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Arab revolt, now and 75 years ago

By Peter Run - posted Thursday, 14 April 2011

Recent popular uprisings in the Middle East have been characterised as organically emergent, internal social, political and economic discontents aided by new and social media which has given the youth, a way to circumvent the policing of free speech. To some Western eyes and ears, the protestors were reminiscent of how democracies came about and there seemed little cause to worry. As demonstrations moved from Tunisia to Egypt and elsewhere, sanguine commentaries about the prospect for a democratic Middle East poured out of Western and non-Western media. This optimism has ground but Arab revolutions over the past 75 years, have ended badly for Israel and the West.

Exhibit 1

On 17 April, 1936, that is 75 years ago on Tuesday, the world's then superpower, Britain was enmeshed in manoeuvring the politics of the Middle East following its victory in the Great War. The local dissatisfaction resulting in the Great Arab revolt of 1936-1939 was followed, and its salience subsumed, by the Second World War. Sketches of this first Arab revolt are mostly known to a majority of Westerners through the person of T. E. Lawrence, or more prominently, Lawrence of Arabia.

The revolt, which had its epicentre at Nablus in the then British Protectorate of Palestine, was centred on colonial puppeteering of local developments and the increasing Jewish immigration which reinforced the fear of a looming implementation of the Balfour Declaration stipulating the creation of a 'Zionist state' in Palestine. Although the revolt did not take too much effort for Britain to quell, the sentiment of a possible post imperial Arab unity, appealing to the coincidental sense of being one people nationally as well as being a Umah religiously was reawaken from its post crusades slumber, in a profound way.


The Arab sentiment emerging from that revolt was quickly inflamed by the creation of Israel and the resulting discourse of pan-Arabism and the pursuit of Umah morphed into retrograde ideas from Islam's golden age of conquests which captivated the generation that formed the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in the 1930s and expanded its membership in subsequent decades to other Sunni Muslim countries. The extremist teachings of the Brotherhood have been felt in devastating terrorist attacks in the U.S., Europe, Africa and Asia and have thrown the West into a perpetual global war on terror with illusive fundamentalist groups.

Exhibit 2

After World War II, the West, though still active in the region having reconstituted the state of Israel in Palestine but it was also becoming increasingly distracted by emerging balance of power politics of the Cold War. Nobody thought anything serious could brew overnight in the Middle East's series of coups and popular uprisings from Egypt, Syria, Libya, Sudan and other countries in the 1950s and 1960s. However, the Yom Kippur War of the 1973 was a wake up call. It suddenly reminded the West about the pan-Arab unity that paradoxically exists among the seemingly divided and mutually suspicious concoctions of colonialism, called Arab states.

Another development that took place at around this period that is hardly remarked upon, is the move by, mostly revolutionary governments in such Arab states as Libya, Egypt and Sudan, to insert in their constitutional preamble, the aspiration of one Arab nation. This was new for even the charter of the Arab League drafted pursuant to the Alexandra Protocol of 1945, emphasised "Independent Arab States." Its primary objectives were to keep the West at bay and to prevent the expansion of Israel. This stance was softened by Israel's strong alliance with the West as well as its capability to defend itself.

This new wave of Arab revolt has so far put the Camp David Accord which has kept Egypt and Israel in peaceful relations for over 30 years. The Egyptian military has made some assurances that it will continue to be honoured but in a country where the people are in a revolutionary spirit, taking the military words at face value would be a mistake. In Israel, fears of a cloaked Muslim Brotherhood or another version of radical groups gaining democratic power by pandering to entrenched anti-Israel prejudice in these countries remains a possibility and the West, given this history, should be careful about what this new revolution may give birth to.

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About the Author

Peter Run is a PhD student and tutor at The School of Political Science and International Studies, University of Queensland. He holds an MA in Journalism from the University of South Australia and is the Author of Theorising Cultural Conflict, VDM Publishing (2010).

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