Gone with the Sandstorm: The Battle between Old and New Loyalties in the Middle East

thetelegraph_344By: Einat Wilf

The Middle East as we’ve known it for the past one hundred years is unraveling right before our eyes. In its place, new and the old loyalties are raging a battle to shape the new Middle East. Any expectation that the battle between the old and new loyalties will be short, decisive and peaceful has nothing to rest upon. Any policy that ignores that, is bound to fail.

For nearly a century, the contours of the Middle East were put into place by World War I’s victorious British and French empires. Their award: sharing the spoils of the dissolved Ottoman Empire. The lines drawn by Sykes and Picot in 1916 have become the borders of Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. For the next one hundred years, these externally and arbitrarily drawn borders were held together by sheer force and, when available, legendary sums of oil money. The kings, put in place by the empires, and the authoritarian rulers who deposed them, were able to forge together in the fires of war and oppression new loyalties to King and Country. Tens of millions of people were no longer Ottoman subjects of varying backgrounds. They were now proud Syrians, Iraqis, Libyans, and Jordanians.

This Middle East is gone with the sandstorm. The liberalizing forces of free information are undermining the power of authorities the world over. This, combined with the decreasing power of oil, the receding regional role of both former Cold War superpowers, and the apparent lessened usefulness of Israel-hatred as a galvanizing tool, is blowing the top off this century old pressure cooker. Today, bubbling up to the surface are the old loyalties – ethnic, religious, sectarian and tribal – that have laid low for nearly a century. This dirty mess, splattered across the walls of the old Middle East, is the new battle taking place today between old loyalties and new.

These new loyalties, despite their “newness”, cannot be written off easily; the old loyalties, as old as they are, are far more powerful than our modern sensibilities would care to admit. The new loyalties have been around for since it the country’s establishment. Current actors in the Middle East have grown up as Syrians, Iraqis, Jordanians and Saudis. That in itself has power. The new loyalties also have the power of interests: powerful economic and military interests are tied to keeping the new loyalties alive, and they will not give in without a very bloody fight. The fight will continue to be bloody, because the old loyalties are far more powerful than our notion of progress would concede. Ancient ethnic, religious, sectarian and tribal loyalties cast a heavy shadow over people’s sense of self and identities, and not just in the Middle East.

Not so long ago, Yugoslavia blew up in a murderous civil war when the pressure cooker of Tito’s autocratic rule was lifted. Neighbors and family members slaughtered each other in the name of loyalties supposedly long forgotten. Modern Europeans who thought they had put their own ethnic and national butchery behind them, watched in horror how century-old loyalties and rivalries proved far more powerful than the modern Yugoslavian identity. And Yugoslavia was just the tail end of several centuries in which the European continent was engulfed in ongoing murderous battles between competing loyalties to kings and princes; nations and empires. The current impressive, modern and peaceful, structure of Europe could only emerge once the bloody battle between all the competing loyalties was spent.

It is too early, by decades and even centuries, to tell what new structure will emerge in the Middle East once the sand settles from the Arab Spring. This is not just a basic struggle for freedom and democracy against autocracy and Islam. Such thinking fails to give the ancient loyalties their due and ignores the numerous fissures that cut across the region. We can be hopeful that a new peaceful Middle East will one day emerge, but not before the old and new loyalties have spent themselves in prolonged and continuing butchery.