19th century this empire’s might and glory weakened as a result of corruption, bankruptcy and more importantly Europe’s role in the international scene. Europe had turned its interest to the Ottoman region at this time, which had been dubbed the “Eastern question”; not to mention the outlook of the Ottoman Empire itself, and its fatal perception that the European ‘modernity’ way was the way forward. It was at this point when the Ottomans were called “The Sick man of Europe” on a global scale: a sign that a structural change across the Middle East was under way.
The question “Who’s to blame?” is a question that occupies many minds and brings many policies, and political figures into the pictures.
Thought no.1: European Interference
The infamous Triple Entente alliance (being Britain, France and Russia), managed to split this withering sultanate and cut it into nation states. Britain and France were the pioneers for this dubious change to the region, as these new nation states were administered into a mandatory system whereby the British administration would take control over the majority of these states- i.e. Jordan, Iraq, Palestine and Egypt- and France stretching its hand over Syria and Lebanon. This new, and somewhat enforced reality in the region created concepts of identities, ethnicities and allegiances to new states, flags, national anthems, “national causes” and struggles, all of which were new to the region, and resulted in an even greater fragmentation.
The reasons for interference are obvious, but were not acted upon with one simple act, but rather, was callously made over a long period of time, building up to some pretty major maneuvers.
The Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916, the Hussein-McMahon correspondence and the Balfour declaration in 1917: just three of the most important outcomes of the First World War.
The Hussein-McMahon correspondence: this is a series of letters between Sir Henry McMahon (the British high commissioner), and the Sharif Husain of Mecca written in 1915. Britain promised the Sharif that an independent kingdom of Arabia would be created, but if- and only if- they revolted against the Ottomans, which predictably led to the Arab revolt. But rather than winning the Muslims and Arabs onto the British team with their leading initiative, it created the hope and motivation to revolt, a means to the end of Arab independence. Here we see manipulation, and essentially a glimpse into the beginning of the creation of national and ethnic loyalties, which seems to be an indefinite cause to the sectioning of the Arab world. (“Divide and conquer” comes to mind, doesn’t it?).
The Sykes-Picot agreement: this secret deal made in 1916 intended to divide Greater Syria. This agreement planned to divide the Middle East between the victors of World War 1 (the Triple Entente), which was in clear conflict to the promises made by Sir McMahon to the Sharif of Mecca. And so, Britain and France were able to implement their control after the war, which was contrary to the original proposal of Arab independence. With this, the real intention of European powers is confirmed, and one can put 2 and 2 together, so to speak.
The Balfour Declaration: this was a public statement made by Lord Balfour to the Zionist delegation in 1917, which vowed an increase of Jewish migrants into Palestine. This British promise on behalf of Palestinian land essentially meant that it was now a Jewish homeland, eradicating Palestinian authority and home in one blow. And so, it comes to no surprise that this triggered ill feelings from the Arabs towards the Jewish immigrants into full force, especially since Israeli settlements were growing (by force), combined with their continuous attempts at eradicating Palestinian existence altogether. This very declaration made it clear that the European community had no regard for Palestinians, be it as the rightful owners of their land, or with any value for them as human beings, leaving them in the disgraceful and heart wrenching position that we see today.
These three deals combined create a web of contradictions, which would sadly redefine the political, economic and demographical structure of the region, and as we can see today, the Middle East has and continues to pay the price generations later with further developments in conflict.
Thought no.2- Yasser Arafat: True Friend or Foe to Palestine?
Till the present day, many Palestinians and others hold Yasser Arafat as a fighter for the Palestinian cause, and place him on an untouched pedestal. But when one looks at the Oslo Accord, one instantly snaps out of this disillusionment and brings us to see the shocking reality of his actions.
The Oslo Accord of 1993 had the official aim of trying to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and was to bring the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organisation) and the Israeli government together in person to try to come to some sort of agreement, with the presence of the US President Bill Clinton to accompany them. Many decisions were made during the meeting, one being the formation of a Palestinian interim government, and asked for the withdrawal of the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) from parts of Gaza and the West Bank, just a few pieces of land that the Israelis left for the Palestinians. What is shocking to find is the decision that Arafat took as a representative of the PLO, being his acknowledgement of the “State of Israel” in the Letters of Mutual Recognition and their rejection of Violence.
This action taken by Arafat on behalf of the PLO at large leaves one speechless. It is safe to say that this was an ultimate betrayal, and almost annihilated the Palestinian fight altogether with this written declaration. Regardless of what Arafat and the organisation thought this move would lead to, it is safe to say that Arafat was not a friend to Palestinian rights.
Thought no.3- European Interference…again
The former Ottoman provinces of Mosul (majority Sunni), Baghdad (40/60 between Shia and Sunni) and Basra (majority Shia) were commissioned by Britain to mould the new state of Iraq, and to ensure a numerical balance between the Shias and Sunnis in the area. These unique areas were put together; an artificial combination due to the varying ethnicities and histories amalgamated to create the Iraqi nation state. Many identities are in Iraq, including groups such as the Sunnis, Persians, Jews, Shias, Assyrians, Kurds, Yazidhis, and the list goes on. In short, the British established unequal policies that ended up creating the divisions, hatred, sectarianism and poverty which are still present and rife today.
Thought no.4: The glorious leader of the Arab nation known as Gamal Abdel Nasser
Another domestic candidate for the current political failure of the Middle East is Gamal Abdul Nasser, whose jaw dropping actions came under way after his gradual rise to power after the military coup of 1952. Under his “guidance”, political parties were banned; all candidates for the national assembly were only accepted under the supervision and approval of Nasser, religious institutions such as Al-Azhar were stripped of any head figure who could threaten Nasser’s power. Supposedly these changes received 99.9% of votes (something that does not seem shocking if you are familiar with Egypt’s current political module). In essence, Nasser replaced the corruption of the monarchy and elite, with another form of corruption under new rules by new up and coming members.
It doesn’t just stop there. Nasser made himself the leader of Pan Arabist movement, aiming to rid the Middle East of European poison, and create independent Arab states built on the notion of anti colonial nationalism. Whilst many still admire him for his supposed anti colonial efforts, it is obvious to see that this was a facade, and that in fact Nasser is responsible for much of the societal and political damage that we can identify presently. Nasser made a big statement by rejecting the Baghdad Pact of 1955- an attempt by the British to extend their policies and influence to Arab states- and urging fellow Arab leaders to do the same as it was just another form of imperialism. However, in the same year Nasser had appealed to the West, asking to provide Egypt with funds for military equipment, and when rejected, he went running to Czechoslovakia, gaining $200 million for military funds. A clear move against anti colonialism and independence. And political, economic and social repercussions aside, the ideological consequences were greatly damaging and widespread. Alas, like many political figures, the Nasserist legacy is not what it seems.
Thought no.5- Assad Legacy
Why is the father of Bashar Al-Assad responsible? Without mentioning the massacre that occurred in Hama, it’s the imprisonment and killings of Muslim Brotherhood leaders/supporters. It is believed that Hafez Al-Assad received 100 million dollars for the Golan Heights before the six-day war in 1967. Dr, Mahmoud Jame, who was a close friend of Anwar Sadat states that in return for the money, Hafez would order the immediate withdraw of Syrian forces from the Golan Heights in June 1967, without showing any form of opposition. He has clearly taught his son well, for the art of money laundering, political corruption and bombing defenseless innocent civilians (who simply demanded their rights) has been well executed by Bashar.
Thought no. 6: Hezbollah
Following the defeat of the Israeli regime’s massive military aggression against Lebanese territory in July 2006 at the hands of Hezbollah, Nasrallah and his comrades have since been poised to become the forefont leaders of Islamic militant resistance against Israel. Like Assad & Nasser, much of the legitimacy that gave rise to Hezbollah’s popularity amongst Palestinians was their anti-zionist, anti-israeli discourse. Much to the Palestinians bewilderment, however, this discourse was nullified as soon as Hezbollah’s troops appeared Syria, helping the Assad army crush the civilian and rebel resistance against a dictator whose crimes also extend to mistreatment of Palestinians (see Yarmouk camp).
Hezbollah’s actions in Syria have since translated into sectarian support for a close ally, and an abandonment of the ‘Palestinian resistance’ that once gave Palestinians hope, and made Israel quiver.
What is left to be said?
If we keep insisting on ignoring history when examining current events we may end up authenticating statements and ideas that have no foundation for justification or rational.
Golda Meir, former Prime Minister of Israel (1969) said ‘It is not as though there was a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.‘ Fabricated statements of this degree are easily believable when people reject history, and can result in the idolisation of figures who do not deserve recognition, let alone to be given the privilege of leadership.
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