Arab caliphate: once a dream, now a nightmare

Arab caliphate: once a dream, now a nightmare
5 min read
08 Jan, 2015
In 1916, Hussein bin Ali began a futile quest to destroy the Ottomans and create an Arab caliphate. Nearly a century on and the "Islamic State" exists. It is not what anyone dreamed of.
Many leaders have dreams of a new form of caliphate [Getty]

Shortly before dawn on 2 June, 1916, the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali, fired a rifle from the balcony of his house. It was a shot that signalled the beginning of the Great Arab Revolt to end Ottoman hegemony and establish a new Arab caliphate.

Hussein's act was not spur of the moment - it was the result of years of planning and coordination with the UK. In February 1914, Hussein had sent his son Abdullah to Cairo, to approach the British High Commissioner, Lord Kitchener, about his plans.

Correspondence between Hussein and the British ambassador in Cairo, Sir Henry McMahon, in 1916 and 1917, shows McMahon pledging recognition of Hussein as a new Arab leader if he helped defeat the Ottomans, who were allied with Germany against the UK in the Great War.

Hussein however did not pay heed to the UK's backing of Ibn Saud to unify the Arabian peninsula under his rule, and establish a Saudi Arabian kingdom rather than a caliphate. At the same time, the French and the UK were drawing up a new map for the region, under what is now known as the Sykes-Picot agreement, should they win the Great War.

Things did not go Hussein's way. The UK threw its weight behind Ibn Saud, while Hussein left for Cyprus, where he lived for six years before returning to die in Amman. He was buried in Jerusalem, and with him his dream of an Arab caliphate, which had been reduced to the Emirate of Transjordan and then the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

The Sykes-Picot map was imposed - a clear declaration that there could be no return to the caliphate in any form. But the dream of its restoration lived on among Arab kings and rulers, and even leaders who emerged with the national liberation movement lead by military elites in the 1950s.

Azmi Bishara: On political culture and stalled democratisation in the Arab world

Egypt's King Farouk dreamed of a caliphate, but that ultimately took the form of the call to establish the League of Arab States. Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser had the same dream, albeit in a nationalist rather than an Islamic form. The slogan was pan-Arab unity, but that dream ended with the catastrophic events of 1967.

Iraq's Saddam Hussein positioned himself as a leader of the Arab world, but his project met a disastrous end with wars with Iran and Kuwait, foreign invasion, and his eventual execution.

The Muslim Brotherhood has made no bones about its desire for an Islamic world built on the principles of the caliphate, but seeks to temper those principles with a moderate democratic brand of Islam.

When the Arab Spring swept across the region in 2011, Islamist groups such as the Brotherhood were best prepared to capitalise.

And indeed, these groups took power in the first elections, free and fair even if they took place at a time when passions ran high.

     The Sykes-Picot map was ... a clear declaration that there could be no return to the caliphate in any form.

The Muslim Brotherhood won in Egypt, Ennahdha won in Tunisia, and the Justice and Development Party won in Morocco. But these early victories did not further thesegroups' vision.

In Morocco, the leader of the Justice and Development Party, Abdelilah Benkirane, announced that he did not intend to undermine the powers of the Moroccan monarch, monopolise power, or advance a purely Islamist project. He formed a coalition government, championing respect for democracy and the constitution. The transition was smooth, amid regional and international acceptance.

In Tunisia, the leader of Ennahdha, Rachid Ghannouchi, bowed to pressure to join a national dialogue, which ultimately replaced his government with a non-partisan interim government, and produced agreement among all factions over a new constitution.

Ennahdha came second in the next election, and pledged not to put forward a candidate for the presidency or support any particular candidate afterwards. The conservative, anti-Islamist Nidaa Tounes ("Call of Tunisia") party won borth presidential and parliamentary elections.

The situation in Egypt was different. The Muslim Brotherhood won a majority in the first election held after the 2011 revolution. Their candidate, the head of the Freedom and Justice Party, Mohammed Morsi, won the presidential election in 2012. A new constitution was approved, and parliamentary elections were scheduled.

Arab Spring: Tunisia braces for new era of politics in final stage of transition to democracy

The Brotherhood here, however, renewed the call for the caliphate dream, if in the framework of a comprehensive Islamist project. In effect, this was the real reason the Brotherhood project in Egypt came crashing down.

The remainder of the Arab Spring countries, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, descended into armed conflict. Syria's civil war gave rise to a new generation of extremist groups, chief among them the group calling itself the "Islamic State".

And it was on June 29, 2014 - nearly a century after Hussein fired the first shot of the Great Arab Revolt - that the IS group declared a new caliphate led by "Caliph Ibrahim", Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

This time, world powers had no time for conspiracies and schemes. Instead, an international alliance was organised to counter the IS group's influence.

Thus nearly a century on from Hussein's bid for power, it has fallen to a group forged in the flames of extremism and war to denounce the Sykes-Picot agreement and declare an Arab caliphate.

And it is a supreme irony that the realisation of a dream of so many who came before, is the very act that prevents the region from moving forward.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

Opinions expressed in this article represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.