A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Egyptian Xenophobia and the Misreading of Robin Wright's Map

Last Sunday, veteran Middle East hand Robin Wright published a piece in The New York Times noting, as others have, that the growing sectarian divisions in Syria and Iraq could lead to a redrawing of the map of several Middle Eastern countries: "Imagining a Remapped Middle East."  The article came with a companion map, "How 5 Countries Could Become 14."

I didn't read it as if she were recommending this so much as warning it could be an emerging possibility, but the most dramatic thing about the article was the map, which had a separate title and online URL, so that it was easy to link to the map without actually linking to the article. Unsurprisingly, a lot of Middle Easterners didn't read the article but did see the map:
Now, as you will recall, Egypt has been going through a xenophobic phase in which it has become an article of faith among many that the US supports the Muslim Brotherhood and opposes the military takeover (though the US is still funding the Egyptian military); elaborate conspiracy theories involving former US Ambassador Anne Patterson make the front page of Al-Ahram.

In such a paranoid environment, it's no surprise that Egyptian social media and regular media as well quickly pounced upon the map; here for example is a recent front page of Al-Tahrir with the map prominently featured:

Blogger Zeinobia reports here on the reactions within Egypt. 

Now, neither Robin Wright nor the New York Times is calling for a new partition of the Middle East as any fair reading of the article itself demonstrates; but many people looked at the map but not the article. And Egypt, of course, isn't even  partitioned on the map; the Nile Valley has been pretty much united since the First Dynasty. (In contrast, though, there was a flap back in the 1980s over an alleged "Sharon plan" claiming that Ariel Sharon favored partitioning the Arab world, including creation of a Coptic state in Upper Egypt.)

While the reaction to the map in the Times has been exaggerated, there is, of course, a precedent, and one Middle Easterners are fully aware of: the Sykes-Picot Agreement:
Original Sykes-Picot Map

That 1916 agreement on partition of the Ottoman provinces between Britain, France, and Tsarist Russia is a classic example of colonial powers carving up the world without bothering to consult the local inhabitants; nearly a century later it haunts the region, though of course neither Robin Wright nor the Times were talking about an externally-imposed partition.
F. Georges-Picot

Sir Mark Sykes


David Mack said...

Glad you referred any conspiratorial minded readers of this blog to the text of Robin's article. Hopefully, this will head off another article in the Arab press about MEI endorsing the map. Of course, true believers in Arab unity nearly always blame its lack on foreign intrigues. In fact, the citizens of these countries keep doing it to themselves. Nonetheless, I personally suspect an Iranian hand in fostering Iraqi disunity. Add me to the conspiracy theorists!

Michael Collins Dunn said...

But David: Iran is obviously allied with Israel and the Freemasons to hold mystic ceremonies at the pyramids. As a Georgetown grad my Jesuit/Illuminati masters won't permit me to tell all I know.

W.B. Smith said...

Nice try at misdirection, Professor Dunn, but we know about Carroll Quigley and the plot. 9