Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Pan-Arab nationalism, past and present

Pan-Arab nationalism - a political movement that calls on Arabs (not Muslims) to unite, due to a common history, for a better future - was most popular during the 1960s. Its chief proponent was the charismatic Gamal Abdel Nasser, who ruled Egypt during the late 1950s and 1960s. Nasser rose to power through the military (it was a military coup in 1952 that freed Egypt from England's colonial rule) but he became an Arab icon in 1956 when he made the bold and unexpected decision to nationalize the Suez Canal. The decision to unilaterally take the canal from British control was not as unexpected as its consequences; British, French and Israeli troops invaded Egypt to retake the damn in late October, despite a United Nations resolution, only a few months old, that recognized Egypt's national claim. In an episode that is not mentioned often in today's Middle East, the US quickly intervened on the side of Egypt, demanding that French, British and Israeli forces leave. The episode was widely believed to have destroyed the myth that Britain remained a Great Power.

But in the Middle East, the Suez Canal crisis was seen as a huge victory for Nasser and his new notion of Pan-Arab nationalism. Arabs had stood up for themselves...and won. Suddenly, Nasser was like a God. The idea of Arab unity was so powerful that in 1958 (just two years after Suez), Syria invited Egypt to unite the two nations as a first step to an all-Arab union. The experiment, known as the United Arab Republic, lasted just over two years. In 1961, Syria seceded, due to Egypt's heavy handed policies.

But what truly destroyed the notion of pan-Arab nationalism was the disgrace of 1967. In a war that lasted only six days, Israel destroyed the militaries of Egypt, Jordan and Syria. Nasser had touted his Arab socialism as the path to development and Israel's destruction. '67 proved that neither had happened. Nasser remained in power until his death in 1970, but just barely; revolutions in Syria and Iraq just after the war revealed the earthquake in Middle Eastern politics wrought by the 67 war.

Iran's Islamic revolution of 1979 suddenly brought a new philosophy to the foreground: pan-Islamism. Like in 1956, a new ideology had risen, fought the West, and, apparently, won. Islamic movements sprung up throughout the Middle East, including in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood successfully assassinated Egypt's President Anwar Sadat in 1982. Hezbollah grew in the south of Lebanon, and killed more than 200 US Marines in a suicide van attack during the same year. During the decade, the Syrian government also faced a challenge of the Muslim Brotherhood, and crushed it brutally in the city of Hama, killing as many as 10,000, including civilians.

But Islamic insurgencies have failed to topple any Arab government since Iran's revolution. Instead, governments like Egypt's have been forced to play a delicate balancing game between their Arab identity and the potential threat of a Muslim takeover. During the 1990s, Saddam Hussein in Iraq adopted a far more pious stance, funding mosque construction and religious instruction throughout his country. Similar policies were adopted more recently in Syria.

What's interesting is to recognize that these ideas - pan-Arabism, pan-Islamism, secularism, democratization - all still exist, and can still be seen in Egypt. The country is still an Arab republic, but Islamic values are apparent everywhere. The Islamic brotherhood is still officially outlawed here, but its existence is tolerated and its existence and importance are obvious. Throughout the Agousa neighborhood, where I live, you can find pictures with the slogan "alislam, hua alhel," "Islam is the answer." It is the slogan of the Muslim brotherhood, and while the phrase can't be found on major highways or billboards, it is everywhere on Cairo's backstreets. Initially the Iraq War caused the government here (led by President Hosni Mubarak, who rose to power after Sadat's assassination in 1982) to hint that it was ready for more democratic reform, but such promises have thus far gone unfulfilled.

To see the importance of these ideas, you can look directly at Egypt's constitution. It begins:

1) The Egyptian Arab Republic is a country whose political system is democratic socialism, built on an alliance with the working class.

And the Egyptian people are a part of the Arab nation, working towards the realization of complete unity.

2) Islam is the religion of the country, and the Arabic language is its official language, and the principal of Islamic law is the primary source of legislation.

3) The sovereignty of the people is the source of power and the people participate in their own sovereignty through the constitution.

Compare that to our constitution. Imagine if it included "America is an Anglo-Saxon nation, and it works to unite all the Anglo-Saxon nations." Just a thought.


At 7:40 AM, Blogger Jacob said...

Are we allowed to post negative comments about Egypt or positive comments about the Iraq war or America or Israel? I don't want to get you in trouble.

At 4:15 PM, Blogger WendyH123 said...

Your blogsite is very interesting. I found your brief history re Egypt informative. I am concerned that you wrote this at
5AM!! Are you staying up till dawn to avoid the cockroaches? Can I write personal things, such as "Your Aunt is very proud of you", (and of myself...stretching my technology skills to answer to your blog!)?


Post a Comment

<< Home