The Middle East is in turmoil as the third act of the post-Ottoman period — the colonial period and the nationalist regimes like Gamal Abdel Nasser’s that succeeded it being the first two — moves forward in an unstable and bloody fashion.
The events should remind observers of an extremely devastating conflict that once embroiled Europe called the Thirty Years’ War. That massive, and complex, conflict began with the notorious “Defenestration of Prague” in 1618 and was largely a religious conflict between Protestant German princes jealous of their autonomy and faith arrayed against the power of the Catholic Hapsburg rulers of Austria.
The conflict metastasized into a great power conflict between the ruling dynasties of Catholic France led by the famous practitioner of realpolitik, Cardinal Richelieu, and the Hapsburgs of both Austria and Spain.
Along the way, the geopolitical ambitions of Protestant powers like Denmark and Sweden, under one of the great generals in world history, Gustavus Adolphus, became enmeshed in the conflict. The individual ambitions of generals like Austria’s Albrecht von Wallenstein and German princes seeking to secure independence and new territory for their own bloodline dynasties also played a role.
This brutal conflict left between 25 and 40 percent of the German population dead as a result of battle, deprivation, disease and famine. It also led to a series of treaties which became part of the larger Peace of Westphalia and the instantiation of the entire “Westphalian” state system international relations scholars take largely for granted today.
The analogy is important because it shows how the current Middle East is enmeshed in its own way in a complex web of conflicts that are geopolitical as well as sectarian. Even great power intervention in the guise of the United States and Russia, along with some European states, plays a part.
How much does a single self-immolation in Tunisia now seem like that famed event in Prague almost four hundred years ago when Protestants rallied against the closing of their chapels by the Catholic emperor.
Frustration by a small number of individuals sparked a tinderbox long ready to explode. The long dormant Shia-Sunni conflict was originally stoked by the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. The rise of Iran and its looming nuclear program with no Sunni power on its border powerful enough to check it began arranging those flammable pieces of timber as the Saudis and other Sunnis had to prepare for conflict. Meanwhile the rise of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Islamists and the “Turkish” model began to make itself felt in regional diplomacy. The longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict remained ready for action as did conflict with Iran’s Syrian backed catspaw Hezbollah well ensconced in Lebanon.
The so-called Arab Spring has led to a myriad of tragicomedies from the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and the proliferation of weapons across North and West Africa to the quasi coup that really wasn’t a coup in strategically vital Egypt after the overthrow of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.
Given Egypt’s population, strategic location, including control of the Suez Canal, and relative peace since the 1979 peace treaty with Israel have given it an outsized role to play in the Middle East. However, since the resignation of former strongman Hosni Mubarak in early 2011 and the recent removal of his elected Muslim Brotherhood successor from office, it is clear that stability will not be forthcoming anytime soon.
While Morsi’s ouster in a relatively bloodless coup opens the opportunity for a more reasonable, technocratic government potentially capable of dealing with Egypt’s wretched economy, there is much reason for skepticism. In the short term, the transitional government will probably be able to pacify the immediate tumult brought to the fore by the Muslim Brotherhood’s overreaching. However, rising food prices have been a prime source for much of the “Arab Spring” unrest. Absent a great power benefactor, like the United States, or a regional power, like Saudi Arabia, offering extensive loans for food for a long period of time, Morsi’s removal might be but one of a series of political transitions that will occur at an accelerating pace until Egypt fully descends into chaos with limited, if any, centralized authority able to maintain order.
The rise of more radical Salafi Muslim parties in the wake of the Muslim Brotherhood’s removal from government will only increase the challenges to maintaining centralized control. At that point, all bets are off as the Sinai may become a flashpoint between Egypt and Israel despite the Egyptian military’s desire to avoid major shooting incidents.
This is happening simultaneously with the descent into hell in Syria. Already a full-scale civil war is underway there with over 100,000 lives estimated lost and atrocities committed by both warring parties. Not only does this exacerbate the backdrop of the sectarian Shia-Sunni battle embodied by Iran’s rise, Turkey’s assertions and Saudi Arabia’s concerns; the added ingredient of renewed great power competition between America and Russia intermingles as well.
As Egypt on the western side of the region descends into its own chaos, it is difficult to envision that there will not be an even greater movement of jihadists regionwide along with terrorism, starvation and a spread of disease such as the new MERS coronavirus. What also will become of Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates? These countries have largely escaped unrest but it seems doubtful they can indefinitely.
The bottom line is that Egypt will become another ideological and quasi-military battleground for jihadists that will open a door for Iranian influence, though not as much as Syria. This will force Saudi Arabia, and an intelligent United States, to act and prop up the military in order to stall state collapse, especially depending on the circumstances on the ground in Syria. Israel will keep its powder dry but is forced to increase vigilance on the Sinai border when the Egyptian army is incapable of effectively policing the area.
If this all seems complex, it clearly is. There is no single cause for the conflicts embroiling the region. While the Defenestration of Prague analogy works well in a certain sense, one could go all the way back to the end of World War I to find the seeds of conflict planted. Or maybe even as far back as 632 when the Prophet Muhammad died and the initial schism between Shia and Sunni emerged. In a way, all these events and so many more have led the region to the point it is now — on the precipice of catastrophe.
Europe’s Thirty Years’ War was massively destructive, perhaps even more destructive in its day than the twentieth century’s world wars. Whether the current miasma of bloodletting in the Middle East will last so long or wreak the same level of carnage is an open question. However, until something dramatic happens to stop a continued spiraling out of control, the Thirty Years’ War likely will represent the most useful analytic lens through which to view the Middle East’s tragedy. A happy ending does not appear to be in the cards. But maybe, as with the Thirty Years’ War, some accommodation like the Westphalian system can eventually be secured out of the ashes of desolation.
This article was originally prepared during a brainstorming session about Egypt’s future involving more than fifty analysts at the geostrategic consultancy firm Wikistrat.