Things sure have changed since, over 3/4 of a century ago, my mother spent several seasons (meaning not summers) on a University of Chicago archeological expedition in the land of the Pharaohs. Now Westerners are being evacuated; in fact, much of the Middle East has become rather inhospitable to outsiders.
Sympathy for all the recent and not-so-recent victims of violence there and the tragically mixed results of the Arab Spring doesn’t prevent one from looking for a long view. Since the time of Napoleon…
Indigenous monarchs and other leaders were subsumed into colonial regimes: the Ottoman Empire, Britain, France, and the more short-lived Italian outpost in Libya and Russian domination in Afghanistan.
Israel, founded largely by British contributions and influence, was superimposed onto an already complicated map.
The outside colonial empires collapsed between World War I and the mid-twentieth century.
The West nurtured dictatorial regimes through the Cold War, but now it’s embarrassing to be seen as supporting such allies. Fifty years ago we would have “welcomed a return to orderly government and the rejection of anti-Western interest groups” in Egypt this week. We just can’t say that any more, not so directly.
You have to think the various colonial invasions and occupations, most recently by the US in Afghanistan and Iraq, joined to Israeli expansion, have permanently upset the balance of power and indigenous institutions throughout the region.
As I wrote two and a half years ago in “Which way will Egypt turn—the Russian or the Chinese outcome?” (1/3/11):
Watch out for words like “stability” and “order” coming from the Egyptian military, if it decides to swing into action.
Well, it has swung into action.
I also mentioned that in 1991, Russian military units ultimately refused to depose Russian president Gorbachev, and that
A commentator on NPR today said the Egyptian military really doesn’t like to open fire on Egyptians. Let’s fervently hope they do prefer the Russian solution.
Not so, unfortunately; they have adopted the Tiananmen Square solution.
Here’s what I think:
1) If democracy depends on the military, it’s not really a democracy. President Eisenhower warned us about that, in terms of “the military-industrial complex, in his 1961 farewell speech.
It’s a potential problem here, and a real one in much of the Middle East (not even to mention the many countries elsewhere that have overtly military regimes).
It always interests me that “the military” is made up of people who live in a country. What, I wonder, goes on in their minds when they are told to kill their compatriots? (Yes, it has happened here, though on a much smaller scale, in 1970 at Kent State University and Jackson State College.)
2) The turmoil in the Arab countries is largely about religion. As soon as the Muslim Brotherhood became a political party, Egypt had a problem. In our country, if a religious party starts to dominate political life, we will have a problem that makes the quarrels over Obamacare look like child’s play.
And it’s a danger here. To paraphrase W.E.B. DuBois: the problem of the Twenty-first Century is the problem of the religion line.”
If (as our Founders obviously realized) democracy depends on religion, it’s not really a democracy.
3) The law of unintended consequences: since the US went into the Islamic countries to “promote democracy,” it’s hard to say that democracy has advanced very far there, but Sunni vs. Shi’ite strife has increased and Christians have pretty well departed from Iraq and Palestine (in both of which they were once numerous); and their days are probably numbered in Egypt, if recent pressure against the Coptic minority is an indication. (See “Egypt’s Christians under attack since Morsi’s ouster” by Sarah Lynch, USA TODAY, 8/15/13.)
One thing that surprises me is that the Religious Right is always fulminating about supposed infringements on Christian dominance in the US, but they don’t seem to care what happens to extant Christians abroad. Perhaps that’s just as well, actually.
4) The West, Russia, China, no one has the influence to pacify the region any more. And you can’t say they did a great job of it when they tried. Obama and Kerry can go through the motions, but the legacy of Bush v. Bin Laden is that it won’t work.
I think one really has to predict that the current unrest will go on for a long time, and bloodily, till state, religion, and military are all aligned in each country… say, by the middle of the 21st century. It’s not just Islamists vs. secularists but Sunnis v. Shi’ites v. others like the Alawites in Syria.
That won’t be pretty, but frankly, except for the oil, no one outside will really care, unless an Arab country gets nuclear weapons. I am betting Iran, not an Arab country, is too smart to risk everything over internecine Arab strife.
Actually, some countries are apparently happy with the ongoing military crackdown (“Massacre in Cairo: Egypt on Brink After Worst Violence Since 2011 Revolution,” Democracy Now!, 8/15/13):
…the United Arab Emirates expressed support for the crackdown, saying the Egyptian government had, quote, “exercised maximum self-control.”
The turmoil in the region in the past dozen years means each of those countries will be thrown back on its own resources and internal hostilities–which, come to think of it, is pretty much the way history has always been. And some of those countries may (like Sudan) split up before it’s over.
I feel like the polar opposite of Francis Fukuyama‘s famed 1992 “End of history” proclamation.
Well, isn’t it lucky I’m not working for the US State Department (and surprising that he did)?
You think I’m being pessimistic? Try out Chris Hedges, “Murdering the Wretched of the Earth,” truthdig, 8/14/13:
…If you live in the sprawling slums of Cairo or the refugee camps in Gaza or the concrete hovels in New Delhi, every avenue of escape is closed. You cannot get an education. You cannot get a job. You do not have the resources to marry. You cannot challenge the domination of the economy by the oligarchs and the generals. The only way left for you to affirm yourself is to become a martyr, or shahid. Then you will get what you cannot get in life—a brief moment of fame and glory. And while what will take place in Egypt will be defined as a religious war, and the acts of violence by the insurgents who will rise from the bloodied squares of Cairo will be defined as terrorism, the engine for this chaos is not religion but the collapsing economy of a world where the wretched of the earth are to be subjugated and starved or shot. The lines of battle are being drawn in Egypt and across the globe. Adli Mansour, the titular president appointed by the military dictator of Egypt, Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, has imposed a military-led government, a curfew and a state of emergency. They will not be lifted soon.
The lifeblood of radical movements is martyrdom. The Egyptian military has provided an ample supply. The faces and the names of the sanctified dead will be used by enraged clerics to call for holy vengeance. And as violence grows and the lists of martyrs expand, a war will be ignited that will tear Egypt apart. Police, Coptic Christians, secularists, Westerners, businesses, banks, the tourism industry and the military will become targets. Those radical Islamists who were persuaded by the Muslim Brotherhood that electoral politics could work and brought into the system will go back underground, and many of the rank and file of the Muslim Brotherhood will join them. Crude bombs will be set off. Random attacks and assassinations by gunmen will puncture daily life. …