Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Lawrence of Arabia on Wikileaks

Ned - for friends - is dead but what would his opinion have been of the #arabspring that started in Tunisia a few months ago? Did you check out "Lawrence of Arabia" or "T.E. Lawrence" on Secret US Embassy Wikileaks cables? I did. Output: no hits. No surprise of course because Lawrence died in 1935 after an accident with his motorcycle.

Historical flashback 1916-1922
Lawrence fought (1916-1918) with Arab irregular troops, in extended guerrilla operations, against the armed forces of the Ottoman Empire. The United Kingdom had agreed with Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca that if the Arabs revolted successfully against the Ottomans, the United Kingdom would support claims for an independent Arab state. A few weeks later, however, the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement, between the United Kingdom and France, determined that parts of the Arabian Peninsula would be divided between them. When the Ottoman Empire surrendered in 1918, the United Kingdom refused to keep to the letter of it's agreements with Hussein.

This was Lawrence's dream of an independent Arabia:
During the closing years of the war Lawrence sought, with mixed success, to convince his superiors in the British government that Arab independence was in their interests. The secret Sykes-Picot Agreement between France and Britain contradicted the promises of independence he had made to the Arabs and frustrated his work. That was the realpolitik of those days.

Lawrence on Arab Spring
The revolutions that have broken out in the #arabspring in 2010-2011 suggest a resurgence of Pan-Arabism in the region, one not based on anti-colonialism and the suppression of political dissent, but galvanized by a common thirst for democratic freedoms. What would Lawrence have thought of the #arabspring? My interpretation - 1st draft:
  • Arab state. Lawrence was disappointed when Hussein did not get his promised independent Arabia. He must have been happy when, more than 40 years later, their dream came true in a couple of independent Arab states. Finally  self-determination. The borders must have worried him because they were drawn along the Sykes-Picot lines and not along tribal patterns and commercial routes. (1 and 2)
  • Self-determination tribes. Democracy for Arabs? It must have been a contradicion to him. Their nation would always be the tribe, the tribe and the tribe. First tribe. Fourth democracy. (3)
  • Noble Arab. He saw the Arabs through the romantic images he had learned as a youth: Bedu, Ashraf and the self-sufficient peasants of the Euphrates were the 'noble' Arabs. He disliked the Arabs who lived in cities. At the same time he knew the rules Bedu lived by were only an ideal. (4)  
  • Noble democrat. At the end of his life he wrote this: "I am human. There ain't no such supercreatures as you would fain see. Or if there are I haven't met one [yet]." (5) He accepted finally - something he fought with his entire life - that he was not perfect. Nor did he expect this of his Arab tribesman. In fact his Arabs were chauvinistic, xenophobic and fanatically anti-Christian. (6)      
  • King. For him it must have been a natural state that stronger men rule over others. He accepted the bad sides of Kings, Sherifs, Emirs etc in regard to their fatherhood over their tribes. Lawrence regarded the Arabs not as his equals but with an autocratic paternal benevolence. (7)
  • Dictator. Would he have liked Ben Ali (Tunisia), Mubarak (Egypt), Kaddafi (Libya), al-Assad (Syria) or King Abdullah (Saudi Arabia)? He would have accepted them as long as they were fair to their people. (8) In the Arabs - young and old - of today, who fight for their own share of a respectable life, he would have recognised the noble Arab of 1916. Partly romantic. Partly realpolitik. Arab democracy ... he would have loved to see how these buttons would flourish.
Lawrence on Wikileaks? No way. He was the right men on the right place: Middle-East 1916-1918. A day fly. The way Lawrence manipulated between the British and Arabs, for what he saw as the Right Cause, would not be possible today. Cable. Telephone. Social media. He would have been 1 voice in a cacophony of information. 

Notes. (1) "He was among the first influential Englishmen to reject imperialism: a rejection that finally achieved its objective when the "wind of change" blew through British policy in the 1960s." source. (2) "Lawrence percieved the East through a set of highly romanticized - and therefore ethnocentric - ideas. His idea of 'self-determination' was in reality determination by certain traditional and reactionary elements who represented his own romantic idea of what the East should be like: not the 'wil of the people', but the superimposition of a romantic structure of his own." M. Asher/ Lawrence (1998), p 204-1. (3) Asher, p. 207. (4) Asher, p. 176 and 349. (5) Asher, p. 378. (6) Asher, p. 187.  (7) Asher, p. 85. (8) Lawrence 1920: "How long will we permit millions of pounds, thousands of Imperial troops, and tens of thousands of Arabs to be sacrificed on behalf of a form of colonial administration which can benefit nobody but its administrators?" 

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