Modern History and Politics: Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century: From Triumph to Despair

By Barnett, Michael | The Middle East Journal, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Modern History and Politics: Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century: From Triumph to Despair


Barnett, Michael, The Middle East Journal


MODERN HISTORY AND POLITICS

Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century: From Triumph to Despair, by Adeed Dawisha. Princeton, NJ and Oxford, UK: Princeton University Press, 2003. vi + 313 pages. Index to p. 340. $29.95.

Adeed Dawisha's highly readable, clear-eyed, and sober historical account of Arab nationalism is an important contribution to our understanding of its rapid rise to fame and equally rapid fall from grace. Combining the seasoned insights of a veteran Middle East scholar, recent scholarship, and the memoirs of Arab leaders and intellectuals, Dawisha has produced a major addition to the study of Arab nationalism and the politics of the region.

The book is organized in the following way. Chapter One surveys the debate over what is Arab nationalism and argues that it is best understood as "the ultimate goal of Arab political unity and the desire for a unitary Arab state" (p. 8). Chapters Two through Five recount the increasingly perceptible pulse of Arab nationalism from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century. Dawisha argues that Arab nationalism became the dominant ideology of the Middle East against the odds, given the history of the region - because of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the emergence of salient events such as the conflict over Palestine and the struggle for independence, and the instrumental use of Arab nationalism by political elites for personal political gain. Chapters Six through Nine examine expertly the entwined fortunes of Arab nationalism and President Jamal 'Abd al-Nasir of Egypt. Nasir and Arab nationalism rode each other to new heights after 1952, and then suffered together when the unity agreements ended in failure, and the 1967 war with Israel ended in a red-letter defeat. Chapter Ten chronicles that slow death of Arab nationalism and the unapologetic rise of wataniya (state interests).

In the conclusion, Dawisha argues that Arab nationalism delivered not unity and dignity but rather fragmentation and despair. The combination of an ideology that was disconnected from either democratic institutions or economic and political interests, the existence of competing and more deeply felt local identities, and superpower hostility proved to be too much to overcome. Yet, according to Dawisha, few should struggle to say kinds words at its eulogy. He concludes that "ideas, whether dead or still alive, should be judged not by their prevailing status or health, but by what they accomplished in their days of vibrancy" (p. 312), and proceeds to proclaim that Arab nationalism will be remembered not for having delivered a modicum of dignity to the Arab world but rather disappointment and heartbreak.

This is a tough but fair-minded study of Arab nationalism, and my quibbles revolve around several claims advanced in the opening and closing chapters that are not fully supported by the historical narrative. …

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