The new (dis)order of the Middle East

The new (dis)order of the Middle East

To understand the Middle East today and its future course, Europe of the 19th century provides some intriguing parallels. The shared characteristics of the two places and centuries shed light on the magnitude of transformation that the Arab world is undergoing. Reflecting on these parallels provides cause for both hope and fear. Europe of the 19th century experienced many rapid changes reminiscent of the Arab world today: As demands for national expression and greater representation increased, the imperial order was challenged. Empires rose and fell, and new countries in the midst of Europe, such as Germany and Italy, coalesced around a national identity.

When the initial uprisings of peoples against their rulers in the Arab world were named “Arab Spring,” one of the clear historical references was the mold of the 1848 “Spring of Nations” that swept across peoples and nations in Europe and much of the world. However, those looking to relate the “Arab Spring” to the European “Spring of Nations” should have known that the European Spring, in its immediate aftermath, was a complete failure. The ideas of Socialism, Liberalism, and Nationalism represented such a profound challenge to the conservative order in Europe that there was virtually no room for gradual change or moderate accommodation.

One of the places that remained noticeably impervious to the broad sweep of the European “Spring of Nations,” was the Ottoman Empire. By the time the ideas of the “Spring of Nations” – from Liberalism to Arab nationalism – began to challenge the imperial order, World War I intervened to change its course.

Therefore the demise of the Ottoman Empire was not homegrown. The forced transformation of the Ottoman Empire from empire to artificial states shaped by external interests meant that for nearly a century the externally and arbitrarily drawn borders of the new states were held together by sheer force and, when available, legendary sums of oil money.

In 2010, after a century and a half of delay, the areas of the Ottoman Empire got their own Spring. But the delayed “Ottoman Spring” meant that by the time the peoples rose, it was no longer against the Ottoman Empire, but against the artificially created states and regimes that were the outcomes of its forced carving.

It would wrong to expect the post-World War I order in the Middle East to simply fade away in face of the rising ancient identities. The identities created during the century between the breakup of the Ottoman Empire and the Arab Spring, despite being relatively new, cannot be written off easily. These new identities also have the power of interests: powerful economic and military interests are tied to keeping the new identities alive, and they will not give in without a very bloody fight. Amidst this bloody fight, a new architecture of the Middle East can be glimpsed. A new architecture is emerging, reminiscent of that of Europe in the 19th century.

It is no accident that the top mid-sized regional powers which have not had a history of being subject to the Ottoman Empire – Turkey, Iran, and Israel – are those that enjoy the most distinct sense of national identity.

While the top regional powers in the areas previously under Ottoman control are non-Arab, among those in the Arab world, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are the most substantial players. One more regional power worth mentioning is the new “Tsarist” Russia.

The European experience demonstrates that even if reactionary forces have quashed initial revolts in the Middle East, this does not mean that ultimately the peoples of the region will not have their representative governments, or that societies will not be more fair. Many Europeans, enjoying their present state of peace, democracy, and prosperity forget the price that was paid on the path to the present. They expect other countries and regions to somehow smoothly transition from one condition to the next. But the lesson from the European experience is that the transitions from a conservative to a liberal order, from empires to nations, and from tyranny to freedom are never easy.

* Dr. Einat Wilf is an Adjunct Fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and a Senior Fellow with the Jewish People Policy Institute. This abrirged article was originally published in the Spring 2014 issue of Turkish Policy Quarterly (TPQ),