The modern Arab world was built a hundred years ago on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire by the machinations of Western colonialists. Since then, the Arabs have had to endure a seemingly endless parade of autocratic rulers. To chart a better course, over the years, Arab opposition movements have at different times championed various visions for the region’s future. These include anti-imperialism, pan-Arabism, nationalist movements, socialism, various forms of Islamism and even capitalism. But one by one, each in turn, seems only to have delivered bitter or at best ambiguous experiences.

The Arab Spring in 2011 was the latest disappointment in a longstanding Arab quest for freedom. Democracy was set back years by the failings of the Muslim Brotherhood and the 2013 military coup in Egypt. The rise and fall of the Islamic State, which took Sunni Islamism to its most extreme and fanatical edge, damaged the wider appeal of political Islam in the region for years to come. These disasters have led to widespread disillusionment with both democracy and political Islam, leaving an ideological vacuum at the heart of the Arab revolution.

However, as Mao Zedong said, a revolution is not a dinner party and so these setbacks should be regarded not so much as a failure but as a false start. Given the continued deterioration in the region’s socioeconomic and political fabric and the grim economic outlook it seems inevitable that sooner or later the Arab Spring is going to return, raising the question when it does, what kind of narrative or ideology will be driving it?

Pan-Arabism Again

Pan-Arabism could be the answer. This ideology envisages different Arab states as one political entity and has been around for a while.  So, the new version of pan-Arabism will be different to that of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s, which led to the 1967 Six-Day War. In this war, Arab states joined hands to take on Israel but came up woefully short. The new 21st Century model will be an updated one relevant for a globalized, digitalized world.

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The Islamic State has already shown how this can be done. It used new leadership techniques, narratives and technology to reinvent jihad. Like the Islamic State, pan-Arabism also seeks to transform society and establish a new transnational Arab identity. Both offer a romantic notion of the future that elicits an emotional rather than a rational response from the people. The Islamic State envisions a world based on a perverse interpretation of Islam that is brutally spartan and exclusionary. Pan-Arabism has the potential to offer a bottom-up, big tent ideology, which could easily absorb other already existing groups.

The Islamic State used the malaise in Arab and Western societies to boost its appeal and used savage violence as theater to achieve its grisly goals. In contrast, pan-Arabism holds out the promise of positive change and economic benefits. Its appeal lies primarily in the notion of a pan-Arab identity and Arab unity which Arab intellectuals and elites have always found attractive. At its core is the belief in an Arab “super culture” extending across the region from North Africa to the Gulf, albeit with many variances under that umbrella.

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One Nation That Cares About Palestine

Pan-Arabism promises to put Palestine at the top of the agenda again. Public opinion surveys have consistently shown that Palestine remains an important issue among ordinary people in the Arab world, even in countries which signed the Abraham Accords with Israel. 

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The 2019-2020 Arab Opinion Index, a public opinion survey across the Arab world conducted by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Doha, Qatar found that 88% of all Arabs polled opposed recognition of Israel. Significantly, 81% of respondents supported the idea that the many and varied Arab peoples constitute a single nation. Only 16% agreed with the statement that “the Arab peoples are distinct nations, tied together by only tenuous bonds.”

Beyond the romantic vision of Arab unity, pan-Arabism is remarkably non-ideological about how society should be organized, leaving the door open for other ideas and inputs. This relative pragmatism gives pan-Arabism a protean quality that enables it to be many things to many people. Crucially, it makes pan-Arabism an ideology most opposition groups can rally around, fromintelligentsia and artists to jihadis and the Muslim Brotherhood. This gives the ideology its political potency.

In the 1960s, Arab leaders publicly espoused pan-Arabism because they thought it would help them retain power. In reality, they only paid lip-service to pan-Arabism because adopting it would have put their own positions at risk. Today, Arab leaders still pay pan-Arabism lip service but, at the same time, they invest heavily to counter its appeal.  Leaders use their own narratives as well as  top-down, state-sponsored, hard-edged nationalism to consolidate power as seen recently at events like Saudi Foundation Day, UAE Commemoration Day and Sisi’s pharaonic shenanigans.

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During the Arab Spring, people protesting did not demand the boundaries that divided the Arab states to dissolve. In retrospect, it now appears to have been a mistake. Since then, it has become clear that the Arab dictators and the Israeli Occupation of Palestine are interlinked. It is almost impossible to tackle any of them individually without tackling them all simultaneously and collectively. For example, democracy in Egypt was rolled back by Israel and the Gulf countries, and Israeli occupation of Palestine continues with Egyptian support. Meanwhile, Gulf autocrats depend on Egypt’s repression of democracy and political Islam to maintain their own domestic power base, and the Egyptian military dictatorship is fueled by Gulf petrodollars. This is the Gordian knot that defeated the Arab Spring revolutions.  Pan-Arabism has the potential to cut this knot, which the Islamic State failed to do.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.