Will the Arab revolutions rectify the relationship between our societies and the world? Only rarely have our societies been the actor and not the object of action, and that occurred in those societies and at those times in which advances in modernisation and education afforded a certain degree of autonomy in their ability to interact with and influence their environment. While this applies to many Arab societies, the example of the modern Egyptian state best embodies this dialectic between the home country and the world abroad, as it offers a concrete illustration of the detrimental effects of two centuries of dependency and the manufacture of despotism.
Barely had Mohamed Ali (1805-1848) launched the Egyptian nation state as a rising power in the Eastern Mediterranean -- independent in all but name from the Ottoman Empire -- than the conflict began with the outside world, represented by the Euro powers led by France and Britain. These were bent not only on destroying this nascent project but also on occupying Egypt, which indeed occurred in 1882 under the rule of Mohamed Ali's grandson, the Khedive Tawfiq. Since that time, Arab societies fell under the occupation of either France or Britain, depending upon which of these two empires dominated the balance of international powers at the time. Yet, with the spread of education and modernisation at the turn of the last century, there arose an elite who not only spearheaded a process of enlightenment but also a drive to resist foreign occupation and demand independence. It was not long before this renewed burst of effervescence in society gave rise to revolutions, such as the 1919 Revolution, which was led by a political and intellectual vanguard whose minds had been shaped by modern education, in contrast to the uprisings of only a century earlier against the French, which had been led by Al-Azhar ulema. The influence of this modern-educated elite precipitated a qualitative civilisational shift in political life in Egypt. The transformation was embodied in the 1923 constitution, which provided the framework for a parliamentary democracy with a peaceful rotation of power between rival political parties whose ability to obtain a majority of seats in the legislature through elections would win them the opportunity to form a government. For its time, and in spite of the prevailing conditions of foreign occupation, it was a modern liberal democratic government in the fullest sense of the term.
However, a dangerous turning point in this experience came with the 1952 Revolution and the beginning of an independent national government led by the Free Officers. Henceforward, the influence of the outside would be felt in other ways. To begin with, there was an attempt to reoccupy the country, which took the form of the Tripartite Aggression of 1956. Had it not been for the new international balances of power at the time, Israel, France and Britain would have held on to the Egyptian territories they invaded. Instead, this war effectively brought the demise of the two great powers (Britain and France) that had ruled the world for two centuries. However, another great power was on the rise in the international political theatre. Since the end of World War II, the US has done little to conceal its dubious role in this region. It was one of the first countries to recognise Israel upon its creation in 1948, after which its alliance with this new entity grew steadily closer over time. Towards the Arabs, by contrast, it played numerous games of cat and mouse and endless variations on the carrot-and-stick approach to promote its interests, capitalising on the mistakes of Arab leaders to expand its influence in the region.
The ruling elites of Egypt may have played into this trap by giving the external factor excessive priority over domestic ones in their policy thinking in the 1950s and 1960s. Their approach to asserting themselves was to forge anti-American alliances, whether with the other countries that would come to forge the group of non-aligned nations or with the Soviet Union, now the second world power that was capable of deterring US imperialistic expansion. Washington's reaction was to strengthen its strategic alliance with Israel and to promote that country's regional expansionist project. The Arab leadership's failure to correctly assess the shifting dynamics abroad led to the defeat of the Egyptian and Syrian armies in the 1967 war and the Israeli occupation of the remainder of Palestine and portions of Egyptian and Syrian territory. At the same time, their policy of manufacturing "the enemy," which served to promote the prioritisation of foreign concerns at the expense of domestic ones, was a major cause of the growth of dictatorship in Arab societies, and in Egypt in particular, during this period.
President Anwar El-Sadat, who succeeded Gamal Abdel-Nasser in 1970, opted for a more pragmatic approach to international realities and the superpower game at the time. By virtue of his reading of the dynamics and political cunning, he succeeded in staging a series of momentous surprises, beginning with the expulsion of Soviet experts from Egypt, signalling a sudden shift towards the US. He was now poised to launch the October War, a war with explicitly stated limited objectives in which Egyptian forces succeeded in crossing the Suez Canal and breaking through the Bar Lev line, that formidable barrier that Israel had been sure would ensure its continual hold on the Egyptian Sinai. Egyptian superiority in that war came as more of a surprise to the US than it did to Israel, which is why it did all in its power to support Israel and to halt the Egyptian advance. Washington's intercessions soon led to a ceasefire and negotiations, but on a much leveller ground than had existed before the war. Now, as a result of his victory in part of the battle, Sadat could negotiate from a position of strength vis-à-vis the Israelis who were under the American wing.
Sadat's second surprise was his historic visit to Israel in order to demonstrate the sincerity of his desire for peace. One suspects that this tendency of Sadat to astound the world with dramatic initiatives such as the October War and the trip to Israel did not go over well in Washington, which raises a question or two surrounding the assassination of this leader in 1981. Certainly, Sadat was not as easy to read as Abdel Nasser whose relative ideological consistency and predictability played into Israeli and US hands and helped them engineer their policies towards Egypt in 1950s and 1960s. Therefore, contrary to the opinion of many, the most salient characteristic of the Sadat era resides precisely in his ability to appreciate the subtleties of external conditions and to interact pragmatically with their restrictions. This is why Egyptian foreign policy in that time was able to achieve many of its goals; it acted neither as a manufacturer of "the enemy" or as a dependent, but as an equal to the other parties, capable of interacting with them on the basis of the actual balances of powers on the ground.
When president Hosni Mubarak succeeded Sadat in 1981 he soon emerged as the epitome of a head of state who would promote an interplay that would favour the external component and, specifically, the interests of the US and Israel in a region rife with problems and tensions. Indeed, his ability to capitalise on balances of power abroad was instrumental in perpetuating his rule for so long. Yet, as astute as he may have been at this game, it proved detrimental to Egyptian society, which plodded on through the decades of his rule without achieving a breakthrough in development, economically, socially or politically. In fact, he was rewarded for this by the external world in the form of a steady influx of US aid, which made Egypt the second largest recipient of US aid after Israel. In other words, Washington was instrumental in the manufacture of dictatorship in Egypt, in the form of Mubarak. It was also one of the factors that contributed to the deterioration of Egyptian social structures, since it protected this regime and, by extension, policies that were detrimental to Egyptian society, because it saw the stability and perpetuity of this regime as crucial to the pursuit of its interests in the region.
But Egypt was certainly not alone in being at the receiving end of the external power game of toying with Arab leaders. President Saddam Hussein proved the perfect target. With his special blend of megalomania and other foibles, he was deftly lured in to perform the US's interests. In the 1980s, the US built him up into a hero, a champion of the democratic West against Iran, even though Washington was more aware than others of the magnitude of Saddam's despotism and the horrific crimes he perpetrated against his own people. But once Saddam stopped playing by the rules and occupied Kuwait in 1991, the US turned against him, forged and led an alliance to defeat him, engineered a brutal economic blockade against the Iraqi people, and then, on the spurious pretexts of fighting terrorism and spreading democracy, launched another war to overthrow the Saddam regime and occupy Iraq in 2003. After eight years of occupation, not only has democracy not come to Iraq and not only has the country lost billions in oil revenues, it has become fragmented and torn between warring sects and ethnic groups. Similar processes have occurred in other areas in which the US intervened, not least of which is Somalia, which no longer can even be called a state since the US intervention there in the 1990s.
It is important to bear the foregoing historical background in mind when we consider that the success of the Arab revolutions, and especially the Egyptian revolution, was produced at home. Outside powers were completely taken off guard. The US, in particular, which had long imagined that it held all the strings, suddenly discovered, within the space of 18 days, that the man it had backed for so long was about to crumble in the face of a peaceful revolution. Bringing down a dictator did not require foreign troops, occupation, hundreds of thousands of dead and millions of displaced persons, and at a cost of billions of dollars, as it did in Iraq. Moreover, Egypt's home-grown civilised method of regime change terrified Israel, which had greatly benefited from the dictatorships in neighbouring countries, whether material in terms of territory or morally in terms of its economic, social and scientific standing on developmental scales.
If two Egyptians revolutions (1952 and 2011) were spared the ills of foreign intervention before they succeeded in toppling ruling regimes, the same may not necessary apply to other Arab revolutions sweeping the region today, notably those in Libya, Yemen and Syria. In Libya, foreign intervention is already a reality. As atrocious as Muammar Gaddafi's behaviour has been towards his own people, that does not constitute proof of the good intentions of the forces that have allied to impose a blockade and strike military targets. Nor does the foregoing favour the Libyan revolution itself, which forfeited the keys to the successes of the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions the moment the rebels took up arms and, together with foreign forces, took the revolution over the brink into civil war. The same process may soon apply to the revolutions in Syria and Yemen, should the revolutionaries there forsake the style of peaceful resistance that is the major source of strength against brutal dictatorships and the guarantee against foreign intervention.
The history of this region over the past decades offers some very concrete lessons about the two functions of foreign intervention: it promotes and supports dictators and/or it works to weaken and fragment nations for fear of the influence and fanatics of their political leaders, who for the most part were extremists of the stripe of Nasser and Saddam Hussein.