Sunday, 30 January 2011

Arab upheavals

Having lost one of my most loyal followers, I have not blogged for a month, but I must break my silence for what is happening in the Arab world. It is at least 18 years since I was last in Egypt and about 30 since my last stay in Tunisia, but after a total of eight years living in Arab countries I can't help feeling deeply involved in what is happening.

Compared with India, which has more than a dozen major languages, several very different religions and a range of climates from tropical to Himalayan, the Arab world is very homogeneous. Even going from one end to the other, say Morocco to Oman, an Arabic-speaking person quickly picks up the local dialect. The religions that coexisted there - Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Bahai - saw the world in simiar terms and lived together under a Pax Islamica that saw few violent conflicts.

When nationalism spread out from Europe, the Arabic-speaking world was one of the most obvious candidates to develop a nation-state or a close-knit federation. Egypt and Syria in the late 19th and early 20th century produced many thinkers who laid the intellectual foundations for a secular society. But they reckoned without oil and the greed of the Europeans and Americans. North Africa and Egypt had already been colonized, and after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Arabs found themselves divided between about twenty different territories. When they obtained a semblance of independence it was under authoritarian rulers propped up by the former colonial powers and by America, who siphoned off most of the oil wealth.

Egypt and Iraq operated a parliamentary system for several decades, but the corruption of the rulers and interference by the West led to revolutions in Egypt and Iraq inspired again by Western models, but this time totalitarian ones. When these too failed to deliver prosperity, the whole enterprise of imitating Europe and America became suspect. Some people turned away from secular ideas and dreamed of finding solutions in a return to a great and half imaginary Islamic past. They were helped by money form Saudi Arabia, which had fallen into the hands of an extremist sect, which maintained itself in power with the help of the West.

The wedge that maintains the whole rickety structure is Israel, dividing what is otherwise a continuous Arab space and occupying the third holiest city of Islam. The West's unqualified support for Israel requires the status quo to be frozen with its immense injustices, its torture regimes, the squandering of oil wealth in preposterous tumours like Dubai while the vast majority of Arabs live in grinding poverty. That is the pressure cooker that is now beginning to explode.

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