Is pan-Arabism a lost cause?

An ideal that was meant to serve the welfare of the Arab people transformed into a dictatorial monster that suffocated their aspirations and hampered their progress.
Sunday 24/03/2019
Tourist photos on display next to a poster of late Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser (C) in a shop at a tourist bazaar in Luxor. (AFP)
Distant past. Tourist photos on display next to a poster of late Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser (C) in a shop at a tourist bazaar in Luxor. (AFP)

In January 2011, as protests raged in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen in what came to be known as the “Arab spring,” Syrian President Bashar Assad gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal in which he dismissed the chance of the unrest spreading to his country.

His regime, he said, stood as the ideal of pan-Arabism, a long-held presumption that he — and leaders of many other Arab regimes — felt would protect them from the opposition.

Assad was proven wrong less than two months later when mass protests against his rule broke out around the country. On top of challenging Assad’s grip on power, the protests showed just how much the force of pan-Arabism had lost over the years.

Pan-Arabism lost much of its appeal in the 1960s when its champion, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, failed to deliver on his threats against Israel. Nasser’s regime proved to be a failure shortly thereafter when he died, leaving the country in economic and political ruin

Nasser’s regime emphasised the principle that Arab peoples were all of one nation and that a vast Western conspiracy had kept them fragmented, robbing them of their resources and generally humiliating them. Israel was the centre of this conspiracy and fighting it was the duty of all Arabs, Nasser said.

He was certainly not the only one who sought legitimacy for his regime on the back of pan-Arabism.

The Ba’ath Party in Syria and Iraq competed with him and with each other in championing the pan-Arab cause. While Nasser had the charisma to garner popular support, the Ba’ath Party had little more than fiery slogans. An example of its dysfunction was its motto — “one Arab nation with an eternal message.” No one ever described what that message was.

Another question left unanswered was the presumed language bond. Why should Arabic-speaking people regard themselves as one nation any more than English-speaking or Spanish-speaking people?

While some point to a common religious tradition, even that connection does not hold. Most Arabs are Muslim but there is a variety of other faiths represented.

Ba’ath Party founder Michel Aflaq, for example, was a Christian. During Israeli spy Eli Cohen’s 1963 trial, the court described him as “an Arab of the Jewish faith.” Cohen was born and lived most of his life in Egypt before going to Israel.

Pan-Arabism emerged in 1909 after the Ottoman Empire called for the “Turkification” of society at the expense of other ethnicities, including Arabs. A later popular conspiracy theory pointed to a connection between this new regime and the Zionist movement.

Almost half a century later, with the end of the British and French mandates over Arab territories previously belonging to the Ottoman Empire, aspirant politicians and military officers competed for power. Lacking viable agendas, many employed Arabism as a tool to attract popular support.

This gave radical regimes a semblance of moral superiority, both domestically and regionally, giving rise to the tyrannical state.

No dissent was tolerated. Domestic and foreign opposition (including from other Arab countries) was derided as treasonous to the cause and dealt with in brutal fashion.

An ideal that was meant to serve the welfare of the Arab people transformed into a dictatorial monster that suffocated their aspirations and hampered their progress.

A state of confusion and fear overwhelmed the Arab world. Arabs fought other Arabs in military coups, proxy wars and civil conflicts. Ineffective spending coupled with widespread corruption wasted much of the resources of the radical countries, while ordinary citizens, deprived of their basic political rights, dreaded their despotic governments.

It was against this backdrop that Assad gave his interview to the American publication. He depended, unwisely, on the ideal of pan-Arabism to protect his regime.

11