Zero Hour in the Middle East What the Arab World's Past Can Tell Us About Its Future

The world is looking on with fascination and fear as the Arab world goes through the political transformation of the century. But will the region's future be marked by democratic peace or civil war? Four past upheavals contain lessons for what comes next.



"The riches, power, and honour of a monarch arise only from the riches, strength, and reputation of his subjects. For no king can be rich, nor glorious, nor secure, whose subjects are either poor or contemptible."


It's hard to think of a more peaceful place in the Middle East than the calm and orderly port town of Sohar in Oman, where hibiscus bushes bloom year-round and residents relax over water pipes and tea. All of this was true until Sunday, Feb. 27, when 2,000 men staged a protest at a large roundabout. The police shot and killed at least one protester. He and his fellow protesters had demanded higher wages and complained about rampant corruption in the government of Sultan Qaboos bin Said, 70.

Until Thursday, Feb. 24, Qatif, an oasis city in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, was distinguished mainly by palm trees, sand and -- ever since the world's largest oil field was discovered there 60 years ago -- oil. But then a group of Shiites took to the streets to demand the release of three of their fellow Shiites. King Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz, 86, had never experienced anything quite like it in his realm.

Benghazi in Cyrenaica, the verdant, remote eastern region of Libya, is about a 1,000-kilometer drive along the coastal road from the capital Tripoli. Colonel Moammar Gadhafi ruled the region for 41 years. Until two weeks ago, that is, when men drove through the city, dressed, like in a Carnival parade, as Gadhafi. "Libya is free," they chanted. "God is great."

It seems today that the reign of this Middle Eastern dictator, at least, will end in 2011. Former US Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz called Gadhafi a "dead man walking," and the Kremlin spoke of a "walking political corpse."

Completely Unpredictable

Their predictions may still prove premature, however. If the events of the last few weeks, from Tunis to Cairo, from Bahrain to Benghazi, have proved one thing, it is that political events are entirely unpredictable. No one anticipated that the self-immolation of unemployed fruit vendor Mohammed Bouazizi in a small Tunisian city would lead to the overthrow of the most powerful ruler in the Middle East in Cairo only a few weeks later.

But what comes next, after the ouster of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak? And what will come after Gadhafi's possible downfall? Will Libya turn into a "giant Somalia," as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has warned? Will major oil producer Saudi Arabia descend into chaos? Where will the new freedoms take the Arab world?

The Middle East has dominated global politics for decades, to a degree disproportionate to its geographic size and population. Reports of war, violence and terror between North Africa and the Persian Gulf have become background noise in the lives of an entire generation.

The region has experienced well over a dozen international wars, numerous civil wars and military coups, and thousands of terrorist attacks and political assassinations since 1945 alone. If these conflicts had unfolded in another corner of the world, the West would probably have done little more than quietly express its regrets.

But the conflicts of the Middle East occur in a region that sits on top of close to 60 percent of the world's oil and more than 40 percent of its natural gas reserves. Israel's security is an important factor in the foreign policy of countries like the United States and Germany, and almost all countries in the international community are united in their concern over a possible war over Iran's nuclear program. When the Middle East burns, the West simply cannot afford to express its regrets and look the other way.

Back to Year Zero

Eight weeks after the beginning of the most recent wave of unrest in North Africa, the calendars have been set back to year zero in this region, which is of such central importance for world peace and the global economy. Europe's neighboring region is on the verge of a new beginning. Until now, the West had reached agreements with most Arab leaders that were designed primarily to ensure stability and to protect the oil market. Are these agreements now invalid?

No one can look into the future. But perhaps a look at the past, at the 100-year record of the modern Middle East, can enable us to draw conclusions as to what this part of the world, and the West, could now face. This examination begins in the first area where today's rebels liberated themselves from Gadhafi's control, namely Cyrenaica.

A hundred years ago, in the fall of 1911, a major in the Ottoman army arrived at the gates of Benghazi. As he wrote to a friend, he had come from Istanbul to recapture the "warm and friendly borderlands of the fatherland."

For more than 400 years, the Ottomans had controlled North Africa, Syria and Palestine, Mesopotamia all the way to the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea to Aden, and the Nile to the Sudanese border. But the French captured Algeria and Tunisia, and in 1882 Egypt fell to the British. Now the Italians had landed in Libya. Like the British and the French, they too sought to establish colonies in Africa. In those days, what easier target could there have been than a province of the ailing Ottoman Empire, the sick man on the Bosporus?

End of an Empire

Major Mustafa Kemal, with his 150 Turkish officers and 8,000 Arab soldiers, managed to fend off his enemies for months and keep an invading army of 15,000 Italians from penetrating past the Libyan coast. But soon he realized that it was a battle he could not win. The empire's border regions were slowly crumbling away, not just in Africa, but also in the Balkans, along the Danube and in the Caucasus. Tripolitania was a lost cause. It had been "pointless" to even attempt to fight the Italians, he wrote before returning to Istanbul.

Major Kemal sensed that the loss of Istanbul's last African province not only marked the beginning of the end of an empire, but also the end of an era. He sensed that something new was on the horizon, something in which he would play a key role. But he still didn't know what this new thing was.

We know what it was today, namely a century in which the entire Middle East would turn into a battlefield among political, ideological and religious forces, a hothouse of global politics. In those 100 years, countries would be established that didn't work. Arbitrary borders would be drawn, and rulers would be installed who hated their people as much as the people hated them. Wars and civil wars would break out and dictators would be murdered. Only two countries in the region would find their way to democracy, namely Israel, which was founded in 1948, and the country that Major Kemal, who later came to be known as Atatürk, would build: Turkey.

And while other countries and regions entered the modern age in the midst of equally catastrophic circumstances, like Europe, for example, which overcame its animosities in the ensuing decades, South America, which achieved a modicum of stability, and China, which eventually surpassed Western nations in productivity, most countries of the Middle East and North Africa remained frozen in despotism, stagnation and hopelessness. Not even the discovery of oil reserves that would soon prove to be the world's largest could change the status quo. On the contrary, the uneven distribution of oil wealth only made the contradictions more pronounced, and in many cases the blessings of oil proved to be a curse.

Demons of the Middle East

Near the end of the 100 years that began with Major Kemal's trip to Libya, the demons of the Middle East suddenly surfaced around the world. Al-Qaida came onto the global stage, a terrorist organization that came from the heart of the Arab world and yet was capable of operating with unprecedented global reach. On Sept. 11, 2001, it finally became clear that the Middle East had given birth to a monster.

But the terrorism of al-Qaida isn't the last word in the Middle East, nor is 9/11 the end of history. Ten years after the attacks on New York and Washington, an uprising has gripped the Arab world that no one saw coming. It began in Tunisia and spread to Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and Jordan. As if liberated from an icy prison of fear, people are now rising up against their rulers, people the West had perceived as members of either fanatical religious groups or masses lethargically resigned to their fate.

Now these people are taking to the streets, with not a trace of lethargy or religious fanaticism, from Morocco to the seemingly peaceful Sultanate of Oman, from wealthy Saudi Arabia to Iraq, which the United States supposedly liberated eight years ago, to demand what they are entitled to: justice, a share of power, prosperity and freedom.

The Arab world, which seemed to have barricaded itself into the panic room of world history as it successively suffered all the afflictions of modernity, has finally regained its voice.

And the West, instead of celebrating what it has demanded for years, is standing on the sidelines with its mouth agape, fascinated, and yet speechless and fearful.

Can it be blamed? Can the Arabs do more than overthrow governments? Are they also capable of democracy? Doesn't what is now happening in Libya vindicate those who have been issuing warnings since the revolution began?

Hundreds, probably thousands have died in the last two weeks between Benghazi and Tripoli. The possible collapse of the Gadhafi regime illustrates the failings of Arab autocrats and the injuries they have inflicted on their people. Their legacy is one of failure.

Badly Educated and Unproductive

Few other regions that the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) examines in its regular Human Development Reports have done so poorly in so many ways as the Arab world. The education system is miserable and the illiteracy rate extremely high in most countries in the Arab League. Almost half of the adult population cannot read or write in Mauritania, Morocco and Yemen, while illiteracy rates are at 28, 30 and 38 percent, respectively, in Egypt, Algeria and Sudan. Until a few years ago, even sub-Saharan Africa had more Internet connections than the Arab world.

Few regions are as unproductive. All the Arab states together, with their combined population of 350 million, produce less in economic terms than Italy's 60 million people. Only 3 percent of the Libyan population works in the oil sector, which, until recently, accounted for more than 60 percent of the gross domestic product. What exactly did the rest of the population do? Official youth unemployment is at 26 percent in a rich oil-producing country like Saudi Arabia, while the unofficial rate in the countries of North Africa's Maghreb region lies at 70 percent. One-third of the people of Mauritania and Yemen, and one-fifth of Egyptians, live on less than $2 a day.

The Arab world isn't poor. But no region of the world has treated its resources -- and half of its labor force, namely women -- as negligently. Only about 5 percent of members of parliaments in the region stretching from Morocco to Bahrain are female. And while more than 16,000 international patent applications were filed in South Korea alone between 1980 and 1999, only 77 were filed in Egypt in the same period.

In no Arab country, with the exception of Lebanon with its proportional democracy, are there significant signs of an emerging civil society. Nowhere is there a democratic tradition which could provide a basis for those who plan to govern in the wake of the revolutions of recent weeks, not to mention those revolutions that could still be to come.

"Fasten your seatbelts," New York Times columnist and former Middle East correspondent Thomas Friedman recently warned. The journey on which the Arab world is currently embarking is "not going to be a joy ride," Friedman wrote, but "a long and rocky road."

The body politic of the Middle East is ailing in many ways and has never functioned under democratic conditions. Is it even capable of doing so? And if so, what can the world, and the West, do to promote the process?

To use a clinical metaphor: The medical file of the Middle East includes four serious infections. Three of them were brought in from the outside, and one is undoubtedly endogenous. The first goes by a name that has become shopworn in the West but remains very much alive in the Arab world today: imperialism.

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