Both Iraq and Lebanon are currently living two big ‘lies’: sovereignty and national unity, and as the days go by, not only are the politicians in the two countries proving their ability to bluff their people, but also their ability to bluff themselves.
1920 was a significant landmark in the history of the two countries as the ‘New World Order’ drew their maps that included several constituents. Some of these constituents willingly accepted the new ‘national’ borders, others accepted them as a fait accompli, and they felt that the very existence of ‘national borders’ dividing and separating what were Arab majority or character Ottoman provinces and ‘Mutassarifliks’ (i.e. ‘autonomous districts’) was tantamount to a fatal blow to the dream of ‘Arab Unity’.
It is worth remembering here, and always, that the ‘borders’ of the Near East’s entities were not drawn and adopted by their peoples, who are the peoples directly involved, but rather by the imperialist Western powers that won the WW1. It is well known that these powers agreed among themselves to divide and apportion the former Ottoman territories through a set of deals and agreements.
The question of ‘minorities’ – be they ethnic, linguistic, religious or sectarian – was always a sensitive issue at the time of drawing the maps of the British and French mandates. As artificial – even revised, as is the case of Western Iraq/Eastern Syria – borders were being drawn, they separated homogeneous groups while bringing together groups that had almost nothing in common.
The new post-Ottoman ‘Caliphate’ geo-political realities were taking shape against a background of a tough struggle between the ‘religious / sectarian’ and ‘nationalist’ identities as European- inspired ‘nationalism’, as well as rapid urbanization at the expense of rural and nomadic patterns of settlement with all the interaction, friction, interest-linked loyalties, concepts and ideologies.
Iraq, Lebanon and Syria have lived through all the above. However, while a royalist regime was established in Iraq based on a melange of rural, tribal and city elites from Baghdad, Mosul and Basra, and supported by the ex-‘Sherifian’ officers and other Faisal ibn Al-Hussein (King Faisal I) loyalists, a consensus republican system was installed in ‘Greater Lebanon’ headed by a Christian president.
Neither the Kurds nor the Turkmen had a say in deciding the shape of the new Iraq, nor were the Shi’a active participants in the building process of the new entity. Still, Faisal I succeeded with the help of wise and efficient advisers – many of whom were non-Iraqi – in creating an ‘Iraqi’ identity. By the mid-1930s, the ‘state of Iraq’ became a secure and thriving reality bolstered by oil wealth, despite internal and regional tensions, including those caused by Nazi Germany’s activities which thrived for a few years in Baghdad against the British, affecting both the Iraqi parties and the national army.
In Lebanon, urban and rural elites adapted to the new system as well. Common interests, traditional and ideological cross-factional political alliances emerged, although the disagreements remained between the ‘Lebanonists’, ‘pan-Syrianists’ and ‘pan-Arabists’.
In both Iraq and Lebanon the ‘political conscience’ of Arab Sunni Muslims was boiling with deep frustration with the ‘reality of partition’. They felt that the new entities created by Great Britain and France came at the expense of the destroyed dream of ‘The Greater Arab Homeland’ extending from the Atlantic to the Arab Gulf. This romantic dream, in fact, could have faded away, perhaps, had it not been for the loss of Palestine in 1948.
Indeed, Iraq’s Shi’a Arabs were never ‘less Arabist’ than their Sunni folks, and neither the Christians nor the Jews, Yezidis and other minorities were less proud of being ‘Iraqi’ than the Muslims. Even Kurds and Turkmen came together and co-existed with the other constituents, producing many leading statesmen, senior officers, intellectuals and poets. Arabic names were widely used then with no association with fear or need for flattery.
In Lebanon, also, despite the fact the majority among the ‘Labanonists’ was Christian, and the majority within the ‘pan-Syrianists and ‘pan-Arabists’ was Muslim, these two majorities were not large as many leading ‘pan-Syrianists’ and ‘pan-Arabists’ were Christian, and many Muslim leaders were more ‘Lebanonists’ than their Christian compatriots.
The Palestine ‘nakbah’ (i.e. disaster) which shocked the Arab world and damaged the credibility of Arab political elites left the stage waiting for a “hero”. Soon enough the “hero” emerged from army barracks. The Arab military took over and became involved in ‘the Cold War’ politics and the game of ‘power for power’s sake’. The military that originally took over power under the banner of ‘filling the vacuum’ and ‘liberating Palestine’ became drawn to the international rivalry between the ‘socialist’ east and the ‘capitalist’ west, and failed to deal with party politics.
Contrary to the 1948 ‘nakbah’, the 1967 ‘naksah’ (i.e. defeat) uncovered to the Arabs that the real solution may not be through the military after all. Then, the ‘Camp David Accords’ between Israel and Egypt managed to divide the Arabs, thus, weakening the ‘Arabist’ choice which was further weakened by Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait. Later on, the fall of the USSR ushered in the Arab world the collapse of the ‘Leftist’ alternative that included among others the slogans of the ‘war of popular liberation’. Even the Palestinian resistance movement fell victim to its involvement in inter-Arab rivalries and animosities and lost a lot of credibility.
Four decades of accumulating mistakes, stagnation and tendency for ‘inherited’ succession, combined to bring about the popular uprisings now known as the ‘Arab Spring’. These uprisings showed the disparity in the presence of the ‘deep state’, or rather ‘entrenched state’, in various Arab countries; and if Tunisia and Egypt managed their way through the ‘Arab Spring’ with a minimum of losses, the tragedies of Syria, Yemen and Libya proved beyond doubt their fragile structure and citizenship.
Iraq and Lebanon, while not experiencing the ‘Arab Spring’, have also been seen as fragile and devoid of proper citizenship against the background of the Syrian crisis made worse by Iran’s drive for sectarian and territorial hegemony; a drive that has been fueling Sunni-Sh’i tension throughout the region since 1979.
The present and lengthy political crisis in both Iraq and Lebanon is the clearest indication of the mirage of sovereignty and the bluff of national unity. To turn this sad reality into a full blown tragedy, it only needed Russia’s return to its imperialist dreams, and Barack Obama’s American volte-face against its Middle Eastern ‘friends’, caring less about the fate of the region’s people, strategic balance, and old alliances.