public square in a small town in December 2010, sparking protests that
brought down dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, and began a tidal wave of
change both in the Middle East and farther afield. Add in the 2011
American withdrawal from Iraq and failed attempts to subdue Afghanistan
and Iran, and the writing on the wall for empire is written boldly -- in
After a century of scheming in the Middle East and Central Asia by first
Britain and then the US, the tables turned much faster than anyone
could have imagined. As the pivotal 2011 draws to a close, it is the
perfect moment to look at how we got here. The rollercoaster ride has
been long and terrifying, and it is vital to understand where it is
From the 19th century on, it was clear to imperial strategists such as
Cecil Rhodes and Halford MacKinder, motivated by the desire to conquer
the world, that the "heartland", Eurasia, was the key to securing the
proposed world empire. WWI was supposed to clinch the deal, with the
collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate leaving the Levant "free" to be carved
up and secured. The Indian Raj was the empire's base for securing
Central Asia and the Far East.
But the horrors of the war led to an unforeseen result: revolution in
Russia, inspiring a growing anti-imperial movement across Eurasia.
Inspired by Russian revolutionaries, the Raj seethed in discontent,
demanding freedom from the British yoke, and Chinese patriots coalesced
around their own rapidly growing Communist movement. Historic Turkestan
was now off limits, part of the Soviet Union or in the case of
Afghanistan , unconquerable.
WWII erupted as Germany attempted to snatch the world empire from the
British and destroy its Russian nemesis, but this merely accelerated the
decline of the Euro-imperialists, their schemes exposed as relying on
mass slaughter and cold, calculating privilege for the elite of the
When the war ended, there were hopes that imperialism would end too. The
empire had been forced to ally with the Communists to defeat the
Germans, and to promise to dismantle the imperial system after WWII.
This new world order was to be one of independent nations competing on a
level playing field. But what should have been the last gasp of this
inhuman system of "free trade" in the service of empire gained a new
lease on life, as the US had escaped the 20th century's cataclysms
unscathed, and its capitalists were eager to take on the mantle of
empire ceded by the bankrupt Brits.
Moreover, a new, subtle but key force in the new empire was the Jewish
state established by the British and Americans in the heart of the
Middle East, a blatant colonial entity which draped its imperial role
in the language of anti-colonial liberation. This, despite the fact that
it was created by dispossessing the native Arabs, even as neighbouring
Arabs in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and North Africa were gaining nominal
independence from their colonial masters.
This new playing field witnessed a long, bloody match, pitting the
empire's forces against both Communists and anti-colonial forces. After
millions of deaths, it culminated in the defeat of the Communists in
1991, and a new game began, with world control once again the prize.
The dreams of revolution and an end to empire were dashed, and this new
world order was once again baldly imperial, as planners accelerated
their plans, epitomised by the rise of the neoconservatives with their
Project for a New American Century, combining market fundamentalism and
imperial aggression in a deadly cocktail where there were no longer any
location and oil wealth, was quickly brought into the imperial orbit.
Even China was accommodated, as it acceded to the world economic order
established by the empire after WWII.
But the baggage of empire continued to complicate the picture. The
Islamists, so useful in the destruction of the Communist bloc, resisted
imperial designs. Israel, also useful throughout the post-WWII struggle
against both the Communists and the 3rd world liberation forces,
established itself as an independent player and even posed as the new
imperial coach, penetrating to the heart of the empire and asserting its
own goals of expansion and hostility against its Muslim neighbours.
At its beheast, the resulting wars have been against the Arab and Muslim
world, but two decades of attempts to subdue them have merely hardened
Muslims' opposition to empire, even as the devastation caused by
imperial designs increases.
Hence, the Arab Spring of 2011 and the accession to power of Islamists
via the ballot box across the Middle East. Hence, the unwinnable war
against the Afghan people, that brought empire to its knees in fateful
2011, even as the slaughter of insurgents and civilians increased. Yes,
the imperialists managed a clever ruse, invading Libya to depose the
clownish Gaddafi, but the Islamists and fiercely independent tribes
there are unlikely allies of empire.
The tsunami of resistance to imperialism surged throughout 2011 around
the world, while the empire's leaders put a worldwide "missile defence"
system in place. But even as radars and missiles were installed in
Europe, the rising tide reached the empire's shores in 2011, as
financial crisis led to rising poverty and unrest in the imperial centre
Taking inspiration from the Arab Spring, mass demonstrations in Greece
and Spain erupted and Wall Street, the empire's "heartland", was
occupied. The "99 per cent" entered the political lexicon as the people
vs the ruling elite (the 1 per cent who own half of the country's
assets). Even Israel and newly capitalist Russia witnessed mass
demonstrations, as ordinary citizens began to realise how the system
works, or rather doesn't work for them. How increasing disparity of
wealth is the logical result of market fundamentalism and control of the
economy by financial capital.
2011 will go down in history as a year as fateful as 1917, when the
blinkers fell away from the common people's eyes in Russia and they rose
up against their oppressors. But while 1917 witnessed a Communist
revolution against capitalism and imperialism by a small corps of
professional revolutionaries, 2011 has witnessed a mass, leaderless
revolution facilitated by telecommunications, and in the case of the key
Middle East, inspired by Islam.
There is no Lenin, not even a Gamal Abdel-Nasser, the one Arab leader
who managed to slow down the imperial steamroller in the Middle East and
is still revered for his defiance. Unlike Communist revolutionaries of
yore, the new leaders in the Middle East of what must be called the
Islamic revolution of 2011 are not the object of veneration, something
that Islam as a religion warns against.
Revolutions always start in the weakest links. Thus, the Middle East has
a head start on the revolutionary process over the West, though through
the growing Palestinian solidarity movement, notably the global Boycott
Divestment and Sanctions campaign, the struggles East and West are
increasingly seen to be one and the same. What will be the decisive test
for the new revolutionaries in the Middle East and the West itself is
how well they can navigate the political shoals and landmines laid by a
century of empire.