In order to give you a full understanding of what is currently taking place across North Africa and the Middle East, allow me to first give a brief background on why the Middle East is politically the way it is today. The history may seem boring but stay with me and it should hopefully pay off.
It has been theorized that in order for a nation’s citizens to live at peace together they must have at least two points of commonality with each other. In the case of the United States, while we are of different races and different religions, we have a shared language and shared ideologies and values — honoring the self-made man, promoting tolerance, rooting for the underdog, a desire to right our wrongs, etc.— which has created a shared culture and makes each of us American. While I feel this is eroding and will present future problems for our country, I will have to save that for a future blog post.
In the Middle East and across much of North Africa, until roughly 1920, the vast majority was of the same religion (Islam), everybody identified themselves as part of the same nation or empire and the key differentiating factor was that of tribal and cultural differences. Suffice it to say that for the most part, everyone got along very well and the Middle East was a world power under Ottoman rule.
However, a faction of Arab (non-Turks) from what is present-day Saudi Arabia felt that they should be the rightful rulers of the Arab lands and should be autonomous. And why shouldn’t they? The Hashemite Sharifians had ruled Mecca and Medina since 1201 and the Muslim holy book, the Koran, is believed to have been divinely given to the Prophet Mohammed directly from the Angel Jibreel (Gabriel) in the Arabic language. To make the case even stronger, Sharif Hussein bin Ali who was the ruler of Mecca and Medina (the two key locations of the Muslim Hajj and thus the two biggest tourist destinations and wealthiest cities in the middle east) did not like the Ottoman’s constantly looking over his shoulder. To his credit, his bloodline had done a pretty good job keeping it under control since 1201.
So, to speed things up a bit, the Ottomans formed an alliance with the Germans during WWI and thus became an enemy of the French and the British. Sharif bin Hussein conspired with the French and British to overthrow the Empire and found very willing accomplices. In 1916, the Arab revolt began and with the help of their new found western allies was very successful. King Hussein requested a single unified Arab state and asked the French and British to help him establish it. This was not to be the case.
Fearing such a powerful unified force and desiring access to spice trading routes. The British and French divided the Middle East into the countries that exist today. When Sharif Hussein protested, the Saudi Tribal leaders were approached to plot his overthrow. He was taken out by the Saudi tribal leaders and they were given control of Mecca and Medina which has made them extremely wealthy as a result (they are now the current Saudi Royal Family).
The final loose-end for the French and British was figuring out what to do with the sons of Sharif Hussein. Their family had been the rightful rulers of those lands since 1201 and desired their father’s inheritance. So, in lieu of giving them Mecca and Medina and fighting the newly formed Saudi Royal Family, the British and French gave his sons the countries they had newly drawn up. Faisal bin Hussein bin Ali al-Hashemi became the ruler of the Arab Kingdom of Syria and later the Arab Kingdom of Iraq. Even today Hussein’s sons’ legacies can be seen in King Hussein of Jordan and the legacy of Saddam Hussein of Iraq.
So, now that we have run through that long history, what does that have to do with Egypt, Tunisia, Lybia, etc. today? The answer is a lot.
The current populace of the Middle East desires a return to its Ottoman past, not under Ottoman rule but under one Muslim/Arab banner. They wish to have the commonality that they once had and they desire strongly for the reunification of the Middle East. [I can’t blame them. In my opinion, they deserve it as much as we deserve a unified United States. However I have to clearly and emphatically state that I do not agree with the tactics that have been used to date and I do not agree with them targeting specific ethnic or religious groups as enemies of this process. This also needs to be a slow process that respects the new state of the world and respects the rights of each nation state.] In getting back to the history, the fingerprints for this desire to be a unified Arab nation can be seen all over any major event that has taken place in the Middle East in the past 80 years: this led to the six day war in June of 1967 (a lot of Arab leaders wanted to be seen as the first to kick out who they viewed as the imperialists and thus be the leaders of the reunification), this is why Saddam Hussein attacked Iran and later Kuwait and this is the motive driving Osama bin Laden, Al Qaida, the Muslim Brotherhood and countless other political groups.
The problem is that from the very beginning arbitrary country lines were drawn to create a nation of people that had already formed an identity as something else. As soon as Tunisia or Egypt or Libya was created, these people had to ask themselves: Am I Tunisian? Am I Egyptian? What is the Kingdom of Syria? What does that mean? Am I still Arab? Am I still Muslim? Am I still loyal to the Ottomans? Does my tribe matter? All of these questions become very difficult to figure out in a world that doesn’t draw the same boundary between religion, culture and politics that we do. As a result, people lost their points of connection and began quarreling. Despotic regimes took over, profited off their populations and kept their people at bay out of fear.
Enter Wiki leaks: Corrupt economies are exposed, people realize that they are poor because their government is profiting off of them, their leaders are dirty dealing and thus we have revolution.
Is this revolution good? My initial instinct would be to say yes. Yes in the sense that it may be good 100 years from now. But, is this good for their people and for the world now? I don’t think so.
The toppling of these regimes, the nostalgia for a unified Middle East and the poverty and lack of infrastructure that is to come will create a deep need for support and rule from the people in a power vacuum that will most likely be filled by the current powerful parties: Al Qaida, the Muslim Brotherhood, etc. As these organizations with money, resources and a violent agenda step forward, we will not see the Middle East grow into the Intellectual light that it once was, we will see it descend into very dark times: dark times for its people and for our global economy.
In my mind this is something to be concerned about and something to be prayed about. I honestly hope we all take some time to offer up our prayers for the individuals in these countries, for the soon to be leaders of these countries and for the world’s leaders trying to make sense of a very messy situation. Let us hope that as was the case with Eastern Europe, the Orange Revolution and others that saw leaders pulled directly from their populace to work towards peace and economic renewal, we see the same thing across the Middle East and North Africa.