The Middle East, explained in one (sort of terrifying) chart

August 26, 2013

What could be simpler than the Middle East? A well-known Egyptian blogger who writes under the pseudonym The Big Pharaoh put together this chart laying out the region's rivalries and alliances. He's kindly granted me permission to post it, so that Americans might better understand the region. The joke is that it's not a joke; this is actually pretty accurate.


Spend a few minutes staring at this and you will either have a seizure or actually comprehend the Middle East. Egypt is represented by the "MB" (Muslim Brotherhood) and "Sisi" for military leader Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi. (Courtesy The Big Pharaoh)

There are rivals who share mutual enemies, allies who back opposite sides of the same conflict, conflicting interests and very strange bedfellows. There are two categories of countries: the ones that meddle (the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Israel) and the ones that are meddled with (Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories). Each of the former is pushing for a different outcome in each of the latter, falling in and out of cooperation and competition. And that long-running interference is an important part of why conflict persists.

It's all kind of a scramble. The Big Pharaoh writes: "I keep on updating this chart because every time I look at it I discover that I've missed an arrow. That's how complicated it is."

The chart is a spin-off of the most amazing letter to the editor ever written, which appeared in Thursday's Financial Times. It also explained the entire Middle East, in a few short sentences. Here they are:

Sir, Iran is backing Assad. Gulf states are against Assad!

Assad is against Muslim Brotherhood. Muslim Brotherhood and Obama are against General Sisi.

But Gulf states are pro-Sisi! Which means they are against Muslim Brotherhood!

Iran is pro-Hamas, but Hamas is backing Muslim Brotherhood!

Obama is backing Muslim Brotherhood, yet Hamas is against the U.S.!

Gulf states are pro-U.S. But Turkey is with Gulf states against Assad; yet Turkey is pro-Muslim Brotherhood against General Sisi. And General Sisi is being backed by the Gulf states!

Welcome to the Middle East and have a nice day.

KN Al-Sabah,
London EC4, U.K.

More from WorldViews on understanding the Middle East:

9 questions about Egypt you were too embarrassed to ask

The one video from Syria’s alleged chemical weapons attack that everyone should watch

Would things be different in Egypt if the U.S. had called it a coup?

Update: Some readers have raised a few fair quibbles with the chart. The biggest is that it's not totally accurate to say that Israel supports Syrian rebels; although they certainly don't care for Assad and have previously bombed Syrian weapons and nuclear installations, they're not exactly rooting for a Libya-style rebel takeover, either. And al-Qaeda doesn't just hate the Assad regime, it also hates the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and others. All of which helps to drive home that the Middle East is even more complicated than it appears on this already crazy-complicated chart.

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Max Fisher | August 26, 2013