Arabism after the Arab Spring

A short piece i recently wrote on my book topic, Arabism today, for The Ruritanian.

Until recently, Arabism was largely considered a spent force. The defeat of Gamal Abdul Nasser’s Egypt by Israel in the 1967 War, and his subsequent death in 1970, shattered the Nasserite dream of a single unified Arab state. Though leaders who claimed to be Nasser’s heirs continued to employ Arab nationalist rhetoric, such as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein or Syria’s Hafez al-Assad, historians broadly concur that after 1967 state nationalism (Wataniya) outstripped Arab nationalism (Qawmiya) as the driving force behind Arab leaders’ foreign policy. This was seen by the state-first goals of Egypt and Syria in the 1973 war with Israel and the decision by Anwar Sadat, Nasser’s successor as president of Egypt, to sign the Camp David peace treaty in 1979. By the late 1970s, the state system had been consolidated by petro-dollars and a new generation of state-focused Arab leaders, and if anything it was Islamism, inspired by the Iranian Revolution, rather than Arabism, that challenged this status quo. This prompted Fouad Ajami, among others, to declare Nasserite Pan-Arabism ‘dead’.

However, the satellite era of the late 1990s and 2000s caused some scholars to reconsider. While Arab leaders had continued to emphasise the state over the Arab nation with their foreign policy, notably in the 1991 Gulf War that saw several Arab states join the US to take on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, at a popular level satellite television fueled a new form of popular Arabism. Varyingly called ‘New Arabism’, ‘the Arab Public Sphere’ or ‘McArabism’ by Shibley Telhami, Marc Lynch and Khalil Rinnawi respectively, these scholars claimed that transnational Arab media, led by the Qatari satellite news channel, Al-Jazeera, has linked living rooms in a politicized common cultural sphere in a way that Nasser and other politicians never could. Consequently, a ‘new Arab street’ has emerged that challenges the foreign policies of their pro-West state-centered governments, demanding action on areas of common outrage such as Israel-Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon. While few have gone so far as to call this new Arabism ‘nationalism’, as it exists alongside, not in opposition to, increasingly entrenched state identities, it does represent an imagined community in the Andersonian sense. Transnational media encourages viewers to consider themselves as members of a wider, supra-national ‘Arab community’.

Can the Arab Spring be interpreted as the result of this New Arabism? When Mohammad Bouazizi, a young Tunisian street vendor, set himself alight on 17th December 2010 in frustration at being humiliated by a government official, few expected it to prompt a wave of unrest across the Arab world that would eventually topple the Tunisian and Egyptian governments and threaten many more. Even those who had led scholarship on New Arabism, such as Lynch, admitted to being skeptical that events in Tunisia would spread across the region. However, the contagious nature of protests, from one Arab state to the next, did suggest the importance of a supra-national Arab identity. Why was it that a revolution in Tunisia was able to inspire anti-government unrest in Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, Syria, Morocco and Jordan, yet similar protests in Iran in 2009, Georgia in 2004 and Ukraine in 2005 had no such effect? The sense of commonality and identification that protestors in other Arab states felt with the Tunisians, stronger than in other non-Arab states, is one possible answer. Another manifestation of Arab identity, intra-Arab competition, also helped spread the protests. Egyptians in Tahrir Square claimed to be both inspired by Tunisia, but also shamed into action. They believed that Egypt, as Umm Dunya (Mother of the [Arab] World) should take the lead in democratising the region, not peripheral Tunisia.

Equally important in the success of the Arab Spring was the role played by new media, part of the collective Arab cultural sphere identified by Lynch. Al-Jazeera played a prominent role, for example, in the Egyptian revolution of January and February 2011. Though the Qatari government ensures that this nominally independent station does not deviate from its own agenda, hence its focus on Egypt but not on unrest in neighbouring ally Bahrain, relaying images of Egyptians gathering in Tahrir Square clearly helped inspire viewers in other Arab states to do likewise. Similarly, the role of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter in the uprisings, in which Arabs from different states swapped methods, stories and tactics to challenge their regimes, further supports the notion that the new Arab public sphere facilitated the Arab Spring.

Even in states that have not witnessed widespread protests, such is the fear that unrest will spread, the governments have acted preemptively to deter calls for regime change. In Algeria and Saudi Arabia, billions of petro-dollars have been spent on welfare measures to buy off any potential opposition, while in Morocco, Oman and Jordan governments were sacked and superficial moves towards democratic reform were made at the first sign of unrest. These moves essentially show the regimes acknowledging that citizens will not believe a state nationalist argument that they are somehow different to other Arab states undergoing democratic transformation. As time goes on and parts of the Arab world begin to elect their own governments, Arabs in the remaining autocracies who feel a commonality with their cousins elsewhere and the freedom they enjoy, may increasingly demand the same.

Yet there is another side to the Arab Spring and its relationship to New Arabism. While Arab identity has clearly played a role in spreading unrest from Tunisia and Egypt to the wider region, this does not necessarily mean Arabism will continue to strengthen after the Arab Spring. Ironically, the reverse may happen, as new governments turn their attention inwards to satisfy the political and economic demands of the protestors that brought them to power. Though Arab identity proved essential in spreading the unrest, the core problems being protested in each state were essentially national. A few Tunisians and Egyptians complained of Ben Ali and Mubarak’s closeness to the West, but most demands were domestic: jobs, freedom and dignity. The proliferation of national flags at most public protests underlines the clearly national agenda desired. Moreover, there is the chance of a backlash against previously popular ‘Arab’ foreign policy issues such as the Palestine conflict, as many previous regimes used this as a justification for the continued repression at home.

New Arabism, as outlined by Telhami and Lynch and others, found space for both qawmiya and wataniya: viewers of Al-Jazeera were allowed to be both proud Arabs and state nationalists. The unionist pan-Arab nationalist goals of Nasser have long been abandoned, they claim, but that does not mean the persistence of a wider supra-national Arab identity that has been amplified by satellite television, should be overlooked. The Arab Spring is in many ways the product of this dual identity. State nationalist grievances in Tunisia and Egypt may have started the fire, but Arab identity helped it spread. We are, however, only at the very beginning of this process and it may yet turn more or less Arabist. For all the importance of Arabism in spreading revolution across the region, it is actually likely that state nationalism will strengthen as new regimes turn their attention inwards to the plethora of post-revolutionary problems they will face.