Mar 6, 2014
Francis Robinson on ‘The Arabs’
Posted on Apr 15, 2010
The Arabs’ experience of European empire between the World Wars only gave them further reasons for bitterness. In 1925, for instance, the French, in trying to impose their will on Damascus, shelled the city for three days, killing 1,500 people and destroying many of the city’s finest houses. The British found themselves in a totally hopeless situation in Palestine, where they had undertaken in their mandate to support the development of a Jewish homeland without interfering with the rights of the Palestinians. Eventually the contradictions of this arrangement led to the Arab revolt of 1937-9, which the British suppressed so ruthlessly that 10 per cent of the adult males were either killed, wounded, imprisoned or exiled.
The Nazi genocide of the Jews in Europe gave an extra push to the Zionist cause and the emergence of Israel out of the mandate in Palestine, a process known to the Arabs as al-Nakba, the disaster. In 1947, the Palestinians numbered 1.2 million as compared with 600,000 Jews; they owned 94 per cent of the land. It was not surprising that they rejected the UN partition resolution which gave them only half of their country. There followed a war between the Palestinians and the Jews, which saw 200,000-300,000 Palestinians driven, one way or another, from their homes.
After the British left in 1948, war between the surrounding Arab states and the Zionists left Israel established with 78 per cent of the original mandate territory and 750,000 Palestinian refugees. Immediately, the defeat sparked coups, assassinations and a revolution in the four Arab states surrounding Israel. It also meant the end of serious British influence in the region. The legacy was an enduring Arab sense of injustice.
The background of the Palestine disaster, and the long history of Arab impotence, helps to explain the fervour which met the Egyptian revolution of 1952 and the subsequent rise of Nasser as the hero of the Arab world. His defiance of the British, culminating in his successful resistance to what the Arabs call the “Tripartite Aggression” but the British call the “Suez Crisis”, cemented his position. Nasser’s prominence came to a peak when the United Arab Republic was formed in 1958 from the union of Egypt and Syria, which sent shockwaves through Arab capitals.
“For one brief heady moment”, Rogan tells us, “it looked as though the Arab world might break the cycle of foreign domination that had marked the Ottoman, imperial and Cold War eras to enjoy an age of true independence.”
But, as so often in modern Arab affairs, it was a false dawn. In 1961, the United Arab Republic broke up. Nasser had been warned by a former Syrian president that Syrians were difficult to govern: “fifty percent… consider themselves leaders, twenty-five percent prophets, and ten percent imagine they are God”. And so it proved. As Arab states took sides in the Cold War during the 1960s, dreams of Arab unity faded.
Arab troubles continued. In 1962, Algerian independence was won from France, but only at the cost of a million Algerian lives. Then there was the disaster, termed by Nasser al-Naksa, “the reversal”, of the comprehensive defeat of Syria, Jordan and Egypt by Israel in the Six Day War of 1967. Control of the West Bank, the last significant piece of former mandate Palestine, which might form a Palestinian state, was lost to Israel. The Palestinians now realized that they could no longer rely on Arab rulers to promote their interests, but must take their fate in their own hands. This era of Arab hope was brought to an end by the death of Nasser in 1970, which produced an extraordinary outpouring of grief, in which Arabs certainly wept for “the Lion”, but also for themselves.
The 1970s saw two new players make a major impression on Arab politics. The first was oil. By this time, the Arab states were the dominant producers in the world. This was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, oil wealth made them vulnerable and distorted development, but on the other hand it gave them, if they operated in unison, a weapon. The power of this weapon was demonstrated in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, when Arab action to quadruple the price of oil put pressure on Western governments to try to end the war while Egypt still had military gains. Not all Arabs regarded Anwar Sadat of Egypt’s military campaign as a success, but more had been achieved than ever before by Arab arms against Israel; the Egyptians recaptured the east bank of the Canal and the Syrians a piece of the Golan Heights.
The second new player was Islam. Arabs had been preparing for its political role from the foundation of the (Islamist) Muslim Brotherhood in the 1920s. The decline of Arab nationalism created the vacuum into which it was able to insert itself. The Iranian Revolution of 1978-9, in which Islamist forces helped to topple an American-backed autocrat, sent a powerful signal. This was followed in November 1979 by the capture of the Great Mosque in Mecca by Islamist forces which threatened the Saudi state; in October 1981 by the assassination of President Sadat by a splinter group of the Muslim Brotherhood; and in 1981-2 by a brutal war between the Muslim Brotherhood and the government of Hafiz al-Asad in Syria. The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, to drive out the PLO, created the conditions for the emergence of the Shia Islamist party, Hizbullah—a much more determined enemy. Through the 1980s, the Afghan jihad against the Russians, in which many Arabs participated, exercised a considerable influence; many jihadis returned determined to fashion an ideal Islamic order in their countries.
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