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The Middle East fight for freedom

April 4, 2003 | Pages 6 and 7

LANCE SELFA looks at the history of resistance to imperialist conquest in the Middle East.

GEORGE W. BUSH and his hawkish advisers believe that the U.S. war on Iraq is the first step to redrawing the map of the Middle East. They are following a long line of imperial powers that have meddled in the region for more than a century.

Until the early part of the 20th century, the main interest of Britain and other European powers was strategic--with Britain, for example, seeking to protect the approach to its empire in India. That changed with the First World War, when oil proved key to powering modern armies. "The Allies floated to victory on a wave of oil," said Lord Curzon, the British foreign secretary.

The Arabs had supported the victorious Allied powers led by Britain, France and the U.S., and they expected to win the independence that had been promised to them. But the Allies had their own plans. Under the secret Sykes-Picot Treaty of 1916, Britain and France drew the lines of the Middle East map to "[satisfy] each other's appetites by serving up strips of the Arab lands to each other," in the words of a British diplomat. Britain took Iraq, Kuwait, Palestine and Jordan. France took Syria and Lebanon.

The Arab masses didn't accept this fate meekly. Strikes, demonstrations and civil wars broke out against the colonialists. Britain and France responded with fierce military repression. In Iraq, Britain placed a member of one of the most prominent family dynasties in the region on the throne, naming him King Faisal in 1921. In Iran, Britain encouraged a military officer, Reza Khan, to carry out a coup and then declare himself the "Shah of Iran."

After the Second World War, agitation for workers' rights and independence coincided with a weakening of the European empires. This combustible mix led to mass anti-colonial movements that succeeded in kicking British stooges out of Egypt and Iraq in the 1950s.

The leaders of the new nationalist regimes--Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt and Abdel Karim Qasim in Iraq--were not radicals. They represented an Arab middle class that wanted to use their countries' oil wealth to spur economic development. Often, they turned to the ex-USSR for economic aid--which led them to call their movements "Arab socialism."

In reality, they were military strongmen who wanted to reform capitalism. Nevertheless, the likes of Nasser and Qasim outraged the Western powers. Britain, France and Israel tried to overthrow Nasser by force in 1956. Seeing an opportunity to gain influence, the U.S. forced an end to this war, leaving Nasser intact.

But the U.S. itself was no stranger to intervention in the Middle East. In 1953, the CIA overthrew a moderate government in Iran to reinforce the Shah's rule. And in 1963, it worked with elements of the anti-Communist Baath Party in Iraq--including Saddam Hussein--to overthrow Qasim and install a more pliant regime.

Beyond these setbacks, however, the nationalist politics that promoted Arab unity against imperialism failed to meet the aspirations of the masses of the populations in the Middle East. By the 1970s, the influence of "Arab socialism" was waning--and the Islamists, until then a peripheral and persecuted movement, made their breakthrough. Political Islam became a mass movement after the Iranian Revolution that overthrew the Shah in 1979.

When the 1991 collapse of the USSR cost many traditional nationalist movements their ally in Moscow, it seemed that nothing except Islamism would challenge U.S. imperialism. Yet by the end of the 1990s, demands for "reform" in Iran suggested that Islamism was losing its appeal, too.

For more than a decade since the 1991 Gulf War, the forces of anti-imperialism in the Middle East have been disoriented and defeated. Even the Palestinian struggle--long the most radical of the anti-imperialist movements in the region--ran into the dead end of a U.S.-sponsored "peace" process.

But the massive outpouring of opposition to the new U.S. war on Iraq--and the struggle of the Iraqi people against the U.S. invasion--may signal a rebirth of anti-imperialist politics.

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