The independence of South Sudan is a significant milestone in the struggle of small nations for national independence, a struggle that began in the early 19th century with the Greeks’ war of independence against the Ottoman Empire. After dozens of years of struggle against bloody oppression by the Arab and Muslim Sudanese leadership in the north, the south − most of whose black residents are Christians or animists − achieved something that should have been attained without bloodshed, in a properly run world with an international community that sticks to its principles.
Modern Greece achieved independence not only thanks to public opinion in Europe, which supported the Christians’ struggle to be released from the Muslim yoke, but also because it was in the interest of the great powers, Great Britain and Russia, to weaken the Ottoman Empire. Similarly, U.S. and Soviet support for the 1947 United Nations partition plan for Palestine and the establishment of a Jewish state stemmed not only from shock at the horrors of the Holocaust, but also from complex considerations relating to the foreign and domestic policies of those two great powers.
The same is true in South Sudan: The fact that much of the population is Christian led U.S. Protestant groups to pressure their government to use its influence in the interest of the south’s right to self-determination. As is frequently the case in international relations, humanitarian considerations are not sufficient for bringing about the desired ethical outcome: Policy and power considerations must be brought to bear to achieve what is normatively the right thing in the real world.
It was Theodor Herzl who understood that without the support of the great powers, there would be no chance for Zionism, and therefore he wooed emperors, kings and world leaders − a policy that eventually proved itself with the Balfour Declaration and the UN partition plan. It’s not enough to be right; you need the support of a great power as well.
This is especially true when it comes to small, weak nations like the Greeks, the Jews, the Kurds − and now the inhabitants of South Sudan, too.
Yet there is another aspect to the independence of South Sudan: The original borders of Sudan, which won independence in 1956 from joint Anglo-Egyptian rule (which was in effect a British colonial administration) were drawn after England assumed control of the region in the late 19th century. They did not accord with any geographical or historical framework, and reflected only the British Empire’s expansionist capabilities.
The boundaries and the very establishment of all countries in the region were arbitrarily determined by British and French imperialism, after the downfall of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. Those two empires set the borders and divided the spheres of influence between themselves, without any consideration of the needs, composition or nature of the populations. The only exception was Egypt, an ancient country with a rich history. In their present borders, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Libya and Sudan are modern creations − products of European imperialist decisions.
The paradox lies in the fact that when these countries received independence, it was in the interest of their rulers − whether royal dynasties or republican-military dictatorships − to maintain those borders, because any change was liable to lead to wars and conflicts with unforeseen consequences. In this way Syria and Iraq − which had never existed as separate political entities within their present borders − certainly not during the period of Arab and Muslim rule in the region − became separate countries. The fact that all these countries were home to many ethnic and religious minorities (Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, various Christian denominations, Kurds, Druze and Alawites) led, among other things, to the growth of dictatorships, since only tyrannical regimes like those in Syria and Iraq could hold together the mosaics of various ethnic, religious and tribal groups.
Arab nationalist ideology, which presented these new countries as an integral part of the Arab world and was the “glue” that granted them legitimacy, reflected reality only in part, but for several decades it served as a powerful device for oppressing minorities − Kurds in Iraq and Syria, non-Arabs in Sudan. Even the constant pressure on Lebanon to accept pan-Arab policy, at the expense of maintaining its unique character as a multiethnic, multireligious society, is part of the attempt to force an Arab national identity on a pluralistic, complex society.
The independence of South Sudan is a sign of the disintegration of these postcolonial frameworks, which in the name of Arab nationalist ideology tried to forcefully impose solidarity and uniformity in places where in effect there were many differences. It was preceded by the de-facto autonomy of the Kurds in northern Iraq after the fall of President Saddam Hussein. There is still no guarantee that Iraq itself, split between a Shi’ite majority and a Sunni minority, will continue to exist as a coherent body politic.
In Syria, the demonstrations against the Alawite regime of the Assad family are being spearheaded by broad sectors of the Sunni majority, and this will have implications for the future of Lebanon. Even in Libya it is becoming clear that the rebels’ control of Benghazi and eastern parts of the country − while Muammar Gadhafi is succeeding for now to maintain control in Tripoli and the west − reflects a historical split between eastern Cyrenaica and western Tripolitania, which were merged into one Libyan entity only under Italian colonial rule. The complex internal struggle in Yemen also represents the historical separatism in the south, which for decades was an independent country.
Although demonstrations in recent months focused on opposition to dictatorial regimes, from the moment the power-based status quo was undermined, phenomena related to the ethnic and religious complexity of countries once considered to have a uniform Arab national character, have been surfacing. These phenomena are no less important than the desire to bring down tyrannical regimes. The Al Jazeera television channel, clearly the representative of the vestiges of pan-Arab ideology today, apparently has understood that better than others. As opposed to the sympathetic reports in the world media on the independence of South Sudan, Al Jazeera’s reports have been distinctly unenthusiastic.
As can be seen from the experience of Eastern Europe, the disintegration of the communist regimes not only gave rise to democratic alternatives, but also led to a reawakening of national movements once suppressed by communist ideology, both in its harsh Soviet version and in its gentler Yugoslav one.
Not all postcommunist regimes are democratic (certainly not in Russia and in the Central Asian republics), but the principle guiding all of them is anchored in national identity: Fifteen nation states rose on the ruins of the Soviet Union; through blood and fire, Yugoslavia disintegrated into its national components; and even Czechoslovakia collapsed by means of a velvet divorce.
That is why events in South Sudan have a significance that surpasses the fate of the new country, whose future will certainly not be rosy in light of its poverty. Furthermore, the demarcation of its border with Sudan still remains unclear and is liable to cause new violence. But what is clear is that no border is sacred and eternal − certainly not borders arbitrarily drawn by imperialist rulers who did not take into account the historical and national reality on the ground.
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