By Muhammad Ali Siddiqui
ARABS have never been the master of their destiny since the murder of Abbasid Caliph Mutawakkil in 861 AD. There is an element of generalisation in this, and often some powerful caliphs — kings, actually — tried to assert their power. But it was never the same again.
When the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258, two mighty empires, Safavid and Ottoman — both Turkic — rose on the ashes of the Abbasid dynasty. This Turkic control of the Middle East would continue till the First World War, but the ones to fill the vacuum in the post-Ottoman era would not be Arabs but Britain and France, except in the Arabian Peninsula, where Ibn Saud drove the Hashemite out to establish the third Saudi kingdom.
It was only when the Naguib-Nasser duo overthrew King Farouk’s Albanian dynasty that we can say that Arabs came to power in a non-monarchic, and perhaps the most important Arab country, after half a millennium of Ottoman rule.
The July 1952 coup in Egypt turned out to be far more seminal than its supporters and opponent then thought. In his book The Philosophy of the Revolution, Gamal Abdel Nasser sees Egypt at the centre of three concentric circles: the first covered the Arab world; the second Africa, and the third, larger and outer circle, the Islamic world. Nasser himself might not have dreamt in his wildest imagination the impact the Egyptian revolution would have on the Arab world and later on Afro-Asia.
The epoch-making event was his nationalisation of the Suez Canal and the affront it caused to decaying colonial powers, Britain and France. Such was British sensitivity to Egypt’s armament purchases from Czechoslovakia that a British prime minister wrote to Eisenhower, asking him to block the sales because those arms would be used against British soldiers who had fought under Eisenhower as supreme commander of the allied forces during the Second World War.
What added to Nasser’s prestige and made him a hero for the Arab people was the failure of the tripartite attack on his country. Britain, France and Israel won militarily but lost politically as Eisenhower refused to support a war he thought was meant to advance British-French colonial interests and saw to it that Tel Aviv vacated the Sinai. Then Nasser’s Saut-al Arab (Voice of the Arabs) radio became a major source of awakening for the Arab masses. The Voice had three primary targets of attack: European governments which still occupied some Arab countries (Algeria, Kuwait and Libya, for instance), governments in Arab countries which were under direct or indirect colonial rule and provided bases to western powers, and countries of the ‘northern tier’ which were members of US-led military pacts.
As the Algerian war of independence gained momentum, there were military coups in a number of Arab countries, the bloodiest being in Baghdad where the Hashemite dynasty came to an end, King Feisal II and Crown Prince Abd al-Ilah being killed and Prime Minister Nuri Said lynched. Learning from the Iraqi trauma, most Arab countries either nationalised the oil industry or secured better terms.
Nasser’s Cairo then became the headquarters for no less than a dozen African liberation movements, and then by aligning himself with such neutral greats as Soekarno, Nehru, Tito and Nkrumah, the Egyptian leader became an icon for the entire Afro-Asian world, and this won him categorical support from communists from China to Cuba. The 1967 war was a disaster from which Nasser never recovered, but that made no difference to the Arab world’s continued leadership of what would later be called the Third World.
Nasser died in 1970 but his successor, Anwar Sadat, stunned the world by two feats: first, the initial success in the Ramazan war when the Egyptian army crossed the canal and had the upper hand during the first week, and, second, the diplomatic coup — his recognition of Israel, the Camp David accord and the return to Egypt of Sinai. His brilliant leadership lay in close military coordination with Hafez al-Assad’s Syria and the cooperation he secured from the Shah of Iran and King Faisal for the oil embargo.
As the multinationals smarted under the rising oil prices, non-oil Third World countries ‘ganged up’ with the Arab world to demand better prices for rubber, tin and other raw material. This was the apogee of Arab nationalism. There was no doubt the Arab world was in the lead.
At Lahore in February 1974, the OIC summit conference called by Bhutto would bring together a galaxy of leaders never to be seen again — Sadat, Assad, Faisal, Gaddafi, Arafat and Boumedienne. Two of the leaders were assassinated, besides the host himself, while Boumedienne died in a Moscow hospital. Pygmies then would rule the Arab world.
But then we must be careful about what we denounce Mubarak and Ben Ali for. If we condemn the two and the ilk for dictatorship, was the ‘galaxy of leaders’ I spoke of earlier democrats? Did Nasser and Saadat or Assad and Faisal give their people democratic freedoms? Were their political systems any liberal?
History calls them great because they picked up the right challenge, made the Arab world part of the larger anti-colonial wave sweeping Afro-Asia, responded to the Arab people’s strong nationalist sentiments and presented them with some solid achievements. They were lucky, for there was the communist world on which they could rely blindly for political, economic and military support.
The post-Sadat leaders were unlucky, for they found themselves in a world dominated by the sole superpower. There was no room for foreign adventurism, except by America’s permission. Saddam tried to assert his independence, foolishly of course, and destroyed himself and his country.
The Mubarak-Ben Ali type failed to realise that the nature of challenge for them was internal. With Egypt and Jordan having recognised Israel, the Palestinian issue stood frozen, diverting the Arab people’s attention to the domestic scene, and that is where they had reason to be desperate, for decades of despotism gave them neither democracy nor the good life.
Source: The Dawn