Legacy of the Arab Spring: The Question of Independence and Sovereignty

Tuesday, May 29th, 2012

Today, the Arabs are rising against their despotic regimes and leaders in search for liberty and freedom. Yet, the legacy of a similar uprising – the Arab Revolt of 1916 – to expel four-century-old Ottoman rule carries many lessons for the Arab Spring. Over-reliance on foreign help and international third parties to deal with an indigenous cause eventually enabled these outside sources to shape and eventually hijack that indigenous cause. Even though the Arab countries eventually gained their independence they have been struggling with direct or indirect manifestations of colonialism, as well as domestic legitimacy and sovereignty crises. The legacy of the Arab Spring must therefore be answered with reference to the 1916 Arab revolt – and by discussing the issue of independence and sovereignty separately.

Legacy of the Arab Spring: The Question of Independence and Sovereignty 

Amir Faisal, the leader of the 1916 Arab Revolt and a firm believer in the idea of Arab unity had hypothesized that once the victors of World War I would concede Arab independence and help them establish their local competence, the “natural influences of race, language and interest” would soon draw all Arabs into one people. Yet, Faisal requested from the Great Powers of World War I that they lay aside their thoughts of profit and their infighting: “…we ask you not to force your whole civilization upon us, but help us to pick out what serves us from your experience”. In return he conceded, the Arabs could offer the Great Powers “little, but gratitude[i]. The fate of the 1916 Arab Revolt and that of Faisal developed in parallel, eventually marking a lesson in history for the nations who outsource the shortcomings in their national-political unity to the goodwill of international third parties. And it shows us that, in the ‘market’ of diplomacy, ‘gratitude’ and ‘goodwill’ are not exchangeable commodities.

Rather than an all-out Arab revolt, it is more accurate to define 1916 as a Hashemite revolt[ii], developing around the clan and allies of Sharif Husayn bin Ali of Mecca and his sons – perhaps the best known being Faisal bin Husayn, who led the armies of the Hashemite revolt to Damascus in 1918, ending four-centuries of Ottoman rule in the Middle East. The prevailing Arab narrative was that it was the ‘Western betrayal’ that had denied the Arabs their own kingdom, highlighting the Sykes-Picot agreement and the Balfour Declaration that later materialized in the concluding treaties of the Paris Peace Conference. Yet, this narrative can be challenged by arguing that the Hashemite revolt had no chance of success against the Ottoman army without the main British army of Allenby as it was in fact Britain that fought the main bulk of the Ottoman army, ultimately ‘saving’ the Arabs from Ottoman control. Furthermore, the fact that the Hashemite revolt was organized and equipped by the colonial office in Cairo and with the hands-on involvement of T. E. Lawrence, ultimately enabled London to exercise as much influence and weight it desired on the post-Arab revolt settlements. The Hashemite nature of the revolt and representation at the Paris Peace Conference prevented it from being a genuine Arab nationalist movement, which become even more explicit following the Hashemites’ loss of sovereignty as a result of the Allies’ response to Faisal’s “little, but gratitude” with a land-grabbing frenzy.
Post-World War II period on the other hand witnessed successive independence declarations, much of which lacked full sovereignty, as these were externally granted or consensual independences that had more to do with the demise of Britain and France, than the rise of nationalist mobilizations in the Middle East. Iran for example, could declare its independence only after British and Soviet troops withdrew in 1941, Lebanon in 1943 with a strong French oversight, Syria in 1944 following British pressures on France to withdraw, and Jordan (1946), Iraq (1947), Egypt (1947) all declaring their independence as a part of general British decolonization and with negotiated consent. The primary problematic of Arab independence emerges here: Mashriqi independence came not as a result of a unified, focused and sustained national mobilization, which managed to overthrow foreign patronage, but were granted long after sporadic and insufficiently united uprisings had been pacified into varying degrees of cooperation with colonial rule. Once these colonial administrations withdrew, they left behind post-colonial administrations that lacked sufficient legitimacy to rule the newly created territories of the Middle East in the absence of colonial troops.
The question of legitimacy and sovereignty in Mashriq has since then become the fundamental problematic of Middle Eastern politics, whereby these post-colonial administrations have been frequently challenged by indigenous forces, eventually falling to a wave of military coups instigated by nationalist, young army officers. Nasser’s 1952 coup, as well as Sadat’s ‘Corrective Revolution’ of 1971 in Egypt, Boumediene’s 1965 coup in Algeria, Qassem (1958), Arif (1963), al-Bakr (1968) and eventually Saddam Husayn’s (1979) coups in Iraq, Syria’s successive coups by al-Zaim, al-Hinnawi, al-Shishakli, (1949), 1954 coup, ending with Hafez al-Assad and Salah Jadid’s coup of 1966 and Gaddafi’s 1969 coup in Libya are all part of this post-Ottoman and post-colonial search for legitimacy in the Middle East. The political behavior of these dictatorships then began animating the perceived autocratic rule of the Ottoman sultans and the repressive approach of the colonial administrators, effectively creating a hybrid policy of domestic colonialism and legitimation-through-repression. Perhaps the best-known extension of this political behavior has been the Mukhabarat: the intelligence directorates of the Mashriq that dealt with domestic dissent and opposition rather than foreign espionage, eventually rendering Mukhabarat synonymous with state terror and repression.[iii] Similarly, the armies of the Middle East since then, performed domestically more than externally, as an extension of dictatorial control, rather than a national fighting tool.
Through this post-colonial dictatorship period, Arab countries were independent, but their people were not domestically sovereign. Leaders of the Arab people behaved much like war-time military administrations of invaded countries that maintained constant domestic military-intelligence activity to protect the regime and the state.
In retrospect, the British-Hashemite expulsion of the Ottoman Empire from the Middle East brought about 30 years of colonial period, which was followed by more than half century of post-colonial dictatorial regimes. In other words, since 1918, there has always been a barrier between the Arabs of Mashriq and a regime with a generally accepted legitimacy.
Arab Spring Legacy: Between Faisal and Kemal
The Arab Spring, has the potential to be an epoch-ending event, mainly because it ends the post-colonial period of the Middle East. While rising against their oppressive regimes, the Arabs are also rising against the ghosts of the colonial and post-colonial periods.
Yet, this in itself doesn’t bring about a solution to the century-old legitimacy crisis in the Middle East. Although revolting and overthrowing a regime is half of the job, failure to replace these regimes with more legitimate, sovereign, democratic and representative structures will mean the failure of the project. If there is indeed a ‘Tahrir spirit’ or an ‘Arab Spring ideology’, then it has to bring full, complete and unquestioned sovereignty to the people. This means that future regimes must be accountable domestically, as well as internationally, establishing their countries’ ties with the West on equal footing.
However (and perhaps unfortunately) the Arab Spring, since its inception, is increasingly being debated within the context of how the United States can help, shape or expedite it and how U.S. oriented social media tools (smartphones, Twitter, Facebook, Youtube) helped these movements to develop – often ignoring the fact that the Arab Spring movements mobilized primarily in the traditional fora: mosques, universities and coffee houses. More problematic perhaps, is that many Arab commentators and analysts cannot not talk about the Arab Spring independently from how American help; either with forcefully overthrowing dictatorial regimes or with establishing post-revolution administrations.[iv] Some other analysts argue that the United States has a humanitarian and ethical responsibility to help save Arabs from their dictators. This argument is becoming increasingly more pronounced within the context of Syria[v], for example and already became a reality with the Libyan case[vi]. Paradoxically, the same policy debate warns that the post-Arab Spring administrations will not be particularly pro-American and in the event that democratic systems are established in the Arab world, they will eventually have to channel some of the anti-Americanism and anti-Israeli sentiments in the public.[vii] It is then argued that the U.S. must simply ‘deal with it’ when it comes to this expected post-Arab Spring anti-Americanism and must at least, in the medium-term, has to accept the reality of this outcome.
The question then becomes: Why should the United States, as a rational and benefit maximizing international actor, support the Arab Spring, knowing that they will bring about anti-American administrations to power? Perhaps more importantly, in the event of a foreign help ‘success’ (either militarily, in the case of Libya and prospectively, Syria or via diplomatic weight in the case of Egypt’s military council) how can those opposition forces that demanded foreign help in the first place escape the memories of post World War I and will in one way or another subject themselves to foreign patronage and involvement? At the very least, how will they resist to the post-war pressures for resource, investment or political concessions coming from the U.S., Britain or France? Wouldn’t this imply returning back to 1916 and again outsourcing an indigenous cause to international third parties, just to be dominated by these third parties in return?
A possible and unexpected answer to these questions may perhaps be given by revisiting the saturated debate on the function of Turkey in the Arab Spring. If there can indeed be a ‘Turkish experience’ that can serve as an inspiration to the Arab Spring, rather than a poorly defined ‘Turkish model’[viii] or anachronistic ‘common Ottoman history/legacy’[ix] argument, it has to be the one thing that (interestingly) nobody is talking about: the fact that the Republic of Turkey was the first independent and sovereign country emerging from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, who also managed to sustain its sovereignty uninterruptedly until today. Indeed, complete Turkish sovereignty had come without any reliance on foreign help[x], but emerged from resistance to all foreign involvement with a unified and concentrated effort of the people rallying around a military commander who took his legitimacy tangibly from his in-field successes against the foreign armies during World War I and his victory in protecting the remnants of the Ottoman Empire from foreign occupation. Furthermore, the real ‘Turkish model’ includes in itself the fact that the elite that secured national freedom by fighting against Western colonial powers and their extensions, became pro-Western and pro-modernization forces of the new republic, proclaiming a multi-party democratic system after a long period single-party rule.[xi]
If the Arab uprisings, hopefully termed as ‘spring’ will end up as success, our metrics of measuring it must involve primarily that one thing the Arabs have been longing for: full sovereignty and representative, legitimate governments. Otherwise the uprisings will represent nothing more than successive ‘youth bulge’[xii] crises of young men seeking more opportunities of upward social mobility and can simply be subdued within the context of the rentier state paradigm[xiii], without necessarily requiring a democratic-representative government. In the words of Gunnar Heinsohn: “80 percent of world history is about superfluous young men making trouble[xiv].
Yes, the Arabs deserve to, and should be free. But the extent to which they can be free depends on the legacy they will choose to inherit; either as revolutionaries that will dismantle the defunct, old order and improve their political structure fundamentally, or as a divided, opportunist movement without a specific goal which relies on foreign help to achieve its primary objectives. If the former, Arabs will have to showcase their mobilization capacity, political skills and drive, not only to overthrow their dictators, but also to maintain interim administrations and build up representative systems on their own, without American or otherwise outside help. This includes indigenous, regional interferences, such as Turkey or Saudi Arabia. Then, in the second level, the Arabs must re-establish their relationship with the outside world independent of external patronage and oversight, always keeping in mind that countries that rely on foreign help to deal with their domestic problems (be it mandate, supervision or rent relationship) will always succumb to an administration that lacks complete legitimacy. If a movement cannot succeed in replacing the old order on its own and necessitates outside intervention, then the source of that intervention will become a function of the spoils of war. The movement then, has no right to complain about the so-called ‘greed’ of that third party. Just as it was unrealistic for Faisal to ask for foreign help, but non-intervention afterwards, it will be unrealistic for the Arab Spring to ask for foreign help, but also non-intervention later on.
The fate of the Arab Spring lies between two legacies: that of Faisal, who outsourced the cause of his own people to Britain and ended up rendering his people subservient to British demands, whose fall-out created laid the foundations of modern anti-Western thought, and that of the Turkish Republic, whose founding elite and people demonstrated a single, all-out and all-or-nothing effort to achieve full sovereignty and then established close ties on equal footing with the Western countries.

This is the first time since Nasser that the Arabs are tested so decisively in their quest for full sovereignty and to showcase their mobilization capacity as a nation. This is not necessarily a call for an ethno-political Arab unity in the Nasserian sense, but rather a call for radical responsibility for the Arabs to unite along an ideal that will create the political structures they wish to live in. In this quest, the Arabs must make a decision however, between the legacy of Faisal and Kemal. 


Dr. Ünver is the Ertegün Lecturer of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, Near Eastern Studies department. Previously he was a joint post-doctoral fellow at the University of Michigan’s Center for European Studies and the Center for the Middle East and North African Studies, where he authored several articles on Near Eastern politics. He earned his B.A. in International Relations from Bilkent University (2003) and MSc in European Studies from the Middle East Technical University (2005). He received his PhD from the Department of Government, University of Essex. For a list of publications and media commentaries, please visit: www.akinunver.com/scholar.

[i] Amir Faisal, quoted in:  J. C. Hurewitz, The Middle East and North Africa in World Politics: A Documentary Record, (Yale University Press, 1979).
[ii] On the question of Arab loyalties through the 1916 revolt, see: James Gelvin, Divided loyalties: nationalism and mass politics in Syria at the close of empire, (University of California Press, 1997).
[iii] On this, see: Hilal Khashan, Arabs at the crossroads: Political identity and nationalism, (University of Florida Press, 2000) pp. 82-87.
[iv] See for example: Shadi Hamid, ‘What the Obama and American liberals don’t understand about the Arab Spring,’ The New Republic. October 1, 2011, http://www.tnr.com/article/environment-energy/95538/arab-spring-obama-realism-democracy-neoconservatives-mubarak?page=0,0; Raghida Dergham, ‘The West’s responsibility to protect the Arab Spring,’ Al-Arabiya, November 6, 2011, http://www.alarabiya.net/views/2011/11/06/175698.html.
[v] Anthony Elghossain and Firas Maksad ‘A responsibility to Syria: Set up humanitarian corridor,’ The National, February 15, 2012, http://www.thenational.ae/thenationalconversation/comment/a-responsibility-to-syria-set-up-a-humanitarian-corridor.
[vi] Jeremy Kinsman, ‘Libya: A cause for humanitarian intervention’ Institute for Research on Public Policy, October 2011, http://www.irpp.org/po/archive/oct11/kinsman.pdf.
[vii] Robert J. Cristiano, ‘Arab Spring – American Winter,’ New Geography, November 29, 2011, http://www.newgeography.com/content/002503-arab-spring-american-winter; Deborah Amos, ‘Is the Arab Spring Good or Bad fort he U.S.?’ NPR, January 9, 2012, http://www.npr.org/2012/01/09/144799401/is-the-arab-spring-good-or-bad-for-the-u-s.
[viii] In the apt words of Sebnem Gumuscu “there is no ‘Turkish model’ of an Islamist democracy; rather, there are Muslims in a secular-democratic state working within a neoliberal framework; Sebnem Gumuscu, ‘Egypt can’t replicate the Turkish model: But it can learn from it,’ Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 12, 2012, http://carnegieendowment.org/sada/2012/01/12/egypt-can-t-replicate-turkish-model-but-it-can-learn-from-it/8z6z.
[ix] The proponents of the ‘Ottoman legacy’ argument often neglect the fact that the collective Arab memory and folk literature remembers four-hundred-year-old Ottoman rule in the Middle East through its dreaded outlets: the military-governor (pasha), the janissary garrison and the tax collector. Also the fact that the ‘Ottoman legacy’ was overthrown by the 1916 revolt renders much of the ‘common history’ argument invalid from an operational, political perspective. On this, see: Roger M. A. Allen and Donald Sidney Richards, Arabic Literature in the post-classical period, (Cambridge University Press, 2006)
[x] Bolsheviks financially supported the Turkish War of Independence, but the Bolshevik influence on the Turkish Republic was kept at a minimum and ended in the first few years of the republic, therefore it cannot be compared to the British involvement in the Hashemite revolt. On the Bolshevik aid policy to Turkey, see: Edward Halett Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917-23, (W. W. Norton & Company, 1985).
[xi] Some works consider the period 1925-47 in Turkey as ‘dictatorship.’ While this statement was always strongly rejected by Ataturk or Inonu, it is possible to argue that Turkey was going through an elite-driven modernization and nationalization political process that took place in Russia, Italy, Germany, Spain and even de Gaulle’s dictatorial tendencies in France which follows the post World War II Middle Eastern dictatorship patterns. In other words, Turkish and European dictatorial periods belong to the same period, eventually switching to multi-party democratic systems. Certainly in Turkey, it was the single-party regime itself that had transformed the political system into a multi-party democracy; albeit imperfect. On the other hand, Middle Eastern dictatorships emerged after 1947 and none of them switched to a democratic system.
[xii] Youth bulge is a term used to define demographics with excess young (especially male) population, which causes high unemployment and subsequent rapid and dramatic socio-political changes such as revolts, wars and social unrest. For a short summary, see: Lionel Beehner, ‘The Effects of Youth Bulge on Civil Conflicts,’ Council on Foreign Relations, April 27, 2007, http://www.cfr.org/society-and-culture/effects-youth-bulge-civil-conflicts/p13093.
[xiii] The theory of the ‘rentier state’ stipulates that countries that receive substantial amounts of revenues from the outside world, in exchange for natural resources on a regular basis tend to become autonomous from their societies, unaccountable to their citizens, and autocratic. If such countries manage to distribute this wealth coming from foreign rent to their citizens sufficiently, it reverses the taxation-representation dynamic that is essential for a democratic system. This creates ‘popular bribing’ in which the regime uses the rent money to pacify the democratic demands of its people. On this, see: Hazem Beblawi and Giacomo Luciani, The Rentier State, (Croom Helm Publishers, 1987)
[xiv] Quoted in interview: Lars Hedegaard, ‘Interview: A continent of losers,’ The Free Press Magazine, May 2007, http://www.sappho.dk/interview-a-continent-of-losers.htm.