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The son also rises, for Arab misfortune

Tuesday 13 April 2010

In his book “What’s Left,” the British author Nick Cohen quotes a onetime Foreign Office official as saying, “All isms are wasms.” That amusing phrase is an apt summation of Arab nationalism, as regimes throughout the Middle East claiming some sort of fealty to nationalist ideology find themselves at different levels of political breakdown.

The most flagrant sign of the decline of Arab nationalist regimes is their transformation into hereditary republics. Recently, Hosni Mubarak returned from an operation in Germany to face questions about his future. What ailed him remains unknown, but it is no secret that the 81-year-old Egyptian president has long sought to prepare the way for his son, Gamal, to succeed him.

In this, Mubarak is little different than the late Hafez Assad, whose son Bashar followed him as president of Syria. Had Saddam Hussein remained in power in Iraq, he would almost certainly have handed over to one of his psychopathic sons. Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, hopes one day to see his son Ahmad in office. In Libya, Moammar Gadhafi appears to have similar aspirations for one of his boys, perhaps Seif al-Islam or the younger Moatassem. And in Tunisia, President Zein al-Abedin bin Ali is rumored to want his son in law, Sakher al-Materi, to one day lead the country.

Forgotten in these family plots is that, in several countries, nationalist regimes once drew their legitimacy from overthrowing monarchical orders perceived as corrupt or in the pocket of foreign powers. Inherent in the Arab nationalism of the latter years of colonial rule and the first decades of independence was a conviction that the ideology was a byword for reform. Baathism in Syria and Iraq introduced purportedly egalitarian socialist principles, as did Nasserism in Egypt. Habib Bourghuiba gave Tunisian women rights while also introducing improvements in education and more.

Yet that did not prevent all Arab regimes from consolidating autocratic rule, usually in the guise of family-led kleptocracies. Whereas specific nationalist leaders may have enjoyed legitimacy upon taking office, all came later on to rely substantially on violence to maintain order. This was the case in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia after Bin Ali, and the list goes on. Arab nationalists, previously thought of as representing the vanguard of a new Middle East, instead merely reproduced the methods of pre-Independence regimes, usually in far more brutal ways.

At its heart, Arab nationalism is about unity, the establishment of a broader Arab nation reflecting the professed oneness of the Arab people. National borders were always regarded as the unnatural legacy of Western colonialism. However, what has emerged from that ideological conceit is a region more divided than virtually all others in the world. In the same way that Arab republics became the near-private domains of families, minorities, or ruling classes sharing the narrow goals of self-preservation and profit, did their interests (in reality those of its leaders) collide with those of other states.

In other words, Arab regimes have spent decades generating and relying upon antagonism to preserve their authority, because only antagonism allowed them to impose the massive security apparatuses propping up such authority. This always went beyond fighting Israel, which all major Arab countries have studiously avoided doing since 1973. Arab regimes deploy violence most frequently against their own populations and neighboring countries. In this context, the political unity of the Arab nation is not just a mirage, it is also a cruel joke.

Not surprisingly, many ostensibly secular national regimes have compensated for their waning legitimacy by falling back on Islam and religious symbolism. After his regime crushed the Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1980s, Hafez Assad began a massive program of building mosques and religious schools. The aim was to better control believers, certainly, but also to burnish Assad’s Muslim credentials. After his ouster from Kuwait in 1991, Saddam Hussein placed the words “God is Great” on the Iraqi flag. The Egyptian state has supported legislation favoring Islam as the flip side of a policy to marginalize the opposition Muslim Brotherhood.

The notion that secular Arab nationalists are necessarily hostile to Islam is simply untrue. There has always been a complex interplay between Arab nationalists and Islamists, particularly when both opposed colonialism. Even today their objectives may overlap, for example when Syria decides to support Hamas against the Palestinian Authority, or allows Al-Qaeda militants to pass through its territory to destabilize Iraq. For that matter, consider the sheer poverty of Iraqi Baathists, who have spent years collaborating with Al-Qaeda against the emergence of a secure Shiite-dominated system in Baghdad.

Arab nationalism has turned into what it was supposed to displace. The ensuing democratic degradation in Arab countries has been to the advantage of the Middle East’s periphery, where relatively democratic systems, or at least pluralistic ones, prevail. Israel may treat Palestinians abominably, but its leaders are disposable, therefore legitimate domestically. Turkey, although the religious proclivities of its government have hit up against state secularism, is nonetheless representative, making a military coup less likely today.

To describe Iran as a democracy would be naïve. However, until the fraudulent presidential election last year, the country’s elections were more than rubber-stamp processes. The system preserved, and in many respects still does, the pluralistic structures needed to absorb its complex hierarchies of authority. Who knows where Iran is heading, but few believe that a dictatorship of the Revolutionary Guards will do anything but weaken the Islamic Republic down the road.

Arab nationalism’s obituary has been written many times, and no one can deny that what we have here is a corpse. However, the ideology retains its vivacity, as would any nostalgic yearning for an Arab world never attained. Self-delusion has mitigated the hisses of intimidation.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.

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