The Middle East and the Great War

Hussein Haridy
Wednesday 14 Nov 2018

World War I, whose end in 1918 is being marked now, set off ripples that continue to be felt in the Arab and Muslim worlds

On 11 November tens of world leaders gathered in Paris to commemorate the first centenary of the Armistice of 1918 that marked the end of World War I, or the Great War as historians have called it.

Never before had humanity seen such a war that had taken the lives of 18 million people from the military of the warring parties as well as civilian populations.

Nor had the world until then witnessed a war fought on several continents and regions at once. The Middle East had been a major theatre of war from 1914 to 1918.

The Great War heralded the coming of a new Middle East at the expense of the Ottoman Empire. It created states along the lines drawn by the great powers of the day, Great Britain and France — new frontiers drawn with only the national interests of these two European powers accounted for.

However, the end of the Great War was the beginning of an Arab awakening that endured, more or less, for the next decades.

After 500 years of despotic Ottoman rule, Arab people everywhere dreamt of achieving independence from foreign occupation by the European powers. Not only did they aspire to free themselves and their countries from the tentacles of imperialism, but they also strove to establish constitutional rule in their respective homelands.

In this historic enterprise they had been deeply influenced by Western political thought steeped in the idea of freedom and the rule of law.

In Egypt, as an example, immediately after the Armistice, a mass popular movement had begun to take shape driven by the Wilsonian concept of self-determination for people under the yoke of European imperialism.

In March 2019 Egyptians will celebrate the first centenary of what is known as the 1919 Revolution that, ultimately, led to the nominal independence of Egypt from British occupation in February 1922.

Less than a year later, Egypt had its first “democratic” constitution, in April 1923. Some believe it ushered in what historians have called the “liberal era” in modern Egyptian history, that lasted for 29 years till the July Revolution of 1952.

The Middle East that was shaped by the Great War was meant to achieve three main strategic objectives.

The first was to make sure that the region newly carved after the fall of the Ottoman Empire would remain the preserve of the European colonial powers.

The second was related to the Balfour Declaration of 2 November 1917, that had promised world Jews “a national home” in Palestine “without prejudice to the civil rights” of the native population.

The third was to prevent the former Soviet Union from propagating its communist ideology in the Middle East and the Arab world. The abundance of newly-discovered oil in the Middle East and in the Arab Peninsula turned these regions into major strategic prizes for the Western powers.

The inter-war period extending from 1918 to 1939 had seen the emergence of two opposing forces and nationalist movements that would dictate in later years the course of events in the Middle East.

The gradual and determined push for the establishment of the “national home” for Jews in Palestine collided head-on with the rise of Arab nationalism.

The establishment of Israel in 1948 was a turning point in the modern history of the Middle East and a sad legacy of the Great War.

Some 700, 000 Palestinians were chased out of their lands of thousand years and became refugees. Seven Arab armies, including the Egyptian army, had fought in Palestine after the creation of Israel, but all odds were against them.

It was to prove the cause of many upheavals in the Middle East in the years that followed. Those years witnessed revolutions and wars till today because the forces unleashed by the Armistice of 1918 have not been reconciled.

And it is doubtful, taking the long historical view, that they ever will for the simple reason that the Israelis have negated the existence of an Arab people, the Palestinians, in Palestine centuries before they started emigrating en masse to Palestine.

The Jews have claimed history on their side. But the Palestinian Arabs also have history to buttress their historical narrative.

If the establishment of Israel was the second step in the Zionist plan to usurp Palestine from its native Palestinians, the first step being the Balfour Declaration, the Middle East is actually witnessing the third and final step in achieving the dream of the Zionists; namely, the delineation of the final borders of Israel. Israel being the only member country in the United Nations that has not, yet, internationally-recognised geographic borders.

The first centenary of the Armistice of 1918 has seen a confrontation among various “isms” across the Middle East. Capitalism versus socialism, and in some instances, communism. Secularism versus Islamism.

But the lasting legacy of the centenary of the Armistice of the Great War will be this irreconcilable showdown between Arab nationalism and world Zionism.

The June War of 1967 proved that Israel was an expansionist power by definition. No peace treaties with Arab countries will succeed in glossing over this historical fact.

An honest review of the aggressive behaviour of Israel after the signing of the peace treaty with Egypt on 26 March 1979 would drive the point home.

On the other hand, amid the centenary of the Armistice of 1918 the world is witnessing a destructive confrontation between secular and progressive forces and Islamists supported by petrodollars.

Across the Arab world and throughout Muslim countries forces of darkness have descended on Arab and Muslim societies, eager to hinder human progress. Religious-inspired terrorism is another threat to the security and stability of the Middle East, as has been amply proven in the last four decades.

Not only has the Middle East fallen prey to the rise of political Islam with its antiquated ideology, but it is witnessing, at the same time, another confrontation, between authoritarianism and one-man rule and the aspirations of millions in the Middle East and the Arab world for good governance.

The Middle East has not known a respite from the wars, battles and conflicts that have consumed it in the last 100 years. When will its people celebrate the Armistice of 1918 the way we have seen in Paris remains a question seeking an answer. But one thing is certain.

The early years of the Armistice saw a determined national struggle for freedom and constitutional rule, and Egypt had been in the vanguard of this national movement, and that freedom from foreign occupation and domination is not guaranteed without assuring and protecting public liberties for all citizens, regardless of race, sect, gender or colour.

Let us hope that this would be one of the basic lessons of the first centenary of the Armistice of World War I in this part of the world.

* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline:The Middle East and the Great War 

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