The “Arab Spring” is the final unraveling of the Ottoman Empire.
It is now almost a year since the self-immolation of a Tunisian street merchant—a horrific act that captured the imaginations of millions and launched the widespread movement in the Middle East to remove authoritarian governments in favor of democracy.
Almost all the countries included in the ongoing Arab Spring were once part of the powerful and expansive Ottoman Empire, whose prominence was marked by the conquest of Constantinople in 1453. The victorious Mehmed renamed the city Istanbul and made it the empire’s capital too and, thereby, made clear the intention to expand into Europe. It was no surprise, therefore, that soon Suleiman and his forces were knocking on Vienna’s doors.
As empires always do, the Ottoman Empire, also, started its decline after a successful run, and the descent accelerated in the 19th century. Again, as it happens with empires, the decline was marked by its territories being taken over by other powers. Tunisia was one of those, as were the other Arab Spring countries of Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Morocco, and Yemen. The Pasha was replaced by European colonial powers. The First World War, whose conclusion we mark with Armistice Day and Veterans Day, had an additional effect of removing the remnants of the Ottoman Empire.
But, the real and final untangling from the Ottoman ties began with the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991. The Balkans, too, were once a part of the Ottoman Empire, and Yugoslavia was held together by authoritarian governments, until the death of President Tito and, later, the collapse of the Soviet Bloc. When the authoritarian structures were gone, for the first time people in Yugoslavia had an opportunity to establish their own political identities. Unfortunately, it turned out to be violent and bloody and triggered external intervention from the US and its NATO allies.
The collapse of the Soviet Union created new countries that were also former Ottoman territories—Armenia and Azerbaijan. These had been swallowed by the Russian Czars and, after the Bolshevik Revolution, became a part of the USSR.
When all that dust settled, more or less, the decade that followed began with the events of September 11, 2001. One of the grand plans that preoccupied Osama bin Laden’s maniacal approach was the creation of an Islamic state that would continue where the Ottoman Empire had ended. His logic was that the US was propping up the governments in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Libya, to name a few, and that weakening the US would make possible the supra-Islamic state.
In this decade, fortunately, the Arab Spring is the exact opposite of what bin Laden had envisioned. The peoples of the former territories of the Ottoman Empire are protesting against their rulers not because they want to re-create an Islamic empire. When the Tunisian street merchant set himself on fire, it was because he was fed up with having to deal with the corrupt rulers—all the way down to the local police. Egyptians similarly were tired of Hosni Mubarak and his cronies looting away the wealth, while the youth were jobless with highly insecure futures.
Dictators and authoritarian governments have been the norm since the end of the Ottoman Empire, and even after the people in the Arab Spring countries had witnessed the departure of the European colonizers. Tunisia, for instance, was a French colony until 1956, but independence did not usher in freedom and democracy.
The correlation between the Arab Spring and the Ottoman Empire is also reflected in the case of Saudi Arabia, which has not experienced mass protests—Saudi Arabia was not a part of the Ottoman Empire.
The Arab Spring is a reminder, in a way, that our contemporary lives are intricately connected with events from the past—something that historians often remind us about but is easily forgotten by most of the rest of us.
The continued linkage with the past means that even as we keep one eye on the Arab Spring, the other remains fixed on at least one byproduct of the end of the British Empire that the world worries about--Pakistan. Empires strike back, even from their graves!