Before I took this class, I honestly knew little to nothing about the Middle East or North Africa. Looking through my blog now, I’m honestly amazed by how much I’ve learned in the past four weeks. All of the work I’ve done has literally worked to build my entire knowledge of MENA. I don’t think that it would be possible for me to detail everything I’ve learned this semester in a 1,500 word post, so I’ll do my best to summarize. First, I learned a lot about the effects of colonialism in MENA. I learned how the current economic and political aspects of these countries were largely shaped by the Western examples (namely, Britain and France) who once colonized them. I learned about the Sykes-Picot Treaty of 1916, the weak states left behind in MENA by European imperialism, and that the U.S. now has a military presence in almost every Middle Eastern country. I also learned about the Mukhabarat, Iraq’s security apparatus under Saddam Hussein, and all of its multiple and overlapping (but importantly separate) organizations. I learned about Egypt as a hopeful revolution, under Morsi, and under Sisi. The hopeful revolution (led by Morsi) happened due to the extremely repressive dictatorship of Mubarak, as well as horrible financial issues and lack of dignity of the Egyptian people. The revolution ended via many Egyptians’ requests for the military to overthrow Morsi, as many thought that he was trying to turn Egypt into a theocracy. Thus, the military took over, and al-Sisi gained power. I learned why there was an uprising in Syria, why that uprising turned into a civil war, the role that external powers have played in the civil war, and the many, terrible costs of the civil war. I then learned about the role of the Wahhabi ‘Ulema in Saudi Arabia, and the tricky balance of power between the ‘Ulmea and the royal family. The two have a sort of symbiotic relationship, where the royal family grants the ‘Ulema power over the social sphere, and the ‘Ulmea grants the royal family the religious legitimacy which they sometimes require to pass certain laws without the people rebelling. I also learned about the political rights of the people of Jordan, and those rights compared with the rights of citizens of other nations in the region. I learned that Jordan is walking on seemingly thin ice. The king and the government are trying to meet the demands of the people for more civil and political rights, but only incrementally, as they do not want to lose power. The people are trying to gain more civil and political rights for themselves, but are also trying to avoid a civil war. In regard to Lebanon, the most interesting thing that I learned was that it is in the middle of a terrible garbage crisis. This was very interesting to me, as I have a lot of Lebanese family, and had no idea that this was going on. I also learned that Lebanon has an extremely corrupt government, and that most citizens don’t trust it at all. I also learned about the disparity between academia, the media and the public on their knowledge of Islam and Islamism. The frankly incorrect and insulting image that many people have of Islam is very depressing to me. I learned about the regimes of Iran and Saudi Arabia, and the roles that Islam plays in each of them. I learned that Iran is the only example of an Islamic state that has ever been installed via a popular revolution, which I found to be very surprising. I also learned about the Iranian “Supreme Leader”, or “Faqih”, who has immense power over the people, despite the fact that Iran is (in part) a democracy. Next, I learned about the Islamist groups Hamas and Hizballah. Hamas is located mostly in Gaza, while Hizballah is in Lebanon. Hamas and Hizballah both have a history of using violence, but both are also currently in the process of participating in the political sphere of their countries. Despite this, chances of either of them going totally “legit” in the near future is unlikely. Beyond the Mukhabarat, I learned much more about Iraq. I learned how years of U.S. occupation left the country in terrible shape. Babies are being born with horrible diseases and deformations (likely from the residue of bombs dropped by the U.S.), there are over 3 million IDPs, and many citizens are lacking basic necessities. In addition, in many cases the Iraqi government will arrest their own citizens without due process, and will even deny the citizens a right to an attorney. Finally, I learned about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in great detail. I learned how Israel became a state, how the Palestinians waged war on it, and how Israel then expanded into Palestine’s borders. I learned that Israeli settlers were (illegally) moving into the West Bank, and establishing neighborhoods, schools, hospitals, and segregated roads there. I also learned how seemingly impossible the conflict is to solve. In short, I learned a LOT in this class.
In my blog, I mostly created infographics because I thought that this class presented an awesome opportunity to stray from the typical essay/ test structure of learning. I had a lot of fun working with different colors, organization styles, and information. I’m very much a visual/ auditory learner, so I feel that for the most part, I learned and retained more information via the infographics than I did via the short writing assignments.
If someone else were to stumble upon my blog as a journal of my “fieldnotes” in studying the Middle East, I think that they would notice that I tended to gravitate toward the themes of war and corruption. I am very interested in the Syrian civil war, the Lebanese civil war, the Iranian-Palestinian conflict, etc. I am also interested in learning about the injustices committed against the citizens by the governments of Iraq, Syria, etc. I think that it’s interesting to study governments that are so vastly different than our own. I am so used to studying American politics that studying the politics of the Middle East came as a very welcome and interesting change.
I wish that we had had time to learn about Libya and Tunisia. From what I know (not much at all), Libya is a failed state, and Tunisia is very stable. I think that it would have been interesting to study these two extremes. I also would have found it interesting to have had a unit on Afghanistan. Overall, however, I realize that this is a 4-week class, and that an in-depth study of every country in MENA is unrealistic. I am very happy with the amount of information that we did get to cover in this class.
As for the future of Middle Eastern politics, I don’t think that it can all be grouped into one overall prediction. MENA is full of diverse states, people, cultures, and situations. I think that the future of Egypt will either be glued to al-Sisi’s rule of an iron fist, or will break back down into rebellion and chaos. In order for the latter to occur, the people would have to be defiant enough to stand up against the military, and surely many, many lives would be lost. In Syria, I unfortunately think that Assad will eventually regain total authoritarian, if not totalitarian, control of the state. I really do not see how Syria could ever be any sort of real democracy anytime in the near future. Assad is already regaining control of many previously opposition-held cities, so honestly, not much has to change in order for my prediction to occur. I do not think that the symbiotic relationship between the Wahhabi ‘Ulema and the royal family in Saudi Arabia is sustainable. As Dr. Brown pointed out in his mini-lecture on Saudi Arabia, there have recently been some “awkward” exchanges between the royal family that the ‘Ulema. I think that greater conflict between these two powerful groups is inevitable. In my opinion, the future of Jordan is very difficult to predict. While many consider Jordan to be incredibly democratic and liberalized for the Middle East, I’m not too optimistic about the direction it’s been heading in recent years. It’s been decreasing its citizens’ internet freedoms drastically in the past few years, and many of the most skilled Jordanians are leaving the country in search of better-paying jobs. Overall, I don’t think that Jordan will ever sink to a level as low as Syria, but I’m not sure that it will indefinitely remain as seemingly democratic as it is right now. In order for this to happen, the people would have to attempt to protest and rebel, and the government would have to crack down hard. The future of Lebanon is hard to predict, as well. Lebanon is such a sectarian country, and it is at such a current standstill politically, that it’s difficult for me to imagine how it might change in the near future. However, what I do know is that the Lebanese garbage crisis is either going to get resolved or get horribly worse with terrible consequences, and unfortunately, it currently seems that the latter is far more likely. If the politicians continue to ignore the problem, then things will only get worse. In the case of Iran, I think that a more real form of democracy is a real possibility for the future. Iran recently elected a new Assembly of Experts, who are in charge of selecting the next Supreme Leader once the current one dies or becomes very ill. The current Supreme Leader is likely to die soon. This opens up the possibility that this new Assembly of Experts could possibly elect a new Supreme Leader who is far less theocratic. As for Hamas and Hizballah, it is unlikely that either of them will go fully “legit” anytime in the near future. However, if one were to go legit, then Hizballah would be a more likely candidate than Hamas. Hamas is far too caught up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to consider completely halting their violent tactics anytime soon. As for Iraq, I unfortunately don’t think that the future will be bright. The nation is still suffering greatly from years of U.S. occupation, their government is terribly corrupt, and many lack basic services such as water, electricity, and healthcare. There are over 3 million IDPs in the country, many with no place to live. When you combine this with Iraq’s infamous Mukhabarat and corruption, it does not look like there is much that could change to lead to a brighter future for the Iraqi people. Finally, and possibly more bleak than anything else that I learned in this class, I learned about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. My prediction for the future of Israel-Palestine is, unfortunately, that Israel will (illegally) continue to push further and further into Palestinian territory. Now that the U.S. has backed out of the UN Human Rights Council, they will surely continue to fund Israel, and perhaps even more than they had originally been. Either way, I don’t think that the future will be bright for the Palestinian people. This will likely lead Hamas to commit more violent acts. Overall, the conflict seems like it can only get worse for the time being.
All of the sources that I used to come to the conclusions in this reflection can be found on my blog.