The revolutions that have occurred in North Africa over the past few months are transforming the entire structure of the Middle East. One thing that they seem to have in common is their links to imperial regimes. To further this point, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Algeria are countries that warrant close inspection. It is important to briefly review these countries’ histories before understanding why revolution occurred in them. Dr. David Winder of the history department shared his insights on the histories of these countries.
Libya gained its independence from the Italians in 1936. Libya was created by its colonial occupiers; according to Winder, this included creating borders “artificially.” This same tactic was used in both Algeria and Tunisia, where natives did not draw borders. Originally a kingdom ruled by King Idris, Libya had a pro-Western stance and was diplomatically cooperative with the West. This has since led to a corrupt regime run by tyrant Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, who led the country into being an extremely anti-Western one. Gaddafi has since been allegedly involved in many terrorist activities, including the Lockerbie plane bombing over Scotland in 1987.
Tunisia gained independence from France in 1956 in a movement led by Habib Bourguiba. Bourguiba went on to become the country’s first president and was succeeded by President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 1987, who took over in a bloodless coup. President Ben Ali was re-elected for a fifth term in October 2009. Under his leadership Tunisia had many problems, including the restrictions on freedom of speech.
Egypt, although not occupied by the French like the first two countries, was heavily influenced by the British until they claimed complete independence from any British influence in 1956 when British forces left the Suez Canal region. However, the country had already declared independence in 1923. Egypt is a more ancient civilization compared to the other three and has cultural traditions that are independent of any colonial influence. According to Winder, the Egyptians are “more cultured and sophisticated” than other countries in the region, and are “accepted as leaders of the Arab World.” Egypt has generally been friendly to the West and useful as a partner in Middle East conflict. However, President Anwar Sadat made a trip to Israel to sign a treaty between Israel and Egypt, which resulted in his assassination by a fundamentalist army officer. This led to Hosni Mubarak taking over in 1981. He served as president until his ouster by the recent revolution. Mubarak ruled as a great friend to the West, but his regime was not popular domestically.
Algeria’s uprising is still relatively small in comparison—another country that was in the French empire until claiming its independence in 1962. Since independence, it has encountered less stable leadership than the other three countries. Initially the unstable National Liberation Front party took over, which led to a civil war and to the military election of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who is the current president. Protests have started against this regime in order to demand the removal of President Bouteflika, and already the country has lifted a nineteen-year-long state of emergency.
When looking at these four countries, one sees a certain trend of imperial history in each. Even though this has ceased to be a policy of these countries since the World Wars, it is surely a memory that continues to affect their cultures. According to Winder, Libya, Algeria and Tunisia’s borders were created artificially, and on that basis there is some argument for colonial history making an impact on current circumstances. There is nothing else that he believes could have made such an impact. As Egypt has such “distinct characteristics” like the tradition of the Alexandria Museum, there is no such argument that can be given for colonial affect.
Dr. Winder is convinced that this revolution movement is a modern social network-driven revolution based on a “democratic urging” with none of the stereotypical “Islamic Rhetoric” and religious influence that is associated with conflict in that part of the world. According to Winder, the populations of the aforementioned countries are seeing the limitations of their chances at success because of the increase of their populations. From that evidence, it is conceivable that they want to have the power to be able to solve the issue, and they want to take this power away from sometimes unelected and corrupt governments.
It is evident from Winder’s comments that colonial history is not primarily to blame for these revolutions, but that a simple desire for democracy has driven them. The Western culture the people see on social networks and television exposes them to something different, and they want to experience it. Egypt is a prime example of a government that had not changed for thirty years being suddenly asked to change by popular peaceful protest that lasted until President Mubarak stepped down.
This revolution can be seen as a positive, ongoing event that is being kept ablaze by the notion of democracy, to create prosperity for all, without any sort of underlying ambition of religious symbolism that so often is associated with the Arab World.