The Making of the Modern Arab World: Episode 4

The fourth and final episode of Tarek Osman’s Making of the Modern Arab World covered the 10 years leading up to the events of the Arab Spring in 2011. Osman drew out three strands that he felt were important in that decade. One of these is the growing population of the Arab countries. Osman said he’s 38, and in his lifetime the population of Egypt has doubled. Two thirds of the country is under the age of 25. The available jobs and opportunities for these young people haven’t kept up with the growth of the population, and that has had a large impact on the way people see the future (both their own and the country’s). Osman talked to an activist who said she felt that Egyptian society was stuck, like being stuck in a traffic jam.

Another strand of events leading up to the Arab Spring was that the authoritarian leaders of these nominally democratic republics were all getting old. And instead of these being a point where the people could hope for change, it became clear that they were grooming their sons to lead after their deaths. Osman said that when Hafez Al-Assad’s son took power in 2000 at first the general population thought this might bring change – Bashar Al-Assad being young and educated in Britain, perhaps he would be less authoritarian. But it quickly became clear this was not the case, and that meant people in other countries in the region didn’t even have hope that things would change when their own leaders passed away. And this added to the sense of almost insult at the overt handing down of power to sons rather than any pretence at democracy.

Information, and access to it, was the final strand of this narrative. This has two facets – the first of these is that the regimes lost control of the information that their citizens could access. The rise of the internet, and with it the rise of globally accessible media, meant that the general populace was much more aware of what was going on in other countries. And that people could communicate, and organise, much more effectively. Osman talked to an activist who would organise protests on facebook, with 70,000 people who followed his facebook page – you can’t get that sort of reach with more conventional organisation.

The other facet of this strand is the lack of information that the regime had. Osman talked about how Mubarak and the other leaders over time became more set in their ways, and more isolated from the general populace. They weren’t concerned with what the general public thought – dismissing them as unimportant. Osman didn’t say this outright, but I think he was saying that the centre of these regimes didn’t even know they’d lost control of what information their people were seeing. A couple of different civil servants from the Mubarak regime talked about how Mubarak wasn’t interested in change nor was he interested in planning ahead. One said that he had tried to suggest change in the education system to keep up with the demands of modern global society, but that Mubarak wasn’t interested. Another anecdote was that when talking about trying to fix future problems Mubarak’s attitude was that there was enough to do to fix the problems of today, so why add more problems. Whereas the civil servant felt that if you looked at tomorrow as well you might solve today’s problems a different way.

These strands all came together in the actual events of the Arab Spring – where one man’s suicidal protest in Tunisia was seen by other disaffected young people across the whole region, instead of being covered up by the regime. And once seen they could react, and act. The results of the Tunisian uprising then inspired other country’s in turn. Osman ended the programme on a bittersweet note – he talked to a woman who’d taken part in the Egyptian protests that drove out Mubarak. She reminisced about how it felt like they had risen up and become free and made something better. And she hoped perhaps one day her country would manage to sustain that.

The series as a whole has been interesting. However, for all it says in the title it’s a history of the whole of the modern Arab world the focus is firmly on Egypt. Not that surprising, as that’s Osman’s country. It was definitely interesting hearing the history from an Egyptian perspective, rather than an outsider perspective.

The Making of the Modern Arab World: Episode 3

In the third episode of The Making of the Modern Arab World Tarek Osman looked at the rise of political Islam since the 1970s. He started by reminding us of the context for this, which he talked about more in the previous episode (post). As of about 1966 Nasser was both the leader of Egypt and the most prominent public face of Arab Nationalism. The state and politics were secular in nature, and to some degree so was the general population – women generally did not go veiled, for instance. Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood were repressed, and their leaders and activists imprisoned, brutally treated, and potentially executed. The regime was also fairly left wing, and pro-Soviet. Then in 1967, with the defeat of the Arab armies by Israel, Arab Nationalism lost a lot of face. Nasser died in 1970 and his successor, Anwar Sadat, changed the focus of the state.

Sadat liked to see himself as “the pious President”, and took pains to present himself as a good Muslim. He backed off on the repression of Islamist groups, releasing many of their members from prison and permitting them to openly take jobs at universities. At the same time he was swinging the political compass of the regime towards the right, and towards the USA and capitalism. He also started to shrink the state involvement in the welfare of the poor. As the country embraced capitalism Sadat removed the subsidies that were artificially keeping the price of bread low – after riots from students and workers who could no longer afford food the subsidies were reinstated.

The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups took advantage of both the perceived corruption of the state, and the gap opening up in care for the poor. Islamist rhetoric held out the hope that if Islam was fully integrated into the state then politics would be more honest & less corrupt. There was also a prominent notion that the reason the war against Israel had failed was that the Arab states had turned away from religion and so God was no longer on their side. The Muslim Brotherhood were also involved in widespread charitable works – providing for the poor who were being failed by the state, which encouraged people to regard them as a viable alternative to the authoritarian state.

1979 was a year containing three events that were to lead to increased support for Islamist groups across the region. One of these was the revolution in Iran – this might’ve been Shia rather than Sunni but it was proof that an Islamist uprising could overthrow a secular state. Another was the signing of a treaty between Egypt and Israel, which was taken as evidence of the state’s corruption and decline. And thirdly the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviets pitted Islamist forces (such as the Taliban) against the Soviets – by Cold War logic this meant that the US and other Western groups saw the Islamist groups as their potential allies, and hence worth funding and training.

Another growing influence on the Arab region was the Saudi Arabian regime. The balance of political and economic power was shifting away from places like Egypt and towards the oil countries. Many Egyptians and nationals of other countries went to work in Saudi Arabia, and many of them became more religious and more conservative under the influence of the culture they were now living in. When they returned to their native countries after several years they kept contact with people they knew in Saudi Arabia. Along with funding suitable Islamist groups this was a conduit for Saudi Arabian influence in the politics of countries like Egypt.

Osman talked about how over the next couple of decades (the 80s and the 90s) the Islamist groups were struggling against the “near enemy”, i.e. the regimes of their own states. After the end of the Soviet presence in Afghanistan at the end of the 80s many of the groups that had been involved in that jihad felt flush with success – they felt they had brought down the Soviet Union and the time was ripe for success in their own countries. This was not to be. A Muslim Brotherhood led uprising in Syria was brutally dealt with at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives, and the breaking of the back of the Muslim Brotherhood organisation in that country. The Algerian civil war, sparked after the army overturned the election of an Islamist leader ended in defeat for the Islamist forces, after the loss of many lives. And in Egypt Mubarak had come to power after the assassination of Sadat by Islamist soldiers (in the early 80s), and brutally cracked down on Islamist groups. Violent protest was undertaken by extremist Islamist groups during the 80s and early 90s, but the Luxor Massacre in 1996 actually caused that to die down. Osman said that public opinion, and opinion of mainstream and even somewhat radical Islamist groups, was appalled and shaken by the massacre and the extremists who’d carried it out were denounced.

So towards the end of the 20th Century the radical Islamist groups were failing in their struggle at against the near enemy. Osman said that this is why their attention began to turn to the “far enemy”. The USA and other Western powers were involved in propping up the secular and authoritarian regimes that the Islamists were struggling against. So groups like Al Qaeda turned their attention outwards towards these foreign powers.

The Making of the Modern Arab World: Episode 2

After a fairly long hiatus over Christmas we’ve started listening to radio programmes with our Sunday morning breakfast again. This week we listened to the second episode of The Making of the Modern Arab World. From the brief descriptions on the BBC website the first three episodes are covering the three major strands of political ideology in the region, and the fourth one looks at the lead up to the Arab Spring. The first episode had been about the secular liberal movement that rose during the early 20th Century, which moved away from the Muslim nature of the preceding Ottoman Empire but didn’t change the old class hierarchy nor did it succeed in winning full independence from the European colonial powers. This episode was looking at the Arab Nationalist movement that rose as the opposition to this.

Tarek Osman opened the programme by talking about the war in 1948 where several Arab nations fought against the new state of Israel. This conflict had been presented to the ordinary people of the Arab nations as having a foregone conclusion – obviously the Arab states would win against this upstart nation. And when this wasn’t the way that things turned out, the ruling elite of the countries lost a lot of face and respect. Particularly in the case of Egypt there was also a feeling amongst the army officers (among them Gamal Abdel Nasser) that the ruling elite was lazy and self-indulgent, and were responsible for the failure of the war. When Nasser returned to Egypt after the war he organised what started as a military coup, but turned into a popular revolution.

The coup had started as an alliance between the army officers (who were generally younger) and the Muslim Brotherhood (which had been a political organisation since the 1920s). Osman said that the Muslim Brotherhood leader had anticipated being the real leader after the revolution was over, regarding the army officers as not knowing what they were doing. For instance he wanted the Muslim Brotherhood to be given a veto on any policy decisions. But this was not well received by their allies and the alliance broke down – the army officers with Nasser at their head were now ruling the country alone.

Nasser was incredibly popular in Egypt. Osman talked about some of the things that helped to make this the case – one of which was a Muslim Brotherhood assassination attempt on Nasser while he was giving a speech. He reacted with courage (as well as a clamp down on the Muslim Brotherhood), and gained a lot of respect from people for it. He also gained a lot of respect because of the dispute with Britain over the Suez Canal – Nasser nationalised it, which upset the British & the French because they no longer controlled this strategically important waterway. So the UK and France allied with Israel, and sent troops in hoping to retake the Suez Canal and get rid of Nasser. However without the support of the US this military action failed – greatly boosting Nasser’s popularity not just in Egypt but across the Arab nations. He had beaten the old colonial powers, and Israel.

In terms of more practical reasons, he & his government also passed laws reforming land ownership. During the monarchy & before there were very few landowners – and most peasants lived on land owned by someone else, with a restrictive feudal system in place. Nasser’s reforms meant that many more people owned the land they lived on, and so they could then make money (and family members could get other jobs and make more money). They could send their children to the towns for education if they wished, and could aspire to become middle class. Many did, and so saw Nasser as someone on the side of social justice and the common people. Also during Nasser’s regime the Aswan High Dam was built, invigorating the economy.

Nasser believed in Arab Nationalism, and talked a lot about the idea of a single Arab country. This didn’t go down well with the still existent monarchies in places like Saudi Arabia, but met with a much better reception in places like Syria’s fledgling democracy. The Ba’ath party was formed by Syrian army officers, as a secular Arab Nationalist party – and took inspiration from Nasser. The rhetoric of a single Arab nation met with such approval that the Syrians offered to merge with Egypt, creating the United Arab Republic. This met with great approval at first, but after only 3 years Syria seceded and the United Arab Republic was over. The reality had been that Syria was to become part of Egypt – it was Egyptians in charge, it was the Syrian military and political parties that had to dissolve – and this was unpalatable to both ordinary Syrians and the ruling elite alike.

Nasser’s regime lost more of its glitter before the end – he lead the disastrous war (for the Arab nations) against Israel in the late 1960s. Israel’s decisive victory meant Nasser, like the King before him, lost face. Nasser died not long after, but his legacy still shapes Arab politics. Many leaders in Arab countries modelled their regimes after what they had seen work for Nasser. However, Osman pointed out that they took the wrong elements from it – instead of the charisma and bond with his people that had made Nasser so popular, people like Gaddafi and Assad instead emulated the autocratic despotic and militaristic aspects of Nasser’s rule. The programme talked to people who were less glowingly complimentary about Nasser than the above summary makes it sound. His policies of social reform were criticised for not going far enough, and for not actually being targeted at those most in need rather at those most useful or supportive of the state. The often brutal nature of the state was also discussed – and its capricious nature was illustrated by a woman who talked about how her father was a poet whose work was liked by Nasser, and several of his friends were incarcerated. But her father never was, because Nasser would cross his name off lists of “seditious” people who were due to be rounded up – so the poet escaped torture only by the whim of Nasser.

The Making of the Modern Arab World: Episode 1

The Making of the Modern Arab World is a new Radio 4 series about the causes and recent history of the current political situation in the Middle East. It’s presented by Tarek Osman, an Egyptian author, along with several interviews with historians or the descendents of notable figures – his focus is on Egypt and Syria in particular. The first episode looks at the development and decline of Arab liberalism. Osman started by talking about the parallels between the 2011 uprising in Egypt and the 1919 Egyptian uprising against the British colonial government, and about how during the early 20th Century there was a period that could be seen as a golden age of liberalism in the Arab world. He then began to trace the rise of this liberal ideology, and the flowering of the Nahda – the Arabic renaissance.

Osman traced this story back to the invasion of Egypt by Napoleon in 1798. This shook Arabic culture out of a sense of complacency about its place in the world. In this pre-European-colonial-empires time there weren’t the same tensions between “the West” and “the Middle East” that there are now. Scholars and intellectuals from Egypt and other parts of the Arab world visited European countries and investigated European philosophy & science, with an eye to taking what ideas they could and integrating them into their own Arab way of life & their Islamic religion. This lead to a period called the Nahda, often translated as the Arab renaissance. This wasn’t seen as Europeanising, but more as modernising and regaining the place in the world that they used to have (back when Europe was in the “Dark Ages” and the Islamic world was the centre of intellectual development).

However the drive to modernise came at a cost. The economies of the Egypt and other Arab countries weren’t set up to generate enough money to buy the new modern industrial infrastructure that they were putting in. So they got in debt to the European nations, in particular Britain and France. When economies collapsed, or there were popular uprisings against the governments, the British or French would step in and directly rule the country concerned. But the Nahda continued, and there was a growing elite with more liberal values than the traditional conservative society of these countries. This elite was encouraged by the colonial authorities via diplomacy during and after the First World War to consider themselves a potential stepping stone to self-rule for their countries.

As always comes up in the modern history of the Middle East the First World War is where Britain and France really sow the seeds of the current political conflicts both internally to the countries concerned and between the Arab world and Europe. To get the various past and current constituent countries of the Ottoman Empire on the side of Britain and France in the war they were all promised self-rule and lands of their own. And in addition the Jews were promised territory in Palestine. Several of these promises were contradictory, but that isn’t even the worst bit about the situation – after the war most of the promises weren’t kept at all. Britain and France divided up the former Ottoman Empire between themselves, and the Arab states didn’t get self-rule.

The sense of betrayal in Egypt, Syria and other Arab countries was profound. Osman discussed the uprisings in Egypt (in 1919) and Syria against the colonial governments. Some initial amount of success – limited self-rule in Egypt after 1919, and a backing off of the French authorities in Syria (after the initial brutal crackdown) – lead the liberal elite to believe they had begun to achieve their goals. But the lack of results with Britain and France still holding onto the powers they wanted damaged the creditability of this elite with the rest of the population. Osman finished the programme by talking briefly about the movements that grew out this disillusionment with the liberal Westernised elite. One of these is the Arab nationalist movement, in particular the Ba’ath party in Syria, and the other is Islamism, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood which was founded in Egypt. These movements are the subject of the next couple of episodes.

Unreported World: Egypt’s Tomb Raiders

Unreported World is a current affairs series on Channel 4 & a little while ago they did a half-hour programme about damage to antiquities in Egypt. We put off watching it for a while because it was bound to be depressing, and indeed it was.

It was filmed after this summer’s coup where President Morsi was overthrown & it looks at the effect the unrest has had on the ancient sites, and on the livelihoods of those who work in tourism. One of the main strands was talking to two people who make their living offering camel rides at the Giza Pyramids. And since the coup there have been very very few tourists, at the point when they were interviewed it was a couple of weeks since their last customer. Who’d been the first for a while. These two were doing better than some and must’ve had some savings – their camels weren’t starving yet. There was a particularly unpleasant sequence where the reporter (Aidan Hartley) was shown the animals that had starved to death because their owners could no longer afford to buy food for them left lying in the desert. Hartley also talked to the two about their home lives, and visited there – the adult man lived in a fairly small house with his own family, his two brothers & their families, and his sisters. The three men all work in the tourism industry and have had no work for weeks. He’s wondering how he’s going to afford his children’s school fees, and about how that’s going to affect their future. The boy who works with him is only 13, and dropped out of school when he was 8 – he needs to work to support his family, because his father has a degenerative disease. All either of them have ever done for work is offer camel rides, and if the tourists don’t come back they don’t know what they’re going to do or what’s available for them to do. They were very anti-Muslim Brotherhood, who they see as causing the problems.

The other main strand of the programme was about the looting of antiquities that’s been going on since the coup. In many cases this grows out of the lack of tourism and lack of income for people who relied on tourism. Hartley managed to get an interview with someone who is going out into the desert to dig things up to sell, and he was explaining that he did know it was robbing from the future and that it was wrong but he saw no other way to earn money to get food. Obviously he’s going to be spinning that for what he thinks the Western TV crew want to hear, but we were just shown the dead animals, and other signs of people who are running out of options. But the main focus of that strand of the programme was on an Egyptian archaeologist, Monica Hanna, who is preparing to sue the government for basically allowing the looting to happen She was (at least on camera and officially) talking about the lack of security at the ancient sites and the knock on effects of the curfew in Cairo (ie people who might protect the sites have to be home overnight, but the looters don’t stop for the curfew). However in the interview with the looter he said he bribes the officials who should be looking after the sites to turn a blind eye to what he’s doing – that’s how they’re getting away with bringing bulldozers in, or with sometimes operating in broad daylight.

Hanna took Hartley to several different places to see the sort of damage that was being done. This included a variety of sites where nothing has yet been properly excavated – like the sands around one of the pyramids at Dashur, where it was known there were graves but no-one had dug them up yet. But now the looters have been in with their bulldozers and dug up any antiquities they can find to sell on the black market. Which means we’ll never know what has been stolen, because they didn’t know what was there before. And a lot of potential knowledge about that area is lost forever now the graves have been disturbed. It’s not just the truly ancient sites that are being disturbed – Coptic churches and graveyards from pre-Islamic times have also been disturbed. Rockcut churches have had holes blown in them with dynamite, looking for treasure, murals have been defaced, graves disturbed and grave goods stolen. Hanna said that as well as the looting for things to sell she sees an anti-idolatry strand in what’s going on – she talked about proclamations by religious figures associated with the Muslim Brotherhood which talk about destroying the pyramids or other examples of “idolatrous” sites from “bad religions”.

A thoroughly depressing programme to watch. There aren’t simple answers either – just got to hope the political situation settles down and tourists can come back to revive the economy before too much is destroyed.

Other TV watched this week:

Episode 2 of Tudor Monastery Farm – part re-enactment, part documentary about what life would be like living on and running a farm in 1500.

The Joy of Logic – one off programme about the history of logic and maths, and the birth of computer science. Good, and made me want to re-read Gödel, Escher, Bach again.

Episode 4 of Stories of the Dark Earth: Meet the Ancestors Revisited – Julian Richards returns to digs that were originally filmed for Meet the Ancestors more than a decade ago & sees what new things have been learnt. interseting but padded, as all the other episodes were.

Indie Game: The Movie – film length documentary about indie games, following the development of Super Meat Boy and Fez, and talking to the creator of Braid. Interesting look at the behind scenes of game development at this small scale, did make me wonder why anyone would ever put themselves through that.