Sep 5, 2012
Arab Nationalism's last heartbeat
By Riccardo Dugulin
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.
It is often a challenging exercise to analyze the course of history as it is unfolding under our own eyes. Events may appear to have a stronger impact than they do and lead to out-of-focus conclusions. A lesson that has to be learnt when writing about the Middle East is that tendencies and overall generalizations may be easy to draw but more often than not do put the author in a theoretical framework that over time detaches him/her from the reality on the ground.
In Le Nationalisme Arabe (1993), Olivier Carre argued that Arab nationalism died in the Kuwaiti desert in 1991. Saddam Hussein's defeat was to Carre's eyes the end of an era where militarized dictatorships ruled the Arab world through an ensemble of European-style nationalism and the exaltation of a common Arab culture. Prior to him, authors and scholars saw in the 1967 Arab defeat or the 1981 Camp David agreements other historical turning points which should have marked the end of Arab nationalism.
In this approach, it is interesting to consider the Hegelian theory, used by Francis Fukuyama, which sees history as an unstoppable flow leading to a precise end. If its "end" may remain only an analytical construct, the events on its way, those that are remarked by commentators, analysts and historians are a hint enabling societies to understand the profound trends they are undergoing.
The Arab Awakening that started in Tunisia in 2010 and is now culminating in the streets of Damascus is likely to provide the region with an enormous amount of uncertainties regarding its future; it does however indicate a clear reality: the modern Arab nationalism which saw the light in the 1950s is no longer a cultural and political part of the Middle Eastern power equation. Events in 1967, 1981 and 1991 may have discredited the idea and its proponents, but the events of 2011-2012 have shown the people's rejection of a paradigm based on two key propositions (uniting the Arabs and fighting Israel) which have failed over the last decades.
Arab nationalism failed over time due to the inability of this ideology to fulfill the implicit social contract which it proposed to populations. The limitation of personal freedoms and individual presence in the public sphere, may it be in Egypt, Syria or Iraq, had been presented as necessary "pain" to enable economic development and preserve peace and stability. Along with that, the cultural aspect of a united and strong Arab world, secular and socialist based on the values of decolonized States was at the paramount of the ideology.
This last point has since its inception been the fallacy of the Arab nationalist agenda. Regimes such as the Egyptian, Syrian or Iraqi one, were in fact not calling for union but for the submission of others to their regional plans. This is why the stiff opposition led by Saudi Arabia to Arab nationalism, through a proxy war in Yemen and religious proselytism, have been a stepping stone to a wider discretization of these regimes.
In addition to outside challenges, corruption, crony capitalism, corporatism and bad governance have highly limited the economic opportunities of countries filled with a young and educated work force. More than marches toward freedom and liberty, the 2011 Awakening started as an socio-economically driven earthquake, where hundreds of thousands of frustrated citizens showed their unwillingness to accept any further power abuse. From Tunis to Dara'a, revolts started as small scale rejection of single exploitations.
The slow extinction of the ideology has also been caused by its essential inability to fulfill any of its goals regarding the much branded fight against Israel. In fact, none of the conventional wars waged by Arab States against Israel has been able to achieve any of its strategic objectives (the 1973 war may represent a debatable exception for Anwar Saddat). Not only didn't Arab nationalism lead to any victory against the Jewish State, it also faced growing challenges by competing regional players. Since the 1980s, the effective "champion" of the Arab fight against Israel have been embodied by non-state actors acting as militias and staging an asymmetric threat to Israel. Support by foreign powers (Iran) has been instrumental in enabling these groups to maintain their fighting posture. Hamas and especially Hezbollah have in less than 20 years created a more serious problem to Israel's security and challenged its defensive posture in a way no Arab conventional regime ever did.
As time is the only factor which seems to remain undefined concerning the fall of Bashar al-Assad's regime, what may appear as the last heartbeats of Arab nationalism are underway. The ongoing civil war in Syria, the semi-stable status quo in Iraq and the period of uncertainties which Egypt is facing are nothing like what Gamal Abdel Nasser, Saddam Hussein or Hafez al-Assad envisioned for their countries.
In the meantime, if the slow but certain demise of Arab nationalism as an ideology is underway, no clear alternative appears to be available. Political Islam branded by the Muslim Brothers in Egypt or Shi'ite political parties in Iraq may try to assert themselves as viable alternatives but are not for the moment creating a concrete and stable new ideology which could in the long term galvanize all parts of the local societies. The historical adversaries of Arab nationalism, namely oil-rich religious conservative Gulf Monarchies have never seen the exportation of their social model as a foreign policy interest. In fact, Qatar interventionist role in international relations and Saudi Arabia's growing diplomatic weight are in no ways political attempts to install a new regional ideology.
As for the Russia, Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States after 1991, the fall of an ideology creates an immense power vacuum and the period of instability that follows is proportionally linked to the rise of new interests group or movements that have been repressed by the ancient regime. Without having the pretension to venture into any long term forecast, it may be the case that with the fall of Bashar al-Assad's Syria unprecedented political changes will take place in the near East as it will mark the effective end of an ideology that structured part of the Arab discourse over the five decades.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Riccardo Dugulin holds a Master degree from the Paris School of International Affairs (Sciences Po) and is specialized in International Security. He is currently working in Paris for a Medical and Security Assistance company. He has worked for a number of leading think tanks in Washington DC, Dubai and Beirut. Personal website: www.riccardodugulin.com
(Copyright 2012 Riccardo Duguli )
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