The end of summer: the Arab spring and imperial disintegration

Since the Arab spring had turned into a hot summer, or, according to the pessimists, an icy Islamic winter, many people ask themselves whether the upheavals in the Arab world are likely to lead into an Israeli-Arab war or another kind of Middle Eastern escalation. In light of the threatening discourse of an impending war between Iran and the Israeli-American block, a consideration of the long-term consequences of the Arab spring is more crucial than ever.

This article is the second in a series on the meaning and consequences of the Arab Spring. For the previous one, see: The Arab Spring the the Art of Revolution.


Taking that into account, it may be interesting to consider a wider historical perspective. In 2006, Niall Ferguson, a Harvard-based historian, had published  in the magazine Foreign Affairs an article analyzing the roots of Twentieth Century wars. Ferguson differs with the usual explanations, blaming the breakout of such wars on lunatic dictatorships or economic crises. He argues, for example, that in the Twentieth Century most authoritarian regimes had been rather peaceful, and the warlike ones, such as Nazi Germany, were the exception rather than the rule. In the same vein, it is difficult to draw a direct line between wars and economic crises. National-Socialist Germany, for example, opted for war only after its recovery from the 1929 crisis, while other economic crises did not lead to wars at all.

Niall Ferguson

Ferguson notes that wars, especially bloodier ones, tend to erupt because of two main factors, usually accompanied by economic instability: imperial decline and ethnic disintegration. Empires, be they the British Raj in India, the Russian Tzardom or the Austro-Hungarian empire, often force different national and religious groups to live in coexistence. However, when empires disappear and are replaced by nation states, a strive for ethnic and religious homogeneity is all too often the result. Minorities are oppressed by majorities, discriminated or even slaughtered or expelled. Sometimes, such confrontations may lead to lengthy, brutal civil wars. It is enough to remember that Galicia and Poland, which were fertile ground for the conflicting national aspirations of Poles, Ukrainians, Jews, Russians and Germans, turned into killing fields of ethnic riots, pogroms and genocide during and after the Second World War. Rival ethnic groups were slaughtered by the Germans and the Soviets, practiced large-scale violence against each other, and all too often against the Jews. Ferguson does not mention it, but a similar bloodbath occurred in Manchuria, a scene of imperial decline and ethnic confrontations between Chinese, Japanese, Koreans and Russians. The 1990s had further witnessed two African nation states, Rwanda and Burundi, created out of the disintegrated Belgian empire, being engulfed in ethnic strife, civil war and genocide. The empires themselves often had a crucial responsibility for this state of affairs, as they pitted one ethnic groups against the other in order to enhance their power and domination. The Belgians, for example, empowered one group (Tutsi) on the expense of the other (Hutu), and therefore turned it into an elite surrounded by a sea of hatred. The empire, therefore, was like a lid on a pot of boiling soup. Hell broke loose as soon as it disintegrated.

protests in Egypt

Based on these presumptions, Ferguson predicts that the next world war may begin in the Middle East, a region whose inherent volatility had only increased following the decline of American imperial presence in the region and the escalating ethnic conflict between Jews, Arabs, Sunnis, Shiites, Christians and Kurds. Evidently, the Arab spring does not diminish the prospects of such an outcome. Leaders such as Mubarak, Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein and even Bashar Al-Assad, played in their own countries a similar role to that played by large empires in their dominions. Notwithstanding their religious rhetoric, they created strong, centralized secularist regimes, and forced the different religious and ethnic groups to live in a tense coexistence. Indeed, not a few Christians, both in Egypt and Syria, do not welcome the impending political transitions. They fear that a democratic regime, dependent on popular opinion, may leave them at the mercy of a hostile majority. These are not mere assumptions, as the fate of Christians in the new Iraqi “democracy” is rather grim. Ancient christians minorities, who lived in the country from times immemorial, are persecuted, expelled and often brutally murdered. It is interesting to see, in this context, that the liberal party in Egypt, mainly led by Copts, named itself “The Egyptian Bloc“, a clear attempt to use national identity as a “glue” between themselves and the Muslim majority.

Coptic demonstrations in Cairo


Indeed, the disintegration of a centralized, “imperial” government, capable of ensuring practical coexistence between majority and minority (even if it is based on minority rule, such as in Syria), may lead Middle Eastern countries to a vicious circle of civil war and mutual slaughter. In Iraq, the American governor J. Paul Bremer had already brought such a scenario into being, by empowering the Shiites on the expense of the Sunnis, a move which led the latter into an armed rebellion.

It is important to emphasize, though, that the cruel crackdown of “imperial” dictatorial regimes, such as Assad’s and Gaddafi’s, on initially peaceful demonstrators, led them to lose legitimacy in a fatal way. Gaddafi was already executed in disgrace, and Assad’s turn may well come. It is hard to believe that a regime which massacres its own people, and had already lost the last shreds of Arab legitimacy, can survive in the long run. This, however, should not prevent us from considering the potential repercussions of its fall. Could imperial disintegration in the Middle East lead to chronic instability and even an all-out war? This is far from being an inevitable outcome, but it should certainly be considered. The constant meddling of Iran in Iraq, the Shiite undermining of Sunni regimes in the Gulf, in addition to ethnic, religious and civil wars in other Arab countries, lead to the creation of a regional powder keg. The combination of imperial decline and ethnic disintegration, as noted by Ferguson, is highly volatile. In such circumstance, an unexpected disaster can always occur.

A few decades before the First World War, the German military leader Helmuth von Moltke had warned his contemporaries from meddling in the tense European balance of power. “Woe to him,” he wrote, “who sets Europe alight, who first puts the fuse to the power keg!” Currently, the Middle East is such a powder keg. And owe to the pyromaniac, whether Arab, Persian, Israeli or American, who first puts the fuse and blow it off.



About דני אורבך

רוכים הבאים לינשוף! אני דני אורבך, היסטוריון צבאי מהחוגים להיסטוריה ולימודי אסיה באוניברסיטה העברית, וחוקר הפיכות, התנקשויות פוליטיות, התנגדות צבאית ושאר אירועים עקובים מדם ביפן, סין, גרמניה ושאר העולם. מי מכם שמתעניין במלחמת העולם השנייה, אולי נתקל בספר שלי, ואלקירי- ההתנגדות הגרמנית להיטלר שיצא לאור בהוצאת ידיעות אחרונות. מחקר חדש, מעודכן ומורחב בנושא, The Plots against Hitler, יצא לאור השנה באנגלית ובאיטלקית, בנוסף לעדכון של של הספר העברי הקיים. מהדורות קינדל והארד-קופי של כל הספרים ניתן לקנות באמזון. כדי לראות את הפרופיל האקדמי שלי – מחקרים, מאמרים ועוד, לחצו כאן.

Posted on March 11, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Abdelbar Mahmoud

    The possibility of going into a vicious circle of violent instability is highly predictable! The only real question is: Who is going to start it? The Americans and petromonarchies are supporting lunatic fach’islamist parties who might bring their countries to the edge of civil war. Also the arming of every single house in Libya and maybe now Syria might accelerate this possibility (In libya the oil rich region of Briga is already trying to separate itself from the rest of the country!).
    Or or, if Israel might take the leadership this time and show us the quickest way by attacking Iran then God help us all!!

  2. Attacking Iraq was also a gamble on our part, and it was much, much weaker than Iran is now.

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