A Bird’s Eye View of the Years 1945 to the Present.
PART ONE: ARAB NATIONS
When World War Two ended in 1945, daily life throughout the Middle East was thoroughly under the control of two European Powers — Great Britain and France. Most Arab people lived in colonies ruled outright by European powers; others were either “Protectorates” or “Mandates” assigned by the League of Nations but effectively ruled as colonies. During World War Two, certain of the local monarchies, including that of Iran, had been taken by force under control of the European powers (including, in the case of Iran, the USSR), in order to reverse the effects of Axis penetration of their governments and military. The Mandate of Palestine was voluntarily and with great relief handed back to the United Nations by Great Britain in 1948, leaving the newly-established General Assembly of the United Nations with the task of overseeing division of that ancient property between “a Jewish State and an Arab State.”
During the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, independence was granted everywhere. In some cases, this came at little cost in lives and property – relative, that is, to the cost of the bloody wars of liberation fought in Asia during this same period. In other parts — notably, in French North Africa – independence came late and following brutal civil war fought out between the European colonial power and nationalist resistance movements.
Political History of the Arab World (1940s-2013)
On the first day of television coverage of Tunisia’s “Jasmine” Revolution in January, 2011, the BBC put up one academic authority who told us that “this is something that has never appeared in the Arab world before – a popular uprising that toppled a government.” Perhaps he had been smoking something! In fact, the list of popular uprisings toppling Arab governments or assisting crucially in their downfall in the Twentieth Century is as long as your arm. [Details of this sordid history can be found in: David Pryce-Jones, The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs (New York: Harper & Row, 1989); Michael Field, Inside The Arab World (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1994); Kanan Makiya, Cruelty and Silence: War, Tyranny, Uprising and the Arab World (New York: Horton, 1993.) ]
Here is a synopsis of the story for the largest of these nation-states.
The royal dynasty to whom the British handed the government of Egypt after1951 was quickly driven out (1953) following a military coup of the sort already quite familiar throughout the Arab world. A Republic of Egypt was established under General of the Army Naguib, who was shortly replaced by Nasser (1956-1970) and thereafter by Sadat (1970 -19811) and then Mubarak (from 1981-2011.) The Army maintained peace internally by means of large-scale imprisonment or execution of leaders of popular Islamist movements, notably the Muslim Brotherhood. The careers of Sadat and Mubarak both ended in violence – Sadat at the hands of Muslim Brotherhood assassins and Mubarak in forced confinement and under death sentence, after being overthrown in the popular uprising of 2011. A brief experiment in democracy put the Brotherhood’s Mohammad Morsi in the Presidency in 2012, but then the generals removed him, following a popularly-supported coup one year later. Just before this essay appeared, the Egyptian Army brutally suppressed pro-Morsi crowds, killing at least 300 people (the government estimate) and three thousand (the opposition element,)
The Mandate of Mesopotamia was re-configured as the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq (1922-1958.) During this period whenBritain ruled by force in Iraq, there was a steady succession of revolts sponsored by various ethnic and religious fractions. From 1936 to 1941 different military figures, each hoping to become the dictator of Iraq, provided five coups per year. Early in 1941 a pro-Nazi coup took place, requiring the British to divert troops from their already depleted reserves in Cairo. Popular indignation at the British victory expressed itself in the age-old way — a massacre of Jews. After a few months, and until the Second World War was safely over, the British resumed their occupation. The Hashemite monarchy lasted until 1958, when it was overthrown through a another coup remembered as the 14 July Revolution. King Faisal II, along with members of the royal family (cousins of the present royal family of Jordan) were executed, their bodies mutilated and dragged through the streets by the citizens. The hero of the 1958 coup was in turn overthrown and killed in the coup of 1963. The specialists argue about the exact number of further coups, but it is agreed that they culminate in the coup that brought to power President Saddam Hussein (1979-2003.)
As for Syria, it should suffice to note that historians have distinguished more popular uprisings and violent coups than in the history of Iraq or Egypt! Syria, a French Mandate, received independence in 1938, but the regime at that time fell under pro-Nazi influence after the Fall of France (1940.
Again, it fell to Churchill and the already overburdened British armies (and behind them the British taxpayer) to overthrow this “collaborationist” regime. Independence was restored again by France in 1944. In 1949 there were two military coupsagainst the newly-independent government, one right after the other; there was another coup in 1961; then more coups than the historians can count (1961-1966); then the coup that installed the Minister of Defense Hafez al-Assad (1970.) After his death in 2000, his son Bashir al-Assad became President in response to the unanimous call of the nation. As I write, we are being told with authority that over 100,000 people have died so far in a civil war that began less than two years ago.
The pattern emerging is duplicated in the history of all the other Arab nations. It is perfectly clear and it bears no resemblance to the generalization offered by the BBC’s regional expert quoted a few paragraphs back. Immediately following independence, there was typically a period of contentment, and in some places a surge of patriotic pride fortified by heavy-duty propaganda campaigns in the schools promoting awareness of the origins of the for the newly-invented modern nation in ancient Kingdoms and Empires recalled in the Old Testament and whose remains are currently being unearthed by archeologists in the Fertile Crescent. There would be grand new official names and titles and colorful brand-new flags.
This never lasts. The driving force in modern Arab history is recurring riot, driven by waves of religious fanaticism, manipulated by ambitious insiders in the top rank of government and/or military (the categories largely overlap), always skirting anarchy, eventually suppressed by broadly-supported military action to suppress disorder – leading to dictatorship.
A recurring theme in this cycle is the impulse of all the major forces in these episodes to blame the invisible hand of the Jews for all this un-Arab trouble-making. The call rings out for jihad against the sons of pigs and monkeys. A military potentate emerges promising order today, democracy tomorrow. These promises are taken by the Untied States and sometimes other outside governments as grounds for stepping out with gifts of direct aid. These are entrusted to the generals in return for speeches of commitment to Democracy and Freedom. As order fails to materialize, the commitments are forgotten, but humanitarian reasons are found for continuing the programmes of direct aid. Given the perceived importance of inculcating respect for the governments of Arab nations, the money for such aid programmes is left in trust to the generals.
Standards of Living and Other Indeces of the Good Life under Arab Rule Since World War Two
All extant Arab regimes came in promising democracy, but so far none has delivered it. It remains unproven to this day whether democracy can succeed in the Arab world – democracy, for our present purpose, being defined as the right to vote in two consecutive free elections. But perhaps the right to vote is over-rated. Can a case be made in defense of the performance of Arab regimes in sustaining and enhancing the lives of their citizens – in light of which one might argue that the right to vote can be happily postponed to another day or dispensed with?
The record does not justify a good report card, however. [See, “The UNDP [United Nations Development Project] Arab Knowledge report 2009 – review and analysis, MEMRI (Middle East Research Institute) January 19, 2010; Hassan M. Fattah, “Democracy in the world, a U.S. goal, falters, New York Times, April 10, 2006; “List of countries by Failed State Index, http://en.wikipedia.org, October 4, 2011.]
The “Human Development Index (HDI)” offers a convenient “comparative measure of life expectancy, literacy, education, standards of living, and quality of life for countries world wide… a standard means of measuring well-being, especially child welfare … [which] is used to distinguish whether the country is a developed, a developing or an underdeveloped country, and also to measure the impact of economic policies on quality of life.” Also helpful is the Regional Review of the Arab Knowledge Report of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) which illustrates the connection between governance and human development. From this document we quote:
Arab societies still depend on a ‘paternalist social contract’ that provides social welfare to people in return of their political allegiance to the rulers. Reform efforts launched in the 1980s have either failed or produced little improvement. As a result poverty is increasing …. Poverty incidence has reached 18.4% …. [A problem is] very low sovereignty in terms of food supplies …. Arab countries are among the most dependent on food imports …. Aridity is the prime cause of food dependency but poor management [has aggravated this.] … While the wealthy have access to local fish, meat and vegetables, the poor depend on imported grain, oils and sugar whose prices are affected by the global market.
Underlying this bleak economic performance is the Arab world’s failure to accept conditions for changes in thinking.
Knowledge in the Arab world is hampered by the Arabic language’s linguistic isolation in the area of information technology …. [Such] knowledge may be hampered by religious extremism and intolerance, aggravated by the availability of satellite channels which specialize in disseminating radical religious discourse.
In other words, the best energies of Arab people are going to the promotion of radical Islam and not to the search for anything that in our part of the world is regarded as contributing to betterment of human life.
As we move from material considerations to intellectual and philosophical ones, we get closer to the root of the matter. According to the UNDP Arab Knowledge Report of 2009,
It is a fundamental premise that freedom stimulates knowledge … the obverse is equally true and significant: political oppression stifles freedom and limits human choices and consequently human development ….In the Arab countries, there has been a general trend of freedom levels going from bad to worse instead of from good to better.
Related to this is the matter of freedom of the press; and prior to that is the matter of the quality of the press. The international NGO Reporters without Borders judges that of 22 Arab countries not a single country deserves a “good rating” for the performance of its newspapers, two are “satisfactory” and seven “present a difficult situation” and seven “a very serious situation.” Two Arab countries are ranked at the very bottom of the list of 173 countries reviewed. Reporters without Borders notes an ever-deepening taboo against writing about religion, politics and sex, that has undermined “the true value of religions as represented by their ethical values, tolerant teachings and moderate practices.” Needless to say, this is not how Muslims would define “the true value of religions.”
Given these impediments to the creation and diffusion of information, says Reporters without Borders, “it is difficult to foresee an upsurge in Arab knowledge.”
There is also available to us an “Index of Political Freedom in the Middle East,” published by a leading research and advisory firm in 2005, that ranks 20 Middle East countries on 15 indicators of political and civil liberty. On its ten point scale, Israel is at the top at 8.20, while the others (all Muslim and all but Iran Arab), rank at 6.55 down to 2.05. [http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/4450582.stm
If we need a “bottom line” to this discussion it should be the literacy rate. The world figure is 83.7. In Israel, it is 97.1. In the Arab states it varies from 10% in Jordan to 59.8% in Mauritania. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of _countries_by_literacy_rat; http://papers.ldc.upenn.edu?EALL/ArabicLitgeracy.pdf.]
Under all of the relevant headings – literacy, quality of education, distribution of wealth, standards of health care, basic human freedoms (such as freedom of speech and religion — it can be said that over the last decade everywhere in the world modest gains are reported by UN bodies — everywhere, that is, except in the Middle East. This is true even of the continent of Africa, which people tend to think of first when the word “poverty” or the word “illiteracy” occurs. In Africa, those countries that have not enjoyed any gains at all under these headings are all Muslim ones. It is only cowardly political correctness that stands in the way of noting these facts and stating them out loud.