Middle East’s post-First World War challenges have never gone away

Middle East’s post-First World War challenges have never gone away

Illustration by Alex Green - Folio Art, for Arab News.

The impact of the First World War on the Middle East and North Africa was profound and enduring, particularly in ways that have been misunderstood. There are many commonly held views. For example, that the problems we face today are the result of badly designed borders — mostly those sketched out in the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 — and that political Islamism, whose first and most enduring manifestation arose out of the collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate, is an authentic expression of the popular will and its suppression politically pathogenic. Some other important claims — such as about sectarianism or the need for a neo-Westphalian regional system — also find their more distant roots in the turbulent aftermath of the conflict and the subsequent failed search for better collective security.
I think many of these views distort the historical record. Let me explain why I think that matters.
First, borders. Sykes-Picot, like the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence, was one of a number of different tactical and highly contextual discussions among Britain, France, Russia and their Arab counterparts, none of whom trusted the others, on the subject of the post-war settlement. The five or so states that eventually emerged did so as a result of: The failure of the Ottoman army simply to collapse; the emergence of a distinctive and ethnically based Turkish national enterprise under Mustafa Kemal; the treaties of Sevres and Lausanne; renewed Anglo-French tensions in the Levant; the retrenchment of British imperial power; and Kemalist ambitions to absorb what they saw as a largely Turkmen or culturally Ottoman periphery. But they looked nothing like the map sketched out in 1916.
Perhaps the most enduring impact of Sykes-Picot was the League of Nations mandates for what became Palestine, Iraq and Syria. Egypt was an entirely separate case. Yemen’s precise status remains unclear to this day, and its northern borders were only finally agreed with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia by the second Treaty of Jeddah in 2000. Libya is a product not of the 1920s, but of 1912 and the early 1950s; today’s Lebanon of the 1940s and the civil war of the 1970s and 1980s; and Tunisia and Algeria of the 1930s and 1950s.
Second, governance and states. The Arab state system that emerged in the 1920s — centering principally on the strategic axis from Egypt through Syria into Iraq — largely endured until 2003. What changed in the intervening years were systems of government. These changes were mostly the result not of the First World War but of the Second World War.
It was what some scholars have called the post-Second World War “rejection of the West” by emerging post-colonial states that overturned the often monarchical, ramshackle, quasi-electoral, semi-colonial, turbulent but relatively permissive nature of much of the post-First World War Arab governing system. In its place came authoritarian, securitized, often clan-based and centralized states within the same borders.

And this, for me, is what the uprisings of late 2010-2013 challenged. Borders were never the problem: Bad governance was and is. This wasn’t and isn’t just about oppression (which tends to increase after revolutions), it is about competence — the ability or otherwise to deliver public goods, economic welfare and social justice in sufficient quantities to generate sustained consent and legitimacy. If you look at who actually turned out in the streets of Tehran in 1978 and 1979 or in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011 — and later in the great Tamarrud demonstrations against the Freedom and Justice Party government of 2013 — or indeed what seems to have intensified social pressures to breaking point in urban Syria, it was the impoverished middle classes, leftists, students without job prospects or housing. The first protests in Libya in 2010 were about exactly that — the distress of small traders. In Iran, the bazaar classes of southern Tehran were the foot soldiers of Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution. Elsewhere, it was rural populations driven to the city by water and other environmental or security pressures and for work, as in Syria, who were feeling the pinch while their rulers continued to live in luxury.

One hundred years after the guns fell silent, we need to take a hard, dispassionate and collective look at history and learn its lessons afresh, again, better.

Sir John Jenkins

Behind this lay a deeper issue. The most significant deficiency in the post-First World War settlements of the former Ottoman provinces in the Arabic-speaking Middle East was domestic legitimacy. By this I mean a sustained acceptance by the inhabitants of the territories molded into nation states of the right of those put over them to rule.
It is not that these rulers did not recognize the problem of legitimacy. In Iraq, and indeed Jordan, the royal families used their lineage to good effect, particularly among Sunnis. Their challengers sought to construct alternative narratives. The armies in Iraq, Syria and Egypt claimed a particular virtue as the defenders of national honor and as a unique vehicle for social advancement in a world of closed political elites. Nationalists, pan-Arabists, leftists and Baathists all relied on appeals to some mystical union of sectional interests and those of the nation or its self-appointed vanguard.
And that brings me to a third point; a phenomenon that connects in complex ways the crises of the early 1920s with today: The mobilizing power of political Islamism. How is it — if the most recent insurgencies in the Arab Middle East and North Africa were essentially fueled by socioeconomic factors and a weakening of political legitimacy — that these historical legitimating claims or indeed more modern ones such as civic identity, liberalism or secularism have consistently failed when put to the test? And how is it that the chief and most resilient beneficiaries of revolution and the authoritarian reaction that follows have been Islamists of all sorts, Sunni and Shiite?

One explanation might go something like this. After the First World War, the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate, the Western-led redistribution of territorial allegiances, the rise of Zionism, and pressures for cultural and social modernization all posed serious challenges. There were four main state-level responses to this. The first was to consolidate power in the name of an authentic nativism and proclaim the creation of a classically reimagined Islamic state. This happened uniquely in what became Saudi Arabia.
A second response was to cobble together coalitions of elite interest groups to support state authority. This happened in Iraq under Faisal I, where, with the help of the British, a largely Sunni state emerged after the turmoil of the early 1920s.
The third response — again in highly specific circumstances — was in Egypt, where powerful and often secular constitutional and nationalist movements arose to challenge British influence through physical resistance, political maneuvering and programs of cultural renewal, with the monarchy caught somewhere in between.
The fourth response was to call for the installing of a purposeful Islamism at the center of political, social and economic life, to define the largely Christian and secular West as the moral “other” and to claim that the restoration of a specifically pan-Arab caliphate to replace the tarnished Ottoman version would restore the allegedly lost glory of the Muslim world.
This was essentially the message of Hassan Al-Banna when he founded the Muslim Brotherhood in March 1928. He was not alone. He drew on the ideas of the Islamic modernists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mixed with elements of Sufism, Egyptian nationalism, badly understood and rarely acknowledged European doomsayers like the appalling Oswald Spengler, and the worst aspects of European fascism. There were others — in Sudan and Syria — calling for similar movements of moral regeneration, “tajdeed,” under the banner of Islam as a precursor to true independence, the restitution of legitimate authority and the revival of Arab and Muslim power in the wider world. And, in Iran, many of the disputes of the Constitutional Revolution between 1905 and 1911 had revolved around similar questions, which continue to echo to this day.
The Muslim Brotherhood had political rivals in the 1930s in Egypt — the Wafd, the Saadists and Misr Al-Fatah. It was instrumentalized by, but also encountered hostility from, national political elites. But it created a template for all future dissident and insurgent Islamist movements, from those which saw a route to absolute power through electoral politics to those which chose instead vanguardist violence.
So where does that leave us now? That really needs another article; indeed a book. But my basic point is that the challenges that emerged in the region after the First World War have not gone away because they were never satisfactorily answered.
In Israel/Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon, the damaging consequences of the mandate system live on. In Iran, the Constitutional Revolution remains forever unfinished. Elsewhere, the ways in which colonialism was confronted — and the ways in which the West reacted — have given rise to intense distortions. The Gulf has largely been an exception to this pattern for various complex reasons. But the entire region, from Morocco to Iraq and Iran, is interdependent. And, as a whole, the state system that emerged in the 1920s and has evolved since then remains in many ways dysfunctional. It needs fixing. Most of the alternative ideologies on offer do not address real world needs. Governance remains at the heart of any answer.
This matters not just to the region but to the world, for reasons that are clear to all of us. One hundred years after the guns fell silent, we need to take a hard, dispassionate and collective look at history and learn its lessons afresh, again, better.

  • Sir John Jenkins is an Associate at Policy Exchange. Until December 2017, he was Corresponding Director (Middle East) at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), based in Manama, Bahrain, and was a Senior Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. He was the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia until January 2015.
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