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The Revolt In The Desert

Author bio: 
Richard Cottrell

The eruption of popular discontent roiling the Middle East has naturally seized the world’s attention. Ferment of this kind and on such a grand scale is quite rare but actually not unprecedented in the Arab world, although a glance at simplistic mainstream media reporting is to imagine that it is. The great colonial struggles in North Africa and notably the Algerians freeing themselves from the French, the seemingly interminable struggles among the Lebanese, seem to have slipped from the vaults of memory.

Understandably there is a great deal of dewy-eyed scribbling in the West about an Islamic domino revolution toppling one ugly dictatorship after another, the enslaved peoples of the Middle East at last casting off their chains, rising up and seizing the shining grail of democracy. Or, to the consternation of the United States and her NATO poodles, the prospect of Islamic extremists enthralled to the mythical Old Man in the Cave, insidiously exploiting people power to impose the iron grip of a resurrected Caliphate.

Only in the very small print are we eventually informed that these now much-denounced despots have been pliant puppets of the West for decades, along with all their repressive systems and blatant theft and corruption. It is our bought and paid-for system of client states which has gone bust. All said and done, our interests in the Middle East can be summed up under two headings: security of petroleum and gas supplies and the sanctity of the Israeli state. Human rights and liberties, subjects on which so many droning pompous lectures are delivered, notably by satraps of the US State Department, not to ignore successive tenants of the White House, bear as much substance as ectoplasm.

In pursuit of these narrow designs the authorities of the West are chiefly responsible for the grotesque inequality, hunger and the hopelessness that now inflame passions across the Arab world today. Corporate militarist colonialism is wholly to blame for both the current unrest -- and most of its causes.

I make no apologies for borrowing my header to this piece from Lawrence of Arabia’s description of his personal struggles in the cause of Arab liberty and independence in World War One. T. E. Lawrence was a complex individual, suffering a strange incidence of identity dislocation dating from his confusing family background and later the suffocating atmosphere of Imperial Britain, to the energizing freedom and liberty he encountered among the bearded savants holding forth in their tents among the lonely dunes.

The Oxford-taught Lawrence set himself an extraordinary task, virtually single-handed, to forge a united Arab nation from the ruins of the Ottoman empire. His brave efforts were foredoomed because certain basic imperatives got in the way.

Not the least of these was the inability of peoples deeply rooted in nomadic culture to understand the conception of nationhood. The first call was always tribal loyalty and equally the tightly bound corset of the various and competing disciplines of Islam (a precise reflection of eternally quarreling Christendom).

There is a powerful scene beautifully painted by magnificent photography in David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, where the rival factions are depicted arguing as to who should run the telephones, the waterworks, hospitals and so forth, after Ibn Saud’s motley forces arrived in Damascus. General Allenby, cynically shaking his Scotch, calculates these ‘handsome beggars’ would soon answer the call of the desert, its purities and simplicities, and clop off home on their camels. And he was right.

Lawrence’s whole-hearted immersion in the Arab Revolt denied him the contemplative resources to interpret the Big Power game played out behind the curtain. In short he suffered from hopeless naiveté, which eventually led to bitterness and confusion within himself, and an early, tragically accidental death.

The cause of independence fizzled out and instead the British and French imposed themselves by force as the new colonial masters of Mesopotamia. The troubles and fragmentations which wrack the Middle East today are inextricably rooted in the duplicity of those times. I fear that if Lawrence were alive now his natural reaction would be to advise the furious protestors not to expect too much from their earnest strivings and at all costs to avoid the wasted excesses of martyrdom.

Each time we read something about ‘spring’ sunshine attached to some revolutionary fervor, it is prudent to inspect the health warning. As the monumental Isaiah Berlin, a seasoned historian as well as a philosopher, always insisted, it is a general rule that romantic hopes of popular liberties and freedoms are invariably dashed. The yearning for some egalitarian paradise inevitably spurs some new turn of the repressive screw. Almost everywhere we look in the pages of history is to inspect the proof.

This was the story the of two largest insurgencies in roughly the last hundred years, the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 and the communist insurgency in China which broke out with serious force in 1946, after a lengthy period in gestation.

The French Revolution is usually cited as an offspring of the Enlightenment. Whatever promise it raised was short-lived, and after a brief and ghastly attempt at class extinction, guttered out in Napoleon’s dictatorship and the subsequent reversion to empire. The Springtime of the Nations which blossomed in 1848, and shook the ruling elites to the core all across Europe, was in essence an aftershock of the unanswered questions brewed in the radical emotions of 1789. This heady epoch closed with the brutal extinction of the Paris Commune.

The war of 1914-18, packaged and sold as a crusade against Prussian militarism, directly incited the Bolshevik seizure of power and gave the world Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and Salazar in Portugal , the rise of Shinto Power in Japan, and the Manchurian pogroms. That famous peace conference conducted beneath the glittering chandeliers of Versailles promised a second Springtime of the Nations, but instead guaranteed a second even mightier conflict.

When that ended at the cost of millions upon millions of lives and massive, pointless destruction, the peoples of Eastern and Central Europe were herded into Soviet prison states, human war booty freely volunteered by Churchill and Roosevelt. In 1956 the Hungarians made their tragic and doomed dash for freedom. In 1968, the Prague Spring -- the search for ‘socialism with a human face’ -- went the same way.

These are important lessons to heed, as the drama unfolds across the Arabian Crescent.

The suspicions of some hidden guiding hand at work are unfounded. The riots are promoted by deep and intensive resentment grounded in poverty, disgust at the looting practices of the ruling elites, frustration at being denied the opportunity of a dignified existence. The truth is that given half a chance, most of Egypt’s teeming millions would bolt at a moment’s notice in the direction of the American and European paradise they see depicted on their satellite television screens.

What we are watching is a classic demonstration of Marxist class collision brought about by huge fractures and distortions in the capitalist fabric. In that respect, at least, it may be a portent of much wider events to come.

The vast majority of Egyptians are under 25, aspiring and extremely frustrated and angry. These demographics are repeated across the Arab world. If there is a shared consensus, then it is the big attraction of the western style of living, comforts, work and accomplishments. There is a sullen brooding resentment at western interference in Iraq and Afghanistan for example, the protracted agony of the Palestinians, a general revulsion for the Zionist state.

But none of these factors are sufficient to kindle the current explosion of anger. Nor is the gross deception of democracy as some kind of elixir to fix empty stomachs and a life, for millions, without hope of work to support their families. It is fascinating in these circumstances to see how the US, and particularly M’Lady Whitewater Clinton, are now exposed between a rock and an extremely pointy place, flailing to evince some kind of response.

On one hand, seen from Washington, this apparent explosion of popular discontent might be cautiously interpreted as Arab nations grasping at the folds of freedom, that recurring US leitmotif in its muddled dealings with the Islamic world. On the other, and far more importantly, a fuse blowing on such a massive scale it threatens America’s strategic alliances throughout the region, exercised as it is by a network of pocket dictators and hired princelings. We will get the measure of how far this is likely to go when and if the contagion spreads to the Saudis, who were, let us hark back, the original working materials of Lawrence of Arabia.

Time so often plays finely-judged intriguing tricks.

The staying power, or otherwise, of America’s sponsored tribunes is really irrelevant. Transplants are always available, so long as the apparatus of power itself remains in unchanged hands. This is really the important factor. The Vietnam Equation however demonstrated that the United States could not command a compliant empire in South East Asia by swapping local potentates if they lacked roots of popular support.

I suspect this is likely to be the main factor at work in the Arab crisis. There is no solution militarily. It is hard to see where an all-embracing diplomatic one can be found, either. Too many countries, all of them widely differing, are involved. The single uniting factor is resentment of a small tightly exclusive ruling class indifferent to the needs and desires of ordinary people and especially the multi-millions of the young.

The is the rule whether it is secular-inclined Tunisia, deeply fractured Algeria (thanks to half a century of US meddling, from backing the white settler revolt of the 1960’s onwards), the still-born not even half-nation of Jordan dominated by Israel, and sad, backward Yemen, one of the world’s poorest and least known states.

The much-dreaded Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has no economic or political program that would answer the demands of the demonstrating masses and the vast majority of Egyptians, especially the dominant legions of the young, understand this perfectly clearly. America’s problem is that she perceives everything through the one-eyed prism of Al-Qaeda (‘The Platform’, in Arabic), ironically that self-same organism she herself invented, armed and nourished to fight the Russians in Afghanistan, and later took on as hired hands in the Balkan affray.

If, as Berlin proposed, the revolution invariably consumes its own, then America’s crusade in the Islamic dominions is confronting the same fate.

Richard Cottrell is a former European MP and author of the coming attraction from Progressive Press: Gladio:  NATO's Dagger at the Heart of Europe.