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.

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2 thoughts on “Arabism after the Arab Spring

  1. Professor Phillips’s July 31 commentary is the kind of analysis that generally has gone missing in the last eight months. His observations are clear and his arguments well made. In Dr. Phillips’s presentation, there is an omission–Western influence and interference.

    In the competing political movements in the aftermath of World War I, there was nascent Arab nationalistic elements. From Sharif Hussein’s “Desert Revolt” to testimony presented to the King-Crane Commission, general Arab unity could have been nurtured by the Allied Powers–except it was not in their interest to do so.

    The Sykes-Picot Agreement bound Britain and France in allocating bits and pieces of the Ottoman Empire to themselves and their confederates. The Palestine campaign, the issuing of the Balfour Declaration and the Russian Revolution amended these plans. But at San Remo, the delineation of lines created for imperial purposes became those of the successor states that emerged later.

    The rivalry between London and Paris never disappeared completely. The establishment of the Palestinian-Syrian border, turmoil in post World War II Lebanon and Syria ending with British pressure on France to relinquish its colonial intentions, and the Hashemite desire to absorb Syria and French backing of Syrian opponents of such are some examples of this “duel.”

    Western interest in the Middle East rested with its oil wealth. By the First World War, it was quite apparent that oil and its possession would be THE determining factor in any nation’s economic, military or political power. The advent of the Cold War heighten the issue of oil. NATO and the Baghdad Pact were Western efforts to contain Soviet expansion. Strong ties were established with kings of Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt.

    The fall of some of these monarchs became major concerns for US and Western nations. Farouk’s replacement eventually was Nasser. His policies of non-alliance and support for Arab revolts against their imperial masters angered the West. Nasser’s presence with India and North Vietnam was viewed negatively by Washington. France blamed Cairo for the Algerian rebellion. Britain resented the end of its colonial power when it was forced to evacuate all of its troops from Egyptian soil.

    Disquiet was expressed when a young King Hussein dismissed the British commander of the Jordanian army. Lebanon erupted with violence as factions fought over just how much the country was “Arab.” President Eisenhower ordered marines to land in Lebanon, and to support the Maronite Christian government.

    Nasser’s diplomatic success from the 1956 Suez War came to a head with the creation of the United Arab Republic. Syria’s entrance, which also helped stir things up in Lebanon in 1958, gave the facade that Nasser’s vision was the future. Saudi Arabia with the backing of the US and Britain began a counter force.

    Presently, Western influence and interference remain just as strong. Tunisia may have removed Ben Ali, but its policies have not changed. Egypt without Mubarak does not look that different when he was dictator. It would not be surprising if Egypt’s military has made guarantees to the US that “straight and steady” remains the course. The only two countries that are now being given “the full court Western press” is Libya and Syria. The military intervention in Libya and undisclosed contribution to Syrian dissidents places the West in the midst of the action. Mr. Phillips’s reference to the role of Al-Jazeera only confirms this. Bahrain, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia are exempt from negative coverage by Al-Jazeera et al.

    Nations that are critical to the West’s requirement of oil have been, are now and will be treated differently than those nations that are seen as opposing this position. Nasser’s Egypt, Qaddafi’s Libya, Hafiz Assad’s Syria, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Bashar Assad’s Syria, and the Islamic state of Iran have been or are viewed as obstacles to this dominance. Nasser is dead, and Egypt is a key ally for America. The Assads’s Syria is teetering and expected to fall soon. The Libyan civil war drags on, but Qaddafi’s power is on the wane. As for Iran, there are a number of voices in America’s military, in Congress, and certainly in the mass media that are itching for a war.

    The struggle between state nationalism and Arab nationalism is an important subject. What the next decade will bring the Middle East will be guided by how the citizens of this area perceive themselves and their wider role. However, to believe that the Arabs will arrive at this decision without Western influence and interference is unrealistic.

  2. Yes, the article and the subsequent comment are sort of embodiment of the reality, though I would add that one very essential element is still missing; the Islamic Awakening.
    Although the revolutions were inspired by non-religious events, it is important to consider the changes in the Muslims view of their situation. During the past few years (specifically late 1990’s until now) the media has played a very important role in restoring the real Islamic image and identity for the Arab World, and now, Nationalism and Arabism has actually started to be replaced by Islamism.
    Of course, looking from the outside on the events doesn’t reveal much about this. However, when working on the ground, one will see the influence of this creed, mostly notable in highly oppressive regimes such as Lybia and Syria. In Syria, for instance, in so many demonstrations people chanted what means “To Paradise we’re going … martyrs in millions” in reference to the very deeply-rooted Muslim creed “Shahadah (Martyrdom)”. Maintaining this spirit, history shows us, means that it is no longer a matter of Arabism or Nationalism; it is rather Islamism that is now moving people. What this means is that the Jihad creed has also been now started to come to the surface and to be strongly present in the Arabs’ minds, which, in effect, poses an enormous threat to Israel. As David Ben Gorion once said, “We’re not afraid of Socialists, Revolutionists or Democrats; our sole fear is Islam; that huge giant who slept for a long time and now started to awake”.
    It is only a matter of time after the fall of these regimes for the Islamic spirit to have farther influence on all levels.

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