Monday, October 1, 2012

Egypt And The Revenge Of History

I’m thinking about the end of times dear reader. What with the Mayan calendar about to expire and the Middle East simmering, this is the end times, no? Well, maybe not.

During the Black Death, the faithful were sure that end times had arrived. They did have a point because there was a whole mess of dying from the Bubonic Plague, not only in Europe but in the whole Eurasian land mass as well. Somehow Europe survived despite 1/3 of its population dying off in a few short years.

So what is really going on in Egypt? If it is not the End Times, what is it? It is the Revenge Of History. Let me explain. Please settle in because this is going to take a while. We have to go all the back to Napoleon and Revolutionary France and then move forward. Ready?

For me the starting gun for serious Colonialism in the Middle East and the Maghreb was Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt.  What is the Maghreb? This is the Maghreb. Egypt is contiguous to the Maghreb. In the time of Napoleon the Maghreb was part of the Barbary States, a break-away section of the Ottoman Empire. Egypt itself was a dependent of Britain, a possession. Now understand the British were not all that interested in owning Egypt per se, but they were very interested in protecting the approaches to India. Thus they took over Egypt to protect India.

Napoleon thought he could strike the British by hitting them at their soft underbelly, their Colonial possession of Egypt., Much of the politics seen today can be traced back to Napoleons excellent mis-adventure in Egypt. The exploitation of Islam for political advantage, the Geo-political considerations, the hurt feelings of the local population, the imposition of modernity to a land still in the hold of feudalism; all of these came together to jar, sway, and infuriate the people of the area.

Napoleon understood the position of the British was weak in Egypt. The British were advisers to crown. The British had weaseled their way in at the top of a very corrupt and very insular government. The French came roaring in and broke that setup in a most spectacular way.

It was Napoleon that introduced the shock and awe of the modern to the Muslim world. Before Napoleon, the only real impact Europe had on the entire Muslim world was a small diversion by the Crusader Knights. The Crusader kingdoms were barely a blip in the history in the area, a short 100 year interregnum in the Levant. The only real damage the Crusaders ever really did was to their fellow Christians, the Byzantines. But Napoleon, he changed the landscape for good.

The people of Egypt suddenly found out that the Europeans had leapfrogged them. The feudal levies of the Mameluke horse Calvary were no match for the French Battalions. At the Battle Of The Pyramids flower of the Egyptian armies were mowed down by the concentrated and disciplined fire of a modern army. While 300 Frenchmen died, the Egyptians lost 6,000. Napoleon then moved onward to Syria, not stopping until the British and the Ottomans put a halt at Acre.

By then Napoleon had administered Egypt for a short time. He had put down a rebellion. Finally, he and the British laid bare the military and organizational superiority of Europe over the Ottomans and by extension the Umma. (The Muslim community)

What Napoleon had started in the early 19th Century was nearly completed in the late 19th Century. The land controlled by Sultan shrank; almost the entire region of North Africa was under European Rule. The Commander of the Faithful ruled over a rump of his former domains. At the turn of the Century the “Young Turks” had had enough. In 1909 they seized power from the Caliph, ending the rules of the sons of Osman.

This was just in time for the Ottoman Empire to get embroiled the affairs of Europe. In a few short years British incompetence, Turkish pride, and German diplomacy would have the Ottomans embroiled in the Great War. (World War One)

The Ottomans fought well, but they lost the war on their flank. The British were able to roll up the Ottoman forces from Egypt and then finally threaten the Anatolian heartland of the Empire. The loss caused the final dissolution of a Empire that lasted 623 years. Modern Turkey arose from the wreck of the Ottomans.

But we must leave Turkey and move west; all the way to Paris. It was here that France and England had their last colonial fling. By the Sykes-Picot agreement, drawn up in 1916, France got Syria and Lebanon, the UK got everything else. The Paris Peace Treaty of 1919 formalized Sykes-Picot. By this device there was no part of the Arab lands that was not ruled by a European Colonial power.

For Arab nationalist this was the low point, the absolute rock bottom of their fortune. Islam was not doing much better. For more than a millennium Islam had battled Christendom, and for most of that time Islam had the upper hand. But at the end of the Great War, the Umma no longer ruled nor reigned.  Not even the Turks had stayed faithful. The Turks were ruled by a military clique that was profoundly secular and modern. Modernity, which had first came on the bayonets of Napoleonic soldiers, had subjugated Islam. From this nadir, came two responses, Arab Nationalism and what eventually became political Islam. Unfortunately for both, they were short-circuited by the next Global War and its consequences.

The Second World War in many ways was a continuation of the first. The death of Great Empires that began in the Great War was finalized in the second. In World War One, Prussia, Austria-Hungary and Russia lost their kings. The Ottomans also were no more. The last empires standing, Britain and France unraveled right after Hiroshima. Britain was first, and it was faster. In both India and most of the Former Ottoman estates, the UK made an almost unseemly exit. It was Cheerio and a mad dash for the door.

The US, seeing the British depart, were more than willing to fill in the breach. Fairly soon the logic of the new Cold War against Stalin’s Russia provided the ideological back-stopping to the Pax Americana.

From the late 40’s until the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 90’s the US stayed the course of containment. This meant that the US and Russia accidentally conspired to support corrupt, venial, client states ruled by men looking to feather their own nest.

Both super powers played the game of lowest common denominator. Both got taken for rides. In Egypt, the Russian got fleeced by Nasser. In Iran, the US got sold a bill of goods by the Shah. Sometimes a new leader would flip like Sadat in Egypt. In other places a rouge actor would crop up like in Iran. For the most part, the US was able to outbid the Soviets. But a funny thing happened on the  way to US hegemony; the rise of political Islam.

Political Islam rose on the back of political failure. That failure was the ideology of Arab Nationalism. An outgrowth of the ideas of small, educated elite, Arab Nationalism was a response to European Hegemony in Arab lands. To achieve full self-determination these intellectuals built a ideology based on the European notions of Socialism and Nationalism. The Pan-Arab idea heavily borrowed from the notions of modernity. It was a “if you can’t beat them, join them” approach.

But the great road block to Pan-Arabism was that parochial notions and parochial interests on the ground always were fouling up the ivory tower notions of the Pan-Arabists. The differences between  Syria and Egypt made common efforts difficult, and unity impossible. The grand experiment of the UAR, the union of Syria and Egypt, floundered on the difference between Nasserite authoritarianism and  Syrian chaos, plus the difference in the structures left by the former colonial rulers. All along the line, Arab Nationalism devolved into plain old nationalism.

But even nationalism and nation building was a chimera. By becoming client states, mostly of the United States, the nations of the Near East and North Africa became flies stuck in amber. National development was frozen, distorted, and finally perverted. The long Cold War froze a type of Nation into place. That state’s form was authoritarian, elitist, and ever more corrupt. That nation was exploitative and unresponsive, ruling mostly by the brute force of the military. From Iran and onward to Algeria and Morocco, top down control was the rule. And as clients of Washington (mostly) or Moscow (the not so happy few) these nations slowly lost legitimacy. They were not truly free nations, they were states locked in to a new colonialism.  As time progressed these nations head began to rot. Rulers held on to the bitter end, and the citizens of the land suffered from their rulers corruption and abuse.

In the vacuum of politics arose a old force: Islam. Unlike the secular opposition, Islam could not be easily oppressed. The corrupt state could try to co opt the faith, to bend the Imams to its will, to pander to the conservative view point of the leaders, but it had to tread lightly.  Thus, in fits and starts organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood grew. Political Islam had an ideology and a cause which just happened to be the religion of the masses. And the masses were informed by the notions of Salafism.

Salafism  is an attempt to go back to a purer version of Islam, to go back to the earliest Muslims and their practices. I am not going to comment on the religious aspects, just on how this puritanical sect impacts the politics of the region.

Salafism, in its political iteration, is also a response to the shock of Modernity. It is an attempt to recover the pride of a people who feel humiliated by the over-arching power of the West. It is an attempt to recover both agency and pride of self. Under the ideology of the transnational Umma, it is an attempt to recover true nationhood and self determination. It is, unfortunately, reactionary in outlook and program. It is also tragically ahistorical, and destined for failure. Confessional nation building is a relic of the past. The Caliph is long dead and is not coming back.

Which brings us back to the events of the last few days. The events in Cairo are the result of a new nationalism and new independence in Egypt. The overthrow of the dead hand of authoritarianism has been a long time coming. The so called Arab Spring is just that, an awakening from the long freeze of the Cold War.

But more than just the people have broken out of the ice gentle reader. The grand historical movements of the post WWI world have been set loose too. Nationalism is afoot, anti-colonialism is afoot, the radicalism of the late 18th century is also afoot as well.

I can only shake my head at the conniptions people have about terrorism in the 21st century.  We have been here before gentle reader. We have been here in the Balkans in tail end of the 18th Century.  We have been here with the Russian Anarchists. We have been here with the bomb-throwers that were killing off European aristocrats at a fearsome clip at the beginning of the 20th Century. Terrorism is as old as the cult of the Assassins all the way back in the Middle Ages.

Also with us is the mob. The mob has been with us since the very first walled cities all the way back in the mists of time. The mob has not changed on bit since that time. Once on a tear, the mob acts as it always has acted; with violence, with rage, with rapine. As individuals, the people are hard working, sympathetic, calm, and responsible. But get them in a group, give them the right spark, and the Mob is created.

What happened in Egypt, in Cairo, is an old story, a story told in ancient Rome in the same way that it was told just recently. It is the venting of old and familiar grievances. It is the same rising of the plebeians that caused the Roman Empire so much grief. It is the same type of movement that fueled many a peasant uprising in history. Mark Twain said that history does not repeat itself, but it sometimes rhymes. Riots, peasant uprisings, are one of the very oldest of historical rhymes.

I have written much about history, and I have also written about “The Revenge Of History.” This is because historical forces, long held at bay, are now finally working. The overarching forces of Nationalism, Faith, Economic Independence, Self-Determination, Culture, and Ethnicity, are once more at play.

It’s a very messy business. But real history, the story of how we became what we are, and how we got to this point in time, is always a messy business.  It is not the end of the world, but it is the beginning of a new chapter. Welcome to the true New World Order, history is on the move, and change is in the air. Relax, it could be whole lot worse, at least there are no Mongol hoards on the horizon; at least not yet. 

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