There is nothing more bitter than missed opportunities. In the Arab world we had lots of that to mourn. And unlike the rest of the human race we can’t find a better time to do so than during our Eid celebrations. While others enjoy theirs, we tend to ruin our happy anniversaries remembering the worst moments in our history and keep asking what an Arab poet asked 1,000 years ago, “Eid, what kind of Eid did you bring with you?”
I hate to do the same and ruin what are supposed to be happy moments with similar remembrances. But since everyone else is doing it, why not me? Here is what I would mourn most: Our missed opportunities for freedom, democracy, progress and peace. I won’t go far in history, limiting my memory to the last hundred years.
In the beginning of the 20th century, Hussein ibn Ali, grand sharif of Makkah made a deal with the Allies. He was to lead a revolution against the Ottomans. In return he was promised to be declared the new caliph of the Muslim Ummah and the king of all Arabs. He did his part betraying the Muslim Caliphate that installed him but never received his ultimate reward. The English were kind enough to recognize him in 1916 as the king of Hijaz, install one son as the king of Iraq, a second as the emir of Jordan. But that was it. Not even the rest of Arabia and the Gulf area were to be under his control.
Still, there was a great opportunity for him and his sons to cooperate with the other Arab leaders, like sultans (later kings) Abdul Aziz in Riyadh and Fuad in Cairo to free and improve the rest of the Arab world. The colonizers were open to gradual progress starting with freeing slaves and giving women and minorities their due rights. Instead he insisted on pursuing his dream of being the king of kings. In the process, he antagonized the Saudis and ended up losing his fiefdom and destroying the dream of Arab unity. Later, the independent and semi-independent Arab governments decided in 1945 to start a process of unity under the Arab League banner. But even today, after more than half a century, we are still at square one.
When Nasser led the era of military revolutions in the Arab world, we were promised unity, freedom, reforms and progress. Instead, every colonel wanted to rule the rest. Even young Qaddafi of small Libya felt he deserved to lead the horde. Marriage projects like those between Egypt and Syria; Egypt, Sudan and Libya; and, in recent history, the cooperation councils of the Gulf states, the Western Arabs (Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia) and the Eastern Arabs (Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Yemen), either failed to achieve their set goals or disintegrated disgracefully. We had peace opportunities with our main foe, Israel, and lost them. The best chance was the road Egyptian President Sadat opened for us. Instead of working with him to negotiate as a group, most leaders felt insulted that he didn’t consult with them first. For this mistake they were willing to forgo the golden opportunity and fragment the Arabs into two camps — the small peace group and the “countries that are standing up and challenging.” Later the war party members were warring among themselves. We lost. Israel won. The end of the first Gulf War between Iraq and Iran presented another golden opportunity. We were then more in agreement than not. With the eight-year costly war no longer a distraction, we could have concentrated on getting our act together and working on achieving our goals and dreams.
Not so fast! Saddam couldn’t have a break of more than a couple of years before he started another adventure. This time against his brotherly allies who supported him in the previous aggression. We deserved this because we missed our opportunity to forge good relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran. We had more in common with the new Muslim regime than we did with the Baathists.
One war led to another. The Third Gulf War, like the second divided and distracted the Arabs once more. Again, Arab leaders found a good excuse to delay reforms. Even with democracy a priority in the Anglo-Saxon agenda for the Middle East, Arab governments managed to find ways not to reform. A few improvements here, a couple of basic or meaningless elections there, and we convinced the world we are moving in the right direction. The Americans and British found something to show for their costly war, and the Arab governments managed to avoid costlier confrontations with the neo-Crusaders.
After 1426 Eid anniversaries we are mourning once more, unable to positively answer the Shakespearian question (to be or not to be). What a waste!