The Middle

If Tunisia is in the Middle East, so is Italy.  If Egypt is in the Middle East, so is Greece.

Political Map of North Africa and the Mediterranean

From Wikipedia:

The term “Middle East” may have originated in the 1850s in the British India Office.[3] However, it became more widely known when American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan used the term in 1902[4] to ‘designate the area between Arabia and India’.[5][6] During this time the British and Russian Empires were vying for influence in Central Asia, a rivalry which would become known as The Great Game. Mahan realized not only the strategic importance of the region, but also of its center, the Persian Gulf.[7][8] He labeled the area surrounding the Persian Gulf as the Middle East, and said that after the Suez Canal, it was the most important passage for Britain to control in order to keep the Russians from advancing towards British India.[9] Mahan first used the term in his article “The Persian Gulf and International Relations,” published in September 1902 in the National Review, a British journal.

The Middle East, if I may adopt a term which I have not seen, will some day need its Malta, as well as its Gibraltar; it does not follow that either will be in the Persian Gulf. Naval force has the quality of mobility which carries with it the privilege of temporary absences; but it needs to find on every scene of operation established bases of refit, of supply, and in case of disaster, of security. The British Navy should have the facility to concentrate in force if occasion arise, about Aden, India, and the Persian Gulf.[10]

Mahan’s article was reprinted in The Times and followed in October by a 20 article series entitled “The Middle Eastern Question,” written by Sir Ignatius Valentine Chirol. During this series, Sir Ignatius expanded the definition of Middle East to include “those regions of Asia which extend to the borders of India or command the approaches to India.”[11] After the series ended in 1903, The Times removed quotation marks from subsequent uses of the term.[12]

Until World War II, it was customary to refer to areas centered around Turkey and the eastern shore of the Mediterranean as the “Near East“, while the “Far East” centered on China,[13] and the Middle East then meant the area from Mesopotamia to Burma, namely the area between the Near East and the Far East.[citation needed] In the late 1930s, the British established the Middle East Command, which was based in Cairo, for its military forces in the region. After that time, the term “Middle East” gained broader usage in Europe and the United States, with the Middle East Institute founded in Washington, D.C. in 1946, among other usage.[14]

Perhaps, the true reason why Egypt, in particular, is considered as part of the Middle East (even to the exclusion of Libya, Algeria, and Tunisia) is due to two factors: colonization by the British (See map below), and the formation of a settler nation state for the international Jewish community in Palestine.  Coordinated administration of British possessions, protectorates and administrations, in this region, are “neatly” subsumed within the term “Middle East.”  The cultural, political, and historical realities on the ground take a back seat, then, to the colonial imperative.

From the New York Times:

Africa Page of the NY Times

While most Westerners continue to define Africa and Africans as a monolith, the facts on the ground are far more complicated.  The Sahara has proven to be less of a barrier for people than previously imagined.  The tenacity of Islam on both sides of the desert has proven to be a source of consternation for many.  Consider the position of the West (and Israel) vis-a-vis the Sudan.  How much of this “concern” is related to Islam, rather than oil and pipelines is a matter of conjecture.

Arabs have lived in Africa for centuries.  In the main, Arabs arrived on the continent at a time of challenge and transition.  Their arrival, tied to the colonizing mandate of Islam, created devastating effects in the East and Northern parts of the continent.  For some, the role of colonizer and conqueror has become a bit uncomfortable as they struggle with removing the boot of Western hegemony from their neck, or worse — the boot of fellow Arabs subsidized by the West.

Today, Arabs seeking democratic reforms in North Africa find themselves, once again, in the middle.  They are subject to the hostilities, exclusions, and deprivations of a powerful Northern enemy in Europe.  They are geographically and culturally alienated, if not religiously, from the Africans to the South.  And more to the point, they have been caught in the cross hairs of authoritarian regimes propped up by Western aid or by Western guns or both.

The reform history of North Africa in 2011 is not completely written.  There is a great deal of work in front of peoples in many countries, and there is no way to predict which countries and which people will be most energized in seeking to replicate what has happened in Tunisia and Egypt.  What is certain, however, is that the squeeze from both sides will continue.

One comment

  1. Good piece man. I’ve often asked the same question about the arbitrary designations given to people and areas based not on geography, but on certain biases.

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