Arab Spring, Arab Revolt and the Imperial Interests

The most useful thing about a principle is that it can always be sacrificed to expediency.
W. Somerset Maugham

Depending on who writes the future history, the year 2011 could be remembered for the so-called Arab Spring. This movement triggered protests that threatened to change the political landscape of the Middle East. Dictators felled like ninepins, as crowds pressed for greater political rights and better economic conditions. One ‘usurper’ managed to escape, one was caught and is facing trial, and one returned after recuperating from superficial wounds. One longstanding ‘strongman’ was lynched by bloodthirsty rebels, while making a last stand and another one is still struggling to control the situation in his country.

It is interesting to recall that an Arab Revolt during the last century had brought about a major change in the Middle East. Arab lands were divided into a number of nation states to suit the interests of the superpowers, including their oil supplies. Sensing the imminent demise of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, France and Great Britain, connived to carve up Turkey’s Arab provinces, into their respective spheres of influence within the framework of the secret Sykes–Picot Agreement (16 May 1916). This was in contravention to the understanding given to Sharif Hussein of Makkah by Henry Mcmohan, the British High Commissioner in Cairo. McMohan’s agent extraordinary, T.E. Lawrence had been able to muster the support of tribes loyal to Sharif to lead a successful insurgency against the Turks. Sharif had been falsely promised complete sovereignty over the Arab lands after the Turks departed. Simultaneously the British were also working towards the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. In a letter dated 2 November 1917 the British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to Baron Rothschild a leader of the British Jewish community, for transmission to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland, let it be known: “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object.” It magnanimously added “it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.” The British Prime Minister Lloyd George had already ordered General Allenby to deliver Palestine as a Christmas present to the nation in December 1917. Palestine under the British mandate and the creation of the state of Israel is now history.

As we witness new history in the making, we should not forget past history. The interests of the great powers do not exactly match the revolutionary fervour in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. It merely gives them the necessary domestic traction and international support to diplomatically, physically and most importantly economically intercede, in these lands. Libya is a case in point. NATO warplanes were not only used to enforce the No Fly Zone around Libya, they physically pursued and targeted the fleeing Gadhaffi. Libya is oil rich and the western benefactors of the Transitional Revolutionary Council expect windfall contracts from the grateful former rebels. On the other hand, the heavy handed manner in which political unrest was quashed in Bahrain was largely ignored because this small island state near the western shores of the Persian Gulf is home to the US Fifth Fleet.

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