The Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin once said that there are decades when nothing happens and then there are weeks when decades happen. While Lenin’s sentiment consummately captures the revolutionary contagion currently sweeping across the Middle East, any further comparison between the Arab revolt and classical socialist theories of revolution would be difficult to justify: what we are witnessing in the Middle East today is a quintessential, atypical people’s revolution driven by university educated youth who are not only financially secure but also extremely cosmopolitan in their outlook.
These young revolutionaries have enhanced the power of social networking to mobilise their peers, workers, political organisations, NGO’s, the young, the old and even the normally disinterested to materialise what Stathis Gourgouris recently described as the essence of revolution: The people’s removal of their consent to power.
There is as such a much deeper historical undercurrent informing the protest movement, one that strongly resonates with the most basic of human aspirations and which dictates that freedom and honour – like the air that we breathe – are the lifeblood of all people, even when they remain for long periods of time beyond our collective gaze. Reflecting on the historical context that has shaped the modern Middle East places the current phase of popular revolution in much sharper perspective.
The modern Middle East was born in crisis. Remnants of the Ottoman and Safavid Empires of the 19th century, the countries of this realm only took the form of modern nation states after passing through the brutal mill of European colonialism. Whereas state formation in Europe took centuries to develop, countries in the Middle East were created by the veritable stroke of a pen; by a line drawn on a map; by a decision taken in a smoke-filled boardroom.
The results were catastrophic and for the people of this realm the transition from sultanic patronage, to colonial subject, to modern citizen of an autocratic state was overwhelming: little, if any, consideration was given to their political aspirations.
The political establishment in the modern Middle East has thus always been structured in a top-down order. The colonial legacy not only created boundaries that prioritised the exclusive interests of the Motherland, it also created political elites that were drawn exclusively from the classes of Tribal Chieftains and Urban Notables. In cases where these structures were overthrown in the postcolonial period, they were ultimately replaced by military dictatorships and the people were left out in the proverbial cold.
After freeing themselves from the shackles of colonialism, the Arab regimes were not able to make a smooth transition to political systems of representative governance. With the exception of the constitutional regimes of Iran and Turkey, all of the Arab states are ruled by either military dictatorships or absolute monarchies.
In addition to the challenges of internal transformation, the Middle East was also burdened with the external pressure of interference by the powerful regimes of the West, primarily due to massive oil reserves and the Region’s strategic location as the bridgehead between Europe and Asia.
What the current upheaval unquestionably affirms is that the political landscape of the Middle East is being irrevocably transformed. The Middle East has not been able to cohere as a strong independent regional bloc since the emergence of the modern system of nation states. This has been largely due to the role played by external powers that have manipulated the political orientation of the region in favour of their own vested interests.
Post-Cold War era
In the post-Cold War period, the United States of America has held unchallenged sway over the region and has manipulated the politics of the Middle East in accordance with its own strategic objectives, primarily its concerns over access to oil and keeping the rising powers of China, Russia and India in check.
Such control has been maintained by two major strategies. The first has been unconditional support for the State of Israel, a settler colonial enclave that is completely foreign to the cultural matrix of the region. Israel has acted as America’s watchdog in the region in return for unconditional support for its own aspiration of maintaining an exclusivist Jewish homeland in the heart of the Middle East.
The second American strategy has been to maintain loyal local proxies by turning a blind eye to the internal oppression within these authoritarian regimes. Some of the USA’s closest allies in the region, countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen, the UAE and Jordan, are longstanding dictatorships that have shown no inclination to internal reform and political liberalisation.
As such, the greatest achievement of the revolution currently underway is that it has spawned a new political geography. With the collapse of Egypt alone, a major pivotal state in the region, American influence in the Middle East could be drastically reduced. Furthermore, Israel would no longer be in a position to act with impunity against its Arab neighbours, as was the case in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008/9; its deterrent capacity in favour of its own interests and that of its American Master will therefore be severely curtailed.
In the post-Cold War era, countries can no longer be divided into the three neat categories of West-Aligned, Soviet-Aligned or Non-Aligned. As such, the potential emergence and forging of new alignments in global politics may well be one of the most significant consequences of the ending of the Cold War. But in spite of these dramatic transformations, the Middle East is still very far from being able to crystallise into a new power configuration that reflects regional integrity and cohesion and which stands united as a powerful new bloc in global politics.
However, the potential for such a development is not far-fetched and such a vision has already been eloquently articulated by the Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, in his book Stratejik Derinlik (Strategic Depth) published in 2001 that theorises on the importance of a shift in global politics from a unipolar world order to a multipolar world order.
The main thesis of Davutoglu’s book is that a nation’s value in world politics is predicated on its geo-strategic location and historical depth. According to this theory regional powers need to counterbalance their dependencies upon the West by courting multiple alliances to maintain the balance of power in their regions. The premise of this argument is that core regional states should not be dependent upon any one actor and should actively seek ways to balance their relationships and alliances so that they can maintain optimal independence and leverage on the global and regional stage.
As such, key core states like Brazil, Russia, China, India, South Africa and Turkey have an important role to play in moderating the biased interventions of the United States in global politics. This can be achieved by forging strong regional alliances that impact positively upon the independent regional blocs and therefore upon global politics as a whole. Although Europe as a region has consciously tied its fate to that of the United States of America, it too, holds tremendous potential to impact more positively upon global governance by asserting a far more independent role.
Being the world’s only Hegemon, America will continue to pursue its vested interests and is unlikely to be deterred by moral considerations when weighing its options on the global political stage. The only way in which the USA will make concessions in the Middle East – or anywhere else for that matter – is if it is forced to do so.
What the Arab masses have taught us at this very important juncture in their history is that they are not only ready to purge their homeland of dictatorship, but that they are also no longer content with accepting a global political discourse that allows established democracies in the West to entrench and maintain tin-pot dictators abroad. If freedom and honour are concepts that have managed to spark a revolution in the Arab world, than equal rights for all is most certainly an aspiration that is also capable of transforming an unjust world order.
This is most certainly not a burden that can be carried by the revolutionary masses of the Arab world alone. What they have done is to put on the table the prospect of a multipolar system of governance in which core states within strong regional blocs play a more decisive role in the politics of their regions as well as in the international sphere. Turkish foreign policy has given much leadership in this regard with specific reference to the Middle East.
Other countries would do well to pay careful attention to the Turkish example and to consequently play a more assertive role in the international sphere in a manner that strengthens a multipolar world order by means of cooperation between core regional blocs so as to ensure that interventions in regional and international crises are informed by common values and not vested interests. While such consensual action may result in moderating the role played by the United States of America in the international sphere, it will ultimately contribute to a far more just world order.