“The Arab Awakening”

QadaffiThis is a tale of two books.  The Arab Awakening by George Antonius was published in 1938, and tells the story of how the modern Middle East Conflict came to be.  Here is a summary of 400+ pages:  The British made two separate agreements over the same piece of real estate.   Sir Henry McMahon the British High Commissioner for Egypt struck up a deal with Hussein ibn Ali, the Sharif of Mecca in 1915 to make him and his loyal tribes the guardians of the Suez Canal .  Meanwhile, Arthur James Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary made formal assurances to Walter Rothschild (2nd Baron Rothschild) for a formal Jewish homeland on the same piece of property in 1917.  The latter became known as the Balfour Declaration.  Both sides claim that the other was not a binding agreement.  Neither of these were binding, formal agreements; but rather, statements of intention. The Arab Awakening is a study of the evolution of Arab Nationalism, from tribal fiefdoms to nation-states.  It is part history, part anthropology and part political science.  Oh, and it is a terribly dry read, but contains essential information for anyone studying the history of the Middle East .

I also own a copy of Mu’amar Qadaffi’s Green Book.  It is a souvenir from the “Summer Institute” that the Libyan government sponsored at the University of Michigan in 1979. The content is flimsy propaganda, which would have comic value in a different context. The program was led by Professor Clem Henry of the U of M, and Mr. Ali Houderri, who was the Libyan Charge d’Affairs at the time.

The last day of the program brought a symposium in the Grand Hall of the Rackham Graduate School in Ann Arbor , which lent a legislative feel to the proceedings. It’s a beautiful room worthy of any State Assembly House in America . The entire program and that day in particular was a curious diplomatic exercise. Most of the students were from other Arab countries, and hated Qadaffi and Libya . However, they and I were happy to accept the largesse of the Libyan government for that summer, to ease the cost of graduate school for one semester, engage Houdari and other government officials and be provocative within certain boundaries.

The Plenary Session on the last day brought some fireworks, and I set off some of the best ones, I’m proud to say. By coincidence I was seated next to Professor Edna Amir Kauffman, a great Hebrew professor at U of M. She and I had agreements and disagreements over the years, but we were symbiotic that day in challenging the silly sycophants putting up the façade for Qadaffi. As a measure of my success, I was totally shunned at the social event after the Plenary Session. My friends were afraid to socialize with me in the presence of Libyan security officials. But my feelings weren’t hurt. I later learned that my performance that day caused my invitation to Libya to be rescinded. Ali Houderri had me pegged as a potential stooge until then, but I was suddenly persona non grata, like my friend Aly Abuzakook, one of the early Libyan dissidents. Aly now operates the Aramedia Public Relations consulting firm in suburban Washington.

As an undergrad in the 70’s, Qadaffi was already known as a “nutcase” in academic and diplomatic circles. Habib Bourghiba in Tunisia , on the other hand, was a staunch American ally and a friend to the West. Qadaffi’s crimes against humanity and the West in particular are endless. Jim Hoadland of the Washington Post summarized them nicely here:  Qadaffi’s brutality and selfishness are legendary, even in the spectrum of despots. The fact that part of the military has abandoned him and the rest is being used against the Libyan people is consistent with his character.

The eastern portions of Libya have been taken over by opposition forces, with troops taking off their uniforms in resignation. Tripoli , meanwhile, is the scene of brutal massacres by Qadaffi loyalists and mercenaries. It’s not out of the question for Libya to splinter into what existed before Libya was formed in 1931. Tripolitania, Fezzan, and Cyrenaica were countries that were consolidated to create Libya . Cyrenaica comprised the eastern half, and Fezzan was below Tripolitania.

Now, it’s time for Barak Obama to work forcefully with the United Nations and other nations to take him down and out once and for all. Sadly, the American operations in Iraq and Afghanistan compromise and complicate this goal. Bush Jr. HAD to go into Afghanistan ; we could not turn the other cheek on the guys who bombed the World Trade Center , Pentagon and tried to do much worse. As a committed progressive, I was deeply embarrassed that my Congresswoman Barbara Lee was the only person in Congress to vote against it. To me that was shameless grandstanding and pandering to the Far Far Left in America . Granted, the Far Far Left is not positioned to do nearly as much damage as the Far Far Right does, but Lee’s vote sent the wrong message to her constituents. The war in Iraq , meanwhile, was an entirely elective and superfluous vanity war, initiated to serve the pleasure of Bush Jr. That places Bush in the Circle of Hades inhabited by Andrew Jackson, another president who began an unnecessary battle for campaign fodder. By contrast, President Bill Clinton showed some cajones by having American forces bomb Bosnia . Should Barak send the marines to Libya ? That’s a tough one, but I lean in favor.

scott prostermanNearly 80 years after its publication, The Arab Awakening is finally occurring in Tunisia , Egypt , Yemen , Bahrain and Palestine . There is a long and painful process ahead for all these countries. Some say it could not have happened without the Internet and Facebook. Social anthropologists may agree on that; after all media penetration has always been a crucial index of modernization. But the closing of the Internet in Egypt and Libya didn’t diminish the crowds demanding revolution. So others argue this time bomb was due to explode without the aid of new media. Regardless, the Arab Awakening has finally occurred – without a reformation movement in Islam. The movement is organic and powerful. President Obama and the American Intelligence Community is well positioned to work with the revolutionary elements and international community for a positive end. It’s a volatile time with many uncertainties, but it’s a great opportunity for President Obama to seize global leadership.

H. Scott Prosterman


  1. says

    It was interesting and heartening to read how Scott early on used his critical faculties on Gaddafi, and was able to distinguish cases. A nutty and nasty dictator is not necessarily a basically harmless autocrat, and neither equates to a truly responsible leader.

    So (in response to commenter Paul – who by the way is responding to a prior commenter Joe, who is not I): the kind of tactics that work to bring down a dictator who is used to getting his way mainly without violence (at least on his own folk) – such as Milosevic or Mubarak – need not work to bring down someone who can and will use violence to keep his position at all costs – such as Gaddafi, Assad, and apparently Ahmadinejad. A notorious example from the last century remains quite relevant: Gandhi’s tactics against the British in India would not have worked to stop Hitler.

    But Scott owes us more careful explanations than merely an appeal to George Antonius’ old vision of an ‘Arab awakening’ . It’s easy to say that disturbances and change in different locales in the Arab world are all part of one grand delayed ‘Arab awakening’ – but again he and we should have the critical faculties to distinguish cases.

    Case by case what the local Arabs are waking up ‘from’ – and waking up ‘to’ – seem to differ. Are masses of Arabs really just now being all animated by Antonius’ grand Arab nationalist vision? For us outsiders, such a unifying perspective does serve to give us a convenient – but likely illusory – ‘understanding’ of what’s really going on. Even if there is a common vision, in some or even all cases the operative result (when the dust settles) of overthrowing or remaking the existing regimes may have little to do with realizing or advancing the vision.

  2. Paul McDermott says

    “Bush Jr. HAD to go into Afghanistan…”
    “President Bill Clinton showed some cajones by having American forces bomb Bosnia . Should Barak send the marines to Libya ? That’s a tough one, but I lean in favor.”

    I agree with Joe. For someone living in Berkeley you aren’t read up on the alternatives to military intervention. You have obviously succumb to the might-makes-right thinking that prevails in this country — that international conflicts are best resolved by military solutions. What’s the point of having a military when you can’t use it, right, Scott???

    I refer you to a documentary, Bringing Down a Dictator, which follows the events in Yugoslavia, leading to the ouster of Slobodan Milosevic. As in Tunisia and Egypt, Milosevic’s downfall was engineered by bright young students and professionals, who outwitted him at every turn. The bombing by NATO forces really made things worse, in that they strengthened the nationalist resolve, much in the same way that the Nazi bombing of Britain strengthened British resolve. BOMBING DOES NOT PRODUCE YOUR DESIRED RESULTS. It ultimately results in the death of innocent civilians and lasting hatred.

    I recommend you watch this documentary.

  3. Joe says

    Not invading Afghanistan would not have been turning “the other cheek on the guys who bombed the World Trade Center , Pentagon and tried to do much worse.” It would have been refusing to attack a whole country (with expectably much higher casualties than the 9-11 attacks caused) when other options were available (such as a Taliban offer to turn Bin Laden over to other countries for trial). But the biggest alternative, still available, is for the U.S. to get off its 80 years of attempts to manipulate the politics of the region and to control the oil and natural gas in the region. My admiration for Barbara Lee, who calls for an immediate U.S. military exit from the involvement in Afghanistan — an involvement which today doesn’t even have the excuse of some relationship to 9-11.

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