Towards a New Pan-Arabism?

By De Muth, Susan | The Middle East, May 2011 | Go to article overview

Towards a New Pan-Arabism?


De Muth, Susan, The Middle East


'FROM THE OCEAN TO THE SEA, ALL ARABIA SHALL BE FREE!' is the slogan of choice among the young Arabs who gather in their thousands every week to cheer on the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East.

Their voices reflect the feeling that prevails across the whole Arab world, of a people united in revolt and aspiration.

"There's a formula," joked Ayman, a young Palestinian demonstrating in London. "First every country has its Youm Al Ghadab (Day of Rage) and then the slogan 'The people want the regime to fall' is passed, like the Olympic torch, from Tunisia, where it originated, to Egypt to Libya and ... who knows where next?"

The level of mutual support and cooperation across the region is unprecedented. Internet-based fundraising campaigns, volunteer forums and Facebook news pages have been organised with lightning efficiency in response to events on the ground.

When the current uprising began in Libya, protestors in Tunisia and Egypt, weary from their own battles, were the first to organise convoys of food and medical aid to their common neighbours. Some even crossed the border to fight.

Are we witnessing a resurgence of the pan-Arabism which enjoyed its heyday in the 1960s? Certainly images of the movement's champion, General Gamal Abdel Nasser, have been brandished by protestors across the Arab world--protestors who were not even born when Nasser died in 1970.

Many of the national borders across North Africa and the Middle East are not real frontiers reflecting ethnicity or even social cohesion, but artificial boundaries imposed by the Europeans, first in the interests of colonialism and later in the interests of security.

The secret 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement carved up the Mashriq (Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine) into areas of British and French control and influence. Until then the region had few borders, as the rusting remains of the Hejaz railway testify: it ran all the way from Damascus to Medina with a branch line to Haifa.

The Mashriq's Arab rulers had an altogether different project in mind: they intended to form what was essentially a United Arab state across the area and had fought the occupying Ottoman forces for this reward. They were betrayed by the French and British and thus, perhaps, the first pan-Arab dream fell victim to the well-tried European formula 'divide and rule'.

Opposed to both the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and increasing western domination across the Arab world, Egypt's second President, Gamal Abdel Nasser, not only revived pan-Arab nationalism but made it state policy. In 1958 the United Arab Republic was formed by Egypt and Syria but lasted only three years.

Since the '60s--and particularly since the 1967 Six Day War in which the combined Arab armies were so badly humiliated--the region has travelled in the opposite direction, characterised by ever widening divisions between nation-states, divisions based on oil wealth, governance, foreign policy, sectarianism ... divisions which disempowered the Arabs as a people and enabled the US and Europe pursue their own interests--oil and the security of Israel--unhindered. As the independent identity of each Arab state became more entrenched, increasingly autocratic and tyrannical regimes emerged.

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Revolutionary movement

The kind of pan-Arabism today's protestors envisage differs from the Nasserite agenda in several fundamental ways. Nasser was opposed to foreign interference and western domination--the youth on the streets today want freedom from internal repression by regimes that are subservient to the West, Nasser envisaged a socialist and secular state. The protestors have no single political or religious manifesto, they are simply demanding reform and democracy.

The revolutionary movement in the Arab world is led by young people--50% of the region's population is now under 25--many of them middle class and well-educated. …

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