The Battle for Syria – available for pre-order!

My new book, The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East is out in September, but you can pre-order now on Amazon or via the publishers, Yale University Press.

Book cover

Most accounts of Syria’s brutal, long-lasting civil war focus on a domestic contest that began in 2011 and only later drew foreign nations into the escalating violence. Christopher Phillips argues instead that the international dimension was never secondary but that Syria’s war was, from the very start, profoundly influenced by regional factors, particularly the vacuum created by a perceived decline of U.S. power in the Middle East. This precipitated a new regional order in which six external protagonists-the United States, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar-have violently competed for influence, with Syria a key battleground.

Drawing on a plethora of original interviews, Phillips constructs a new narrative of Syria’s war. Without absolving the brutal Bashar al-Assad regime, the author untangles the key external factors which explain the acceleration and endurance of the conflict, including the West’s strategy against ISIS. He concludes with some insights on Syria and the region’s future.

‘Syria’s horrific civil war has been profoundly shaped by the competitive interventions and proxy wars by external powers. The Battle for Syria offers a brilliant, essential account of the international dimension of Syria’s descent from uprising into insurgency and brutal state violence. This sober and judicious book will become a standard text for those seeking to understand Syria’s tragedy.’ – Marc Lynch, author of The New Arab Wars: Anarchy and Uprising in the Middle East

Everyday Arab Identity – First Review

In International Affairs, Vol 89 Issue 1, pp220-221, by Alan George, University of Oxford, author of Syria: Neither Bread nor Freedom and Jordan: Living in the Crossfire

Everyday Arab identity: the daily reproduction of the Arab world. By Christopher Phillips. London and New York: Routledge. 2013. 224pp. £85.00. isbn 978 0 41568 488 0. Available as e-book.

Identity—and, too often, fantasies about identity—lie close to the heart of almost all conflicts, not least in the Middle East. Whether at the level of family, tribe, ethnic or religious group, state or subregion, it is almost always at least partly about ‘us’ and ‘them’. Periodically, dictators—actual and putative—often with distinctly maniacal tendencies, have sought to hijack identity-related sentiment to suit their ends. With Arabism, there were Nasser, Assad (senior and junior), Saddam and Gaddafi; with Islam there were Khomeini and Bin Laden.

Especially in the dying years of Ottoman rule and during the colonial period, the Arab peoples of the Middle East developed a range of Arab identities. By the time of independence these had evolved into organized political movements centred on Arabist sentiment and demanding the unification of the region’s disparate states. Syria’s Ba’ath Party and Egypt’s Nasserism became the lead types of this ‘Old Arabism’, as Christopher Phillips terms it.

Alas, Old Arabism had scant room for Kurds, Berbers and other non-Arabs; and scant room for the multiple varieties of ‘Arab nationalist’ programmes. The autocrats’ solution was straightforward: dissenters within their grasp had to fall into line, on pain of torture and other horrors. However idealistic these nationalist currents might have been at their outset, they became corrupted by the exigencies of power. Many of these difficulties arose from a fundamental problem: the notion of a homogenous Arab ‘nation’ extending from Morocco to Iraq was a myth—not a complete myth, perhaps, but enough of one to divorce nationalist programmes from reality. The humiliating Arab defeat in the 1967 war with Israel struck Old Arabism a fatal blow. But then the same urges that had led to this nationalism found a new outlet in religion. Suddenly, and starting with the Iranian revolution, it was the region’s Islamist identity that was going to triumph—never mind that there were Shi’a and Sunni, Druse and Alawi, Ismaili and Yazidi (and that is far from all); never mind, too, the significant Christian communities, especially in the Levant, Iraq and Egypt. To date, Islamist grand designs have succeeded no more than their Old Arabist equivalents.

Phillips’s central contention is that, beyond the fanfare of these pan-regional political movements, a variant of Arab nationalist sentiment that he terms ‘Everyday Arabism’ has persisted and is now dominant. It is a form of Arabism—closely akin to the original nationalist sentiments—that poses no threat to individual ‘nation’ states or their regimes, in the way that the old pan-Arab projects did. It is an identity that is much less contrived and much more attuned to realities. People in Damascus and Cairo see themselves as having characteristics and interests in common; but not to an extent that there is any pressing need to unify their states. It is analogous, as Phillips points out, to the growing sense of a European common identity that transcends states but does not demand their abolition. At the same time, though, Phillips stresses that this Everyday Arabism is flexible—and tolerant—enough to coexist with other identities. He argues correctly that individuals’ sense of themselves is complex, and identities are multi-layered: at one and the same time one might be a Kurd, a Sunni Muslim and a resident of Aleppo; or an Arab, an Alawi and a resident of Lattakia.

Placing his fascinating work firmly in the context of nationalism theory, Phillips probes, via original research in Syria and Jordan, how identities are reinforced: via the discourses and personality cults of the ruling regimes, and via state-controlled television stations. He then examines the impact of transnational satellite television, and goes on to examine, by conducting over 50 interviews, the extent to which ‘everyday’ Jordanians and Syrians have absorbed the multiple and often subtle identity-related messages directed at them. Phillips’s broad conclusion is that ‘it is through the everyday, routine reproduction of identity in Syria and Jordan that a strong supra-national Arab identity has been sustained despite the failure of Nasserite Arab nationalism. At the same time, state identity is gradually strengthening in the same manner and evolving into a nationalism that encompasses, not opposes, this supra-national Arabism’ (p. 7).

This book originated as Phillips’s doctoral thesis at the London School of Economics, and it shows. At times, especially when dealing with the theoretical background, it is heavy-going. But the heaviness stems from the sheer weight of the subject-matter, rather than from a turgid style. In places, this book demands concentration, and it is worth the effort. Indisputably, however, this is a work for specialists rather than for the general reader.

The research was undertaken in 2009, when no one imagined the tumultuous changes just around the corner. The Arab Spring has opened a Pandora’s Box of identity issues: just how much might the identity sentiments of a Libyan militiaman in Misrata overlap with those of a middle-class Egyptian pro-democracy activist, a Syrian Alawi shabih from the mountains behind Lattakia or a jihadist fighter in Aleppo? But Phillips’s key findings hold: not for nothing is it termed the Arab Spring. From Tunisia, it spread like wildfire precisely because of the vitality of Everyday Arabism.

Phillips’s first thesis supervisor was the late Fred Halliday, who died in Barcelona shortly before the work was completed. In his introduction, Phillips hails him as ‘a fantastic teacher whose imprint can be seen throughout this work’; he expresses the hope that Fred ‘would be proud of what follows’. In his last years, I came to know Fred well. I have no doubt that he would indeed have been proud.

Alan George, University of Oxford, UK

Everyday Arab Identity – Available now

I’m delighted to announce that my first book, Everyday Arab Identity: The Daily Reproduction of the Arab World was published last week by Routledge.

Please see HERE to order a copy for yourself or your university library

Whether through government propaganda or popular transnational satellite television channels, Arab citizens encounter a discourse that reinforces a sense of belonging to their own state and a broader Arab world on a daily basis. Looking through the lens of nationalism theory, this book examines how and why Arab identity continues to be reproduced in today’s Middle East, and how that Arab identity interacts with strengthening ties to religion and the state.

Drawing on case studies of two ideologically different Arab regimes, Syria and Jordan, Christopher Phillips explores both the implications this everyday Arab identity will have on western policy towards the Middle East and its real life impact on international relations.

Offering an original perspective on this topical issue, this book will be of interest to academics and practitioners working on the Arab world and political affairs, as well as students of International Relations, Political Science and the Middle East, notably Syria and Jordan, and policymakers in the region

Team Arab: al-Jazeera and the flagging of everyday Arabism during the 2008 Beijing Olympics

A new academic article published in NAtions and NAtionalism (July 2012), By Christopher Phillips

Abstract

The linking of living rooms across state borders by al-Jazeera and other pan-Arab satellite television channels has prompted claims that a ‘new Arabism’ that undermines state nationalism is emerging. Until now, analysts have mostly focused on the ‘hot’ Arabism in the news coverage of politicised events such as the Israel–Palestine conflict. This article offers a new dimension by suggesting that as important to satellite television’s construction and reproduction of Arab identity is the everyday discourse found in less overtly political programmes such as sport. To demonstrate this, it offers an analysis of al-Jazeera’s coverage of the 2008 Beijing Olympics showing how the broadcasts address viewers as a common Arab audience who are simultaneously encouraged to be nationalistic towards their separate nation-states within a given ‘Arab arena’ of states with whom they should primarily compete. This suggests that new Arabism should in fact be considered a ‘supranationalism’, not a revived Arab nationalism as it simultaneously promotes Arab and state identities in tandem. Finally, it aims to expand our understanding of ‘everyday nationalism’ by adapting Michael Billig’s theory and methodology of ‘banal nationalism’ in British newspapers to facilitate the study of sport on supranational Arab identity on satellite television.

What did the Arab League monitors achieve in Syria?

From a piece in CNN, 1st February 2012

The Arab League monitoring mission in Syria has been criticized for failing to stop the al-Assad regime’s deadly crackdown on anti-government protests across the country.

But the head of the Arab League observers in Syria, Sudanese Gen. Mohammed Ahmed al-Dabi, said the mission was designed not to bring an immediate end to violence but to investigate and observe the situation.

The choice of Al-Dabi to lead the mission was controversial in itself: he was part of the Sudanese security establishment that put down the rebellion in the breakaway region of Darfur a decade ago.

Still, one expert says the Arab League mission, which began on December 26, kept the world’s attention focused on Syria at a time when attention had been slipping away.

“The presence of monitors served to galvanize the opposition, and we saw an increased number of demonstrations and anti-government activity during that time period,” Middle East professor Chris Phillips from Queen Mary, University of London told CNN. “But as a consequence we also saw the government step up its visible repression of the protesters.”

While critics say al-Assad has used the Arab League mission as a cover to continue suppression of protests in Syria, Phillips says it was important that the League be seen to be acting on the Syrian crisis before taking the issue up with bigger organizations.

“The Arab League have now exhausted their own internal options and they can be seen to have taken action themselves to try to resolve the crisis,” said Phillips. “It would now seem legitimate for the Arab League to now turn to larger bodies, certainly the U.N., to take action itself.”

Individual states in the Arab League have called for al-Assad to step down, but the organization as a whole has failed to table a similar resolution — and Phillips says that is unlikely to change anytime soon.

“While it seems likely there is going to be some internal negotiation (on a resolution) taking place, it certainly seems very unlikely Lebanon or Iraq — states who are allied effectively to Iran and Syria — will ever join calls for Assad to stand down,” said Phillips.

Will the international community intervene like it did in Libya?

Nothing will happen in terms of military intervention in Syria unless Russia changes its current stance, according to Phillips.

“Russia have said quite clearly that they’re not going to support anything that would risk al-Assad being forced from power,” Phillips told CNN.

“If Russia gave the same kind of green light for Syria that it did for Libya, there’s every possibility that you’d see military intervention, probably coming out of Turkey,” Phillips said. “But Turkey have said they’re highly reluctant to intervene unless they have NATO or U.N. backing.”

Rights group Amnesty International urged Russia Wednesday to rethink its opposition to the latest draft.

“Russia’s threats to abort a binding U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria for the second time are utterly irresponsible. Russia bears a heavy responsibility for allowing the brutal crackdown on legitimate dissent in Syria to continue unchecked,” said Jose Luis Diaz, Amnesty International’s representative to the United Nations.

“Russia must work with other Security Council members to pass a strong and legally binding resolution that will help to end the bloodshed and human rights violations in Syria once and for all.”

Is the opposition united against the al-Assad regime?

The longer the fighting goes on in Syria, activists and Western diplomats say, the more radicalized the revolution is becoming.

Fringe elements of Muslim extremist groups are moving in and sectarian rifts are widening as feelings of despair descend on some flashpoint Syrian cities.

While the besieged city of Homs has traditionally been a place of religious tolerance, “there is a real sense now that that is changing and being manipulated by people on both sides” of the conflict, according to Phillips.

President al-Assad belongs to the Alawite Muslim sect while Sunni Muslims form the majority in Syria.

“The older Sunni merchant class that feel the city is theirs rightfully are now turning on the Alawites, who they see as these recent migrants that don’t actually belong in the city,” said Phillips.

Many Christians have fled to Damascus as communities begin to divide on sectarian lines. Salafists — Islamic radicals, many of whom have brought terror tactics honed in neighboring Iraq — are moving into Homs.

Hard-liners inside and outside the country are already jockeying for post-al-Assad power, while the Alawite community fears the prospect of persecution if the government falls.

“The regime is trying to persuade the Alawites that if they abandon the government, they will be wiped out in the dog-eat-dog aftermath,” Phillips said.

The International Relations of the Middle East after the Arab Spring

A version of this article first appeared in The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Middle East Regional Overview, January 2012.

Regional relations after the Arab Spring: the multi polar Middle East

By Christopher Phillips

In the 1960s an American political scientist, Malcolm Kerr, coined the phrase ‘the Arab Cold War’ to describe the regional rivalry between two blocks of Arab states each backed by superpower patrons. Mr Kerr accepted that this rivalry ended in the 1970s but in the first decade of the 21st century several commentators claimed that, following increased US intervention after 9/11, once again the Middle East was being divided into two blocks and a new Middle Eastern Cold War was taking shape. This bipolarity saw one camp led by the US and its principle allies – Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt – face down a second, self-styled ‘resistance’ camp composed of Iran, Syria, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Palestinian militia/party, Hamas. As in the 1950s and 60s, these two blocks found themselves competing in numerous minor conflicts, political battles and the media, in a bid to dominate the region, with Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine forming the key battlegrounds.

The Arab Spring has changed this. While Israel and Saudi Arabia persist with their old narrative about the threat from Iran, in reality the popular uprisings of 2011 has changed the environment around all three states. New actors that had previously stood back from the region, such as Turkey and Qatar, stand to increase their influence and clout as a consequence of the unrest while formerly influential states such as Egypt and Syria look set for prolonged instability and weakness. Alongside this the global context has changed. The emerging BRICS powers have enhanced their influence and importance, at the very moment that the US and EU appear weaker following internal economic turmoil. The result is that instead of two clear blocks competing, the Middle East after the Arab Spring looks set to be multi-polar, with many different regional and global powers vying for influence in the different political and, possibly, military conflicts that the uprisings have created.

Regional winners: Turkey and Qatar

Turkey is one of the big winners from the Arab Spring. Even before 2011, Turkey’s ‘zero problems with neighbours’ policy had expanded its political, economic and cultural influence in the region considerably. The Arab Spring has boosted this further. Firstly, Turkey has mostly found itself on the right side of events. The Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was the first foreign leader to call for Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to quit and he eventually turned on Muammar Qadhafi in Libya and Bashar al-Assad in Syria in favour of pro-democracy protestors. Secondly, most of the moderate Islamist parties that are now likely to dominate the Arab world, such as Tunisia’s Ennadha and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, claim that the combination of Islam, democracy and economic success modelled by Turkey’s ruling party, the AKP, is their goal. Although some of its business links with these states may be lessened in the short term as they undergo transition and some economic difficulty, in the longer term Turkey can expect to translate its early support for and ideological affinity with the new regimes into strong relations and enhanced influence.

The other big winner is Qatar, which had also expanded its regional influence prior to 2011. With its security guaranteed by hosting the US military and its oil and gas-based economy booming, Qatar has used its wealth and media influence, primarily via its satellite channel, Al-Jazeera, to punch above its weight. The government reacted quicker than most to the Arab Spring. Al-Jazeera, which is theoretically independent but rarely contradicts its parent state’s wishes, led reporting on the unrest in Tunisia and Egypt and helped it spread across the region. Similarly, Qatar led Arab League efforts against Mr Qaddafi and Mr Assad. Some accuse Qatar of hypocrisy for being vocal on Libya and Syria yet quiet on similar unrest in its ally, Bahrain. Others claim Qatar is using the Arab Spring to spread an Islamist agenda, particularly in Libya and Tunisia where it is rumoured to have financed Islamist political parties. Both accusations may be true but Qatar is primarily opportunistic. The region is changing and Qatar has been among the quickest to realise that it is well placed to fashion a future that will enhance its interests.

Regional losers: Egypt, Syria, Israel

The states that have experienced wide-reaching change are likely to be weaker in the short term as they focus internally. Tunisia, Yemen and Libya, have never been particularly influential in the region, however. Egypt’s weakness on the other hand, as the most populous Arab state and formerly a lead player in the US’ bloc of allies, will be felt. Despite the post-Mubarak military government negotiating the release of Gilad Shalit in October, its involvement in Arab-wide concerns has lessened. Even if elections go smoothly and a democratic order takes shape, it is likely to be several years before Egypt returns to its previous role of a leading power in the Arab world. Syria’s ongoing unrest and the realistic possibility that Mr Assad will also soon be toppled have removed another traditionally powerful voice from regional politics. As the main Arab partner of the Iran-led resistance bloc to American hegemony in the region, the Assad regime has long held influence beyond its borders, notably in neighbouring Lebanon and Iraq. After the Arab Spring however, as the regime slowly crumbles, Syria is likely to become an arena for competing regional powers itself.

Israel may not have faced domestic instability due to the Arab Spring but it ends 2011 considerably weaker. It still has the region’s best military and a thriving economy, but it is increasingly isolated. Even before 2011, the government of Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu had fallen out with Turkey and was relying increasingly on US diplomatic cover rather than building regional support. The Arab Spring has exacerbated this isolation. The new government in once-reliable Egypt looks likely to be a more hostile Islamist-led regime. Although Syria is an enemy, it was at least predictable and stable, and a civil war may threaten Israel’s north-eastern border. Even the friendly Hashemite regime in Jordan may have to make concessions to its revived Muslim Brotherhood, which wants to abrogate the Jordan-Israeli peace. On top of this, the threat of popular unrest has finally brought together the rival Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, in a unity agreement, to Mr Netanyahu’s chagrin. Furthermore, the success of the Muslim Brotherhood as a result of the democratic opening in Egypt is likely to boost Hamas in time for Palestinian elections in 2012. Isolated Israel may soon be entirely surrounded by unfriendly Islamist governments, forcing it to either compromise or become ever more insular.

Rivalry re-shaped: Saudi Arabia and Iran

Long-time rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran find themselves simultaneously enhanced and impinged by the Arab Spring. When unrest began, some feared Iran would be the main beneficiary. Ayatollah Khamenei claimed that the Arab Spring was modelled on the 1979 Iranian revolution, while Iran’s enemies claimed it was all part of an Iranian plot. Iran did little to dispel this when shortly after regime change in Egypt it sent military ships through the Suez Canal for the first time in 30 years. Yet whatever gains Iran may have made in Egypt and elsewhere were undermined with the outbreak of violence in Syria, Iran’s main ally. The fall of the Assad regime, or even its survival but in a weaker state, will be a major blow to Iran’s regional influence. Its supply line to Hezbollah in Lebanon will be cut while its other ally, Hamas, has shown sides of abandoning the pro-Iran axis for the emerging Sunni Islamist-led governments. Iran will not necessarily be weaker, having already reconfigured its regional approach by strengthening its influence over Iraq as an alternative Arab ally to Syria. However, the days of a fixed pro-Iran block of Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas seem over. Iran looks likely to continue its cold and proxy wars with its regional rivals in Israel and Saudi Arabia, but the Arab Spring has created a new, fluid regional scene for it to work in.

Saudi Arabia’s position is equally mixed. In a reversal of Iran’s experience, when Mr Mubarak fell and there was serious unrest in neighbouring Bahrain, the Saudis looked unnerved. To prevent what it perceived as Iranian influence from spreading, it took action to consolidate power in the ‘near abroad’. Troops were sent to Bahrain, US$20bn was promised to boost Bahrain and Oman, an active role was played to broker a solution in Yemen, which was also facing unrest, and Gulf Cooperation Council membership was offered to Jordan (and Morocco). However, as events have shifted Saudi Arabia looks more secure and finds itself in an unfamiliar, more assertive role. Although the ageing rulers seem keener to focus on internal succession issues than the region, there remains an obsession with the Iran threat. The weakness of the Assad regime has offered a chance to flip Syria away from Iran, and Saudi has joined Qatar in pressing the Arab League to hasten its fall. The willingness of its long-standing ally, the US, to abandon Hosni Mubarak in February, looks to have worried the leadership, and its willingness to fill the regional vacuum left by Egypt may come from a fear that if it does not act, its interests will suffer. This is unlikely to translate into any serious intervention outside of the near abroad, despite its historical links to Egypt’s Salafists, except for arenas such as Syria and Iraq where the Iran threat is high. Saudi Arabia is therefore likely to play a somewhat more assertive role than in the past, though mostly to defend itself from Iran in the wake of the collapse of the previously strong US-Israel-Egypt-Saudi axis.

The global powers: The West steps back, the BRICS step up?

Facilitating the shift towards a multi-polar Middle East has been the shift in global context, both before and after the Arab Spring. A combination of military overstretch after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, an economic slump and a revived isolationism in domestic politics meant that the US was already weakening in the Middle East. The Arab Spring has exacerbated this, costing the US one key ally, Hosni Mubarak, and unnerving another, Saudi Arabia. Despite this, Mr Obama was able to score a few populist victories in the early days of unrest, eventually calling on Mr Mubarak to step down and approving military action in Libya. However, any enhanced goodwill that this might have bought the US was undermined by its approach to Israel, notably Mr Obama’s staunch opposition to the Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN in September, which stripped away any pretence that the US can be a neutral arbiter in the region. Of course, the US is not retreating from the Middle East and with its military bases in the Gulf – though not Iraq – and key economic and diplomatic relations will continue to be an important power. However, the diplomatic hegemony the US enjoyed in the 1990s and the military hegemony it attempted in the 2000s looks unlikely to be a feature of the post-Arab spring world.

The diminishing power of the US leaves space for other powers to fill, although the neighbouring European Union (EU) is unlikely to be one. Despite being the Middle East’s largest trade partner, the EU has rarely made that clout count, and is even less likely to do so now as it faces economic crisis. Individual states, notably Britain and France, have attempted to play a leading role, particularly in the actions taken in Libya and Syria, but without the military support of NATO and the US, their role will be limited. The emerging BRICS on the other hand, do seem likely to enhance their position. Russia under Vladimir Putin has already revived some of the USSR’s former prominence in the region, expanding its economic, military and diplomatic presence in Syria in particular. The reluctance to approve UN resolutions on Libya and the steadfast refusal to do so on Syria suggests that Russia seeks to guard its expanding strategic regional position. The other BRICS, China, India, Brazil and South Africa seem to have restricted their regional involvement to the economic sphere for now. Unlike the western states, these powers seem willing to offer trade and cooperation without the human rights and democratic strings attached. As western influence continues to wane and the economic clout of these states grows further, an enhanced role for the BRICS in the future would seem more appealing. However, a return to patron-client relationships is unlikely. The multi-polar nature of regional relations described above should dictate the shape of international involvement, rather than the superpowers’ grand strategy as in the Cold War or the short-lived War on Terror.

Conclusion

The Arab Spring has unsettled the Middle East’s international relations, by catalyzing existing trends and creating new challenges. The rise of Turkey and Qatar, the isolation of Israel and the diminishment of the US has increased, while the sudden weakness of Egypt and Syria has been unexpected. The Saudi-Iran rivalry continues, although the relative power of each state and the arena in which they compete has been transformed. The bi-polar regional order of the past decade – a Middle Eastern Cold War between a US-led block and an Iranian-led alliance – is coming to an end, making way for a multi-polar arena in which regional and, to a lesser extent, global powers will compete.

Historical parallels have their limitations but shed some light on what this new era might be like. If the 2000s were the second incarnation of Malcolm Kerr’s ‘Arab Cold War’, then perhaps the post Arab Spring Middle East of the 2010s may come to reflect the ‘Struggle for Syria’, outlined by Patrick Seale. Seale noted that in the Syria of 1945-58, a weak Syrian political system came to be the battleground for the leading regional powers of the day, with different political groupings each backed by separate governments. This trend has already been repeated at least twice before, in the Lebanon of 1975-90 and in Iraq from 2003-today. With Syria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen soon likely to join Lebanon and Iraq on the list of weak states in the Middle East, the potential for them to become new arenas of competition for the stronger states, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran and, to a lesser extent, Israel, is increased.

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.