Thursday, March 17, 2011

238. From Nasser to Mubarak: Part 2. Imperialism and the Arab Revolution

By Kamran Nayeri, March 17, 2011

In the first part of this writing, I outlined the rise of bourgeois Arab nationalism and its downfall. I argued that bourgeois Arab nationalism could not play an independent role because historically it arose when the world market was already dominated by a handful of early capitalist industrializers (this phenomena is also referred to as modern imperialism or in other accounts as colonialism).  The post-World War II Arab nationalism failed because its petty bourgeois (middle class) leadership with bourgeois (capitalist) aspiration could not effectively challenge imperialism and international reactionary social forces due to its fear of independent action of the working people.
 Here, I like to outline the historical roots of Arab nationalism, as they are relevant to the current upsurge and why it has to remain independent of imperialist intervention no matter what the excuse for such actions. In a nutshell, Arabs have only recently gained any measure of political independence. To advance the Arab revolution, it must defend and advance its independence against imperialism.
The Arabs lived under the Ottoman Empire since the beginning of the sixteenth century.  With the decay of the Ottoman Empire, Arabs fell under the domination of the rising European imperialism. The French annexed Algeria in 1830 and Tunisia in 1878.  The British took over Egypt in 1882, although formally it remained under Ottoman sovereignty.  The British extended their control over the Persian Gulf while the French dominated Lebanon and Syria.  The Italians took over Libya and the Dodecanese Islands off the coast of Anatolia in 1912.
The European influence modernized the Arab society in a variety of ways.  Constitutionalism, civil law, secular education, and industrial development found followers. Railways and telegraph connected urban population centers. Schools and universities were built and the new middle class emerged with army officers, lawyers, teachers, and administrators. However, direct or indirect dependence of the European powers meant that this modernization was mostly grafted on the old society. The influence of the Islamic clergy remained strong.
After the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in 1918, Britain and France concluded the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement that essentially divided the Middle East between them.  The British also promised the international Zionist movement their support for a “Jewish homeland” in Palestine (The Balfour Declaration).
Even though the Arabs proclaimed an independent state in Damascus when the Ottomans left, they could not defend it militarily and economically.  Soon the British and the French reasserted their domination and divided the Middle East according to their interest.

Syria became a French protectorate (sanctioned by a League of Nations mandate). The Christian coastal regions were split off to form Lebanon, another French protectorate. Iraq and Palestine became British mandated territories.  Britain imposed the Hashemite monarchy on Iraq and defined its territorial limits such that it subjugated the Kurds and Assyrians to the north and the Shiites to the south.

Britain split Palestine into two parts. Seventy percent of it, east of present day Jordan River became the “Emirate of Trans-Jordon” in 1921 and a son of Sherif Hussein (“Emir of Hejaz”) was declared king! The western part was placed under direct British administration and European Jews were encouraged to settle there adding to a substantial local Jewish population there.
A British ally, Ibn Saud was given the Arabian Peninsula that became the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. 
In 1922, following the British government’s Universal Declaration of Egyptian Independence, the nominally independent Kingdom of Egypt was announced.
The Middle East and North Africa turned out to possess the world largest easily accessible reserves of oil.  Thus, the control of the region became a strategic interest of the industrial capitalist world. The kings and emirs of the oil states around the Persian Gulf and North Africa assumed an important intermediary role for the oil companies and became rich from collecting oil rent. They used their rent money to consolidate their repressive regimes to ensure “free flow” of oil to the West.
At the end of the World War II the following countries became independent: Lebanon (1943), Syria (1944), Jordan (1946, British mandate ended), Iraq (1947, British forces were withdrawn), Egypt (1947, British forces were withdrawn to the Suez Canal area), Libya (1943, as a result of the defeated on Italy in WWII), Tunisia (1953 pro-independence campaign led to French negotiated withdrawal), Morocco (1956, negotiated French withdrawal by King Mohammed V), and Algeria (movement for independence from 1954 that faced ruthless colonial war by the French leading to independence in 1962).
The post-World War II Arab nationalism developed out of this context.  Although the current upsurge is directed against tyrannical Arab regimes whether neocolonial (like in Egypt or Jordon) or post-colonial (like in Libya), struggle for independence from imperialism will remain a foundational part of it if they are to realize the aspirations of the Arab masses.  I will address this and other policy issues in the part 3.
To be continued.

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