If there is one thing a group of Arabs can agree on, it is that outsiders have historically, and currently, affected the fate of their respective countries – and not always in positive ways. The Syrians in Lebanon, the Israelis in Palestine, the Egyptians in Yemen, the Americans everywhere. The Middle East has so often been the board on which the games of other nations have been played.
Yet much of this activity remains hidden. Only occasionally, through declassified documents or candid revelations, does the truth, so often guessed at, emerge.
Two such incidents have come in recent days. The first, as reported by The New York Times, are the private thoughts of ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, as recorded surreptitiously by a confidant. Mr Mubarak ranges over a number of topics and discusses outside involvement in Egypt. The Israelis, he notes, tried in the months before his resignation to discuss displacing the Palestinians of Gaza into Sinai, essentially eliminating the territory and making Gazans Egypt’s problem. Mr Mubarak was adamant: “The borders can’t be touched.”
The Americans, he writes, were a more tricky proposition. “Liars,” he called them, accusing them of seeking a revolution as far back as 2005, when Washington pushed for more than one candidate to contest presidential elections. Mr Mubarak was right about the effect, if not the intent: it was in the crucible of those elections that the protest movement Kefaya learnt the organisational skills that were so usefully deployed in 2011.
The second set of revelations come from a set of declassified US documents showing Washington’s thinking ahead of Syria’s intervention in the Lebanese civil war in 1976, as reported in Lebanon’s Daily Star. Henry Kissinger, then US Secretary of State, was concerned that if Hafez Al Assad intervened in Lebanon, it could spark a regional war. His comment is exceptionally telling: “The end result would be exactly what we have worked all these years to avoid: it would create Arab unity.” Mr Kissinger, more than most politicians, recognised the guiding principle of US policy in the region: keep the Arab world divided. He hoped Syria could destroy the PLO’s base in Beirut without dragging in Israel. Only by setting one faction against another could the US maintain control over such a vast space.
Taken together, such revelations, along with many others, ought to remind regional players that foreign powers usually work in their own interests. They only intervene for themselves.