The first-order answer is poverty and lack of education: Almost
half of Arabic-speaking women are illiterate.
But the Arab world used to be the most literate part of the
planet; what went wrong? Tyranny and economic failure, obviously.
But why is tyranny such a problem in the Arab world? That brings us
to the nub of the matter.
In a speech in November, 2003, President George W. Bush revisited
his familiar refrain about how the West has to remake the Arab world
in its own image in order to stop the terrorism: "Sixty years of
Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in
the Middle East did nothing to make us safe ... because in the long
run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty" — as
if the Arab world had wilfully chosen to be ruled by these corrupt
and incompetent tyrannies.
But the West didn't just "excuse and accommodate" these regimes.
It created them, in order to protect its own interests — and it
spent the latter half of the 20th century keeping them in power for
the same reason.
It was Britain that carved the kingdom of Jordan out of the old
Ottoman province of Syria after World War I and put the
Hashemite ruling family on the throne that it still occupies.
France similarly carved Lebanon out of Syria in order to create a
loyal Christian-majority state that controlled most of the Syrian
coastline — and when time and a higher Muslim birth rate eventually
led to a revolt against the Maronite Christian stranglehold on power
in Lebanon in 1958, U.S. troops were sent in to restore it. The
Lebanese civil war of 1975-'90, tangled though it was, was basically
a continuation of that struggle.
Britain also imposed a Hashemite monarchy on Iraq after 1918, and
deliberately perpetuated the political monopoly of the Sunni
minority that it had inherited from Turkish rule.
When the Iraqi monarchy was finally overthrown in 1958 and the
Baath party won the struggle that followed, the CIA gave the Iraqi
Baathists the names of all the senior members of the Iraqi Communist
party (then the main political vehicle of the Shias) so they could
It was Britain that turned the traditional sheikhdoms in the Gulf
into separate little sovereign states and absolute monarchies,
carving Kuwait out of Iraq in the process. Saudi Arabia, however,
was a joint Anglo-U.S. project.
The British Foreign Office welcomed the Egyptian generals'
overthrow of King Farouk and the destruction of the country's old
nationalist political parties, failing to foresee that Gamal Abdul
Nasser would eventually take over the Suez Canal. When he did, the
foreign office conspired with France and Israel to attack Egypt in a
failed attempt to overthrow him.
Once Nasser died and was succeeded by generals more willing to
play along with the West — Anwar Sadat, and now Hosni Mubarak —
Egypt became Washington's favourite Arab state. To help these thinly
disguised dictators to hang on to power, Egypt has ranked among the
top three recipients of U.S. foreign aid almost every year for the
past quarter-century. And so it goes.
Britain welcomed the coup by Col. Moammar Gadhafi in Libya in
1969, mistakenly seeing him as a malleable young man who could serve
the West's purposes.
The United States and France both supported the old dictator
Habib Bourguiba in Tunisia, and still back his successor Ben Ali
today. They always backed the Moroccan monarchy no matter how
repressive it became, and they both gave unquestioning support to
the Algerian generals who cancelled the elections of 1991. They did
not ever waver in their support through the savage insurgency
unleashed by the suppression of the elections that killed an
estimated 120,000 Algerians over the next 10 years.
"Excuse and accommodate"? The West created the modern
Middle East, from its rotten regimes down to its ridiculous borders,
and it did so with contemptuous disregard for the wishes of the
It is indeed a problem that most Arab governments are corrupt
autocracies that breed hatred and despair in their own people, which
then fuels terrorism against the West, but it was the West that
created the problem — and invading Iraq won't solve it.
If the U.S. really wants to foster Arab democracy, it might try
making all that aid to Egypt conditional on prompt democratic
reforms. But I wouldn't hold my breath.
Gwynne Dyer is a Canadian journalist
based in London.