Against colonialism, against nationalism: The struggle for democracy in the Middle East

You are currently viewing Against colonialism, against nationalism: The struggle for democracy in the Middle East

[Written by Tom Hall (he/him)]

[Image Credits: Isabelle Hunt-Deol (she/her)]

Content Warning: Contains discussion of colonialism, dictatorships, conflicts, and oppression.

From the Colour revolutions to the Arab Spring to the Rojava revolution, it is clear that  there is a strong desire for self-determination and democracy in the Middle East. This has in fact been true for a much longer stretch of history as many democratic traditions come from this region. Yet it seems that these movements are swimming against impossible tides of colonial oppression inflicted by foreign powers, economic institutions, corporations and their regional allies, as well as equally vicious anti-colonial groups such as the Iranian dictatorship and the various Ba’athist regional parties in the region. Even democracies such as Turkey, Lebanon, and the Kurdistan Regional Government frequently exhibit oppressive apartheid-like behaviours. All of this considered, the prospects for real autonomous democracy in the region seem dire. What hope is there for the current Lebanese, Iraqi, and Kurdish democratic movements and what could be the way through all these obstacles and tensions?

The west versus democracy.

Whilst many, particularly amongst the more liberal commentariat, are shocked and outraged at the rash extrajudicial murder of Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani by US military airstrike, this particular warmongering attack is seen by many as largely unsurprising and a part of a wider system of violence and chaos presided over by the core interests of the North Atlantic world system. A wider system which commits crimes which are far more heinous than the murder of a man described by the Anarchist Union of Afghanistan and Iran as “a genocidal man that has killed thousands of men, women, and children… He led sieges for Assad and recruited Afghan refugees in Iran, many of them children, to die in the Syrian civil war.”

I think it needs to be made clear at this point that any suggestion that western powers are either internally democratic or externally pro-democratic is fundamentally rooted in fantasy. Since 1945 the United States government often aided by European powers has attempted to overthrow over 50 foreign governments, many elected under representative democratic systems, leaving large portions of the globe in states of disrepair. Striving for control over natural resources and political actors, western states have used state terrorism to overthrow democratic leaders like Salvador Allende, Patrice Lumumba, and Mohammad Mosaddegh all of whom were murdered with US military assistance plunging their respective countries into poverty and authoritarianism. Beyond this, the existence of the modern military industrial complex means that most western powers are implicated in the crimes of violent dictatorships across the globe as they supply them with tanks, teargas, and fighter jets in aid of their specific anti-democratic struggles. Take two contemporary examples:

1.  British fighter jets and engineers are being used by the Saudi Arabian government to perpetrate the worst humanitarian crisis of our time. The withdrawal of British support would end the war in a matter of days, grounding all fighter jets and ending the bombing of civilian infrastructure.

2.  NATO member Turkey recently invaded the autonomous Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS) and, using European and American arms and tacit political support, have inflicted terror across the region including but not limited to working with and supplying Islamist terrorist groups, murder of civilians, releasing and recruiting captured ISIS terrorists, and both supporting and committing rape as a form of terrorism.

Against nationalism.

We cannot, however, only criticise America, its allies like Britain and Turkey, and puppet governments like that of Afghanistan. It is important to recognise that there are other local actors in the region which act anti-democratically, that being authoritarian states, terrorist caliphates, or even groups claiming to be striving for liberation like the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq or the Lebanese state infrastructure and political parties, or even many key groups involved in the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). Despite what many western leftists choose to believe, nationalism and anti-colonialism by themselves do not constitute liberatory politics, and in fact, as we can see from many postcolonial nations and anti-western dictatorships, they can (along with continued external hostility) contribute to yet more authoritarian circumstances.

As for the liberal democratic systems in the region often borne out of successful revolts and revolutions, these too are plagued by internal issues constricting their ability to be truly democratic. Whilst the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq represents a historically oppressed minority and have fought for the democracy that they currently enjoy in the region, the creation of the new state has led to (as in European liberal democracies) violent local hegemonies (racial, class-based, and religious) particularly a violent and, in some cases, near apartheid-like suppression of minority ethno-religious groups in the region such as Yezidi and Assyrian people. The internal contradictions which constrain even successfully established liberal democracies are threefold: capitalism, internal state violence, and the unrepresentative nature of representative democracy. The reason that the KRG, or Israel, or Turkey are fertile ground for hierarchies and oppressive behaviours is that the structure of these societies (as well as the structure of modern western nations) is conducive to inequalities of power. The presence of a capitalist economy, violent and undemocratic state institutions, and a representative system which acts as a public relations wing to the former two elite entities all culminates in a system in which certain groups in society (men, capitalists, ethnic majorities, political elites) have the ability to dominate other groups.

The case for a libertarian framework.

What framework then, can democratic movements follow to maximise their chances of liberation whilst avoiding the three fatal pitfalls of colonialism, ethno-nationalism, and liberal democracy? At the risk of sounding prescriptive, I would like to suggest that there are a variety of contemporary successful or semi-successful movements that have followed various forms of libertarian socialist or anarchist frameworks in their struggles towards democracy and greater freedoms. Whilst I do not want to paint these movements as flawless utopias by any means, the ways in which they tend to differ from the more liberal, nationalist, and patriarchal movements both in theory and in practice are worth taking note of. Working on the basis of direct democracy, self-organisation and self-government, feminism, and anti-capitalism, a number of movements across the world such as the libertarian municipalism of Northern Syria, the Zapatista National Army of Liberation, the Barbacha uprising in the Kablyia region occupied by Algeria, as well as the growing European squatters movement have all to one extent or another managed to put into practice a form of democracy which goes beyond representative systems giving agency to individuals and traditionally silenced communities. The Rojava revolution, for example, has put women’s liberation at the heart of their practices, creating women-only community councils amongst other initiatives in the attempt to mitigate the effects of patriarchy.

All this is not to say that these movements provide a utopian blueprint for any context, but they (in their limited forms) demonstrate that another future is possible, even when the odds seem impossible. The fact that there appear to be strong libertarian and feminist currents in the struggles in Lebanon, Iraq, Chile, and Hong Kong should give us hope for the future.


Gustafson, Kristian C. (2002). “CIA Machinations in Chile in 1970”
Robarge, David. “CIA’s Covert Operations in the Congo, 1960–1968: Insights from Newly Declassified Documents” (PDF). CIA
Weiner, Tim (2007). Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA. New York: Anchor Books. p. 361. ISBN 978-0-307-38900-8.


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