Ever since empires first appeared on the world scene, their wars have been brutal. Victims have been counted in the millions, with ordinary people suddenly finding themselves the fodder for conflicts over terrain and resources.
The history of the Middle East testifies to the many wars that the ancient empires fought to defend their territory, as it was the theatre of the wars the empires that succeeded one another fought throughout history. The ancient Egyptians fought against invaders thirsting to control the fertile Nile Delta, and the campaigns of Alexander the Great were followed by Roman and Persian conquests. In the 7th century CE, the Islamic conquests followed, sweeping aside the former great powers.
In the 11th and 12th centuries, the European Crusaders arrived in the region, after which the European Renaissance gave rise to new states and new empires that would change the map of the world. Andalusia vanished after 800 years of flourishing under the Arab Umayyad kingdoms, while the Arab Levant fell to the Ottomans at the beginning of the 16th century.
The experiences of nations throughout history tells us that power with territory and a strong army to protect it has been the main factor that has given birth to civilisations. It also tells us that ordinary people have fallen victim to wars when those who govern them weaken and lose control over territory. Displacement and the appearance of refugees are disasters inflicted by warfare and greed. What we see today is part of the long continuum of human suffering in the region.
Whether maps are torn apart or remain the same has always hinged on power. This is what sustained the longest-lasting and richest civilisation in history, namely the Pharaonic civilisation. The succession of ancient Egyptian dynasties lasted 3,000 years thanks to a strong army, economic wealth, and scientific prowess. When these basic components began to erode, the state became vulnerable to the ambitions of outside powers, whether from Rome or from the Arab armies that brought Islam and the succession of Umayyad, Abbasid, Mameluke, and Ottoman rulers.
A turning point came with Mohamed Ali, who rebuilt a powerful army after coming to power in Egypt in 1805 and launched an economic renaissance, developing other components of strength. The results were reflected in Egypt’s territorial expansion, which reached the very gates of Istanbul until the Convention of London of 1840 stymied the emergent Egyptian empire.
Then there was violent foreign intervention and economic penetration after the British and French encumbered Egypt with heavy debts and forced the then ruling family to sell off the agricultural land used as collateral to secure them. This paved the way for the British occupation of 1882, delivering the coup de grace to the crumbling strength that Mohamed Ali had built.
But the occupation sparked the Egyptian awakening, especially since Egyptian society had been primed by the Orabi Revolution that had stood up to the British. The impetus continued to build until it blossomed in the 1919 Revolution, the dawn of a new age for Egyptian society.
With the 1952 Revolution, Egypt regained its strength, as had been first embraced by its pharaonic civilisation. But because of the context of the post-1952 period and various problems at home, mistakes were made. The 1956 Tripartite Aggression was followed by the war in Yemen and then the 1967 War. Despite defeat in the last of these, they were important stages in redefining the power of the Egyptian state at the dawn of a new era.
It was essential to rebuild the components of state power: a strong national army, a strong economy, and strong human resources. The October 1973 War proved a magnificent test for these authentically Egyptian elements, and it reconnected Egyptians with the wars fought by their predecessors.
But then a culture of backstabbing emerged targeting the victory makers. This coincided with the rise of the Islamist groups that aimed to turn back the clock in society. They not only introduced terrorism into society, but also tried to brainwash young minds with anti-patriotic notions and values. New developments also surfaced at the international level, ushering in international and regional wars using religion as a weapon in the service of the world powers.
The region’s geography was exposed as vulnerable not just to the Islamists but also to other countries that utilised these under various guises such as fighting the former Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. With the turn of the millennium, the pretext for intervention became the spread of democracy, and this was wrongly utilised as an instrument to achieve the ignoble ends of the great powers.
There was no democracy when the great empires arose across the millennia. The rulers who altered the course of history, men such as Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the Mameluke sultan Baybars and the Ayyubid sultan Salaheddin, did not come to power by democratic means. While the US experienced democracy as it rose as an imperialist power, it did so domestically. In foreign policy, it saw democracy as a means to exploit others, sow anarchy, and start wars in order to achieve its ends, even at the cost of millions of lives.
The Arab region became the theatre of a long-arm strategy paying lip-service to democracy and human rights. Somalia was the first on the list of victims. After all, who manufactured the chaos in that country? The crime committed by Iraq, a land with an ancient civilisation, was its mistake of invading Kuwait. After the liberation of the latter, the US revealed the real reason for its presence in the region, refusing to leave Iraq and other parts that sat atop great wealth.
The pretext for the later US invasion of Iraq proved to be a lie – that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction – and Iraq was reduced to the chaos we see today, prey to the rule of militias and Iranian intervention. It no longer possesses the sovereign power that starts with a strong army, because this was dismantled under the US occupation.
Syria met as dismal a fate as Iraq. Just as Iran took control of Iraq after the US failure there, it also took advantage of the symbolic US presence in Syria to support the regime, even if this drove millions of refugees to other countries. Syria has since become prey to all and sundry: factions that claim to possess the truth and massacre people right and left in its name; regional powers bent on annexing Syrian territory; a regime backed by powers ready to use it as a bargaining chip in order to keep Syria as an extension of their power and influence.
The best safeguard and defence for any society derives from its internal strength, and the process of destruction starts with interior weakness that whets the appetites of outside powers. History shows that these are the laws that govern how societies work in their struggle to survive.
* The writer is managing editor of the quarterly journal Al-Demoqrateya published by Al-Ahram.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.