The biggest challenge facing the Arab world for more than a century has been independence and unity, which is a challenge that regimes have tried to define and address in a variety of ways. If the new rulers do not heed the experiences of their predecessors they are bound to share the same fate.
The challenge of independence emerged strongly in the second half of the 19th Century when the West’s economic hegemony evolved into military intervention and direct colonisation. Unity took a backseat in the first third of the 20th Century because of the emergence of the concept of regional states based on the Sykes-Picot agreement and the declaration of the Turkish state, which was followed by the establishment of individual monarchies and republics within the borders demarcated by colonial powers.
This triggered the rise of national movements based on the demand for independence and unity. It was first reflected in pan-Arabism and spawned revolutions or military interventions that overthrew regimes and expelled colonialism, attempted to build the economy and achieve a degree of independence. It also attempted to promote the concept of pan-Arabism and Arab solidarity.
The regimes made several mistakes regarding democracy and political accountability, which at times resulted in military defeats, but nonetheless preserved a level of popularity because they upheld the principles of independence and unity.
But this support did not continue (for reasons beyond the subject of this article). So starting in the mid-1970s, regimes began to head in another direction.
Pursuing independence retreated after the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, followed by Jordan’s peace agreement with Israel. The leaders of Palestinian resistance groups also changed their positions: Fatah signed the Oslo Accord advocating a two-state solution and surrendered to the role of occupation forces in suppressing the resistance. In some Arab countries, such as Egypt, ties even evolved from a cold peace to warm relations of normalisation encouraged by economic cooperation with Israel, exemplified in the QIZ agreement.
This moved in parallel with economic transformations that began with “open-door” policies followed by reform with the assistance of international institutions and concluded in a generation that is more aggressive in applying modern liberalism. This merged the region almost completely in a lopsided world economic order where the region became a large “market,” making it even less independent and afflicting it with yawning gaps in income as well as rising poverty rates.
Meanwhile, the concept of unity retreated in favour of the nation state which was apparent in slogans by the leaders of each country that promoted country first and redefined national interest as within the border and not the nation. This was accentuated in various projects of “Jordanification,” “Saudisation” and “Emiratification” among others.
These changes eroded to a large extent the popularity and legitimacy of ruling regimes, opening the door for the rise of alternative more popular forces, such as the Islamist movements which – like their predecessors – advocated the demands of independence and unity.
The first demand took the form of calls to apply “Sharia” in its general sense and as a means of cultural and cognitive independence. The demand for unity was linked to the nation’s pertinent issues, most notably the Palestinian cause which was central to Islamist rhetoric over the past decades.
Thus, Islamist movements in many countries in the region emerged as the alternative. The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Egypt was always engaged in the nation’s issues through daily interaction to alleviate suffering via social activism and continued criticism of Westernisation. They were the alternative to a political regime that had isolated itself and was no longer interested in its surroundings, and accepted the dismantling of its value system in favour of the concept of “the market”. It had also adopted an economic path that impoverished most Egyptians.
In Palestine, the resistance group Hamas, which refused to recognise Israel, was an alternative to Fatah which had become corrupt after compromising and accepting the Oslo framework. It was not much different in most other Arab countries.
But many of these Islamist movements changed after reaching power or coming close to doing so. After being elected to office, Hamas began to gradually accept the Oslo framework and almost stopped all resistance activities to guarantee its success in power.
In recent years, it has not launched any resistance operations and mimicked Fatah by suppressing some resistance fighters (regardless if it agrees or disagrees with them). It even killed some of them and more than ever before adopted a position similar to Fatah’s preoccupation with ensuring Israel’s safety rather than liberating Palestine.
The MB in Egypt launched their presidential campaign by constantly reasserting what they said since their arrival on the political scene after the revolution, that they are committed to the peace treaty. Some of their leaders even denied any intention to annul the QIZ agreement which nurtures a warm peace and joint economic interests.
As for independence, MB leaders have frequently said they accept the economic policies of Mubarak’s regime; they have curbed criticism of corruption and demonstrated readiness to deal with international financial institutions that support the uneven economic order. And thus they did not object to honouring the name of the former president – who signed the peace treaty and masterminded economic open door policies.
There is no doubt that Islamist grassroots demand independence and unity, and recruitment is based on these two pillars. But if leaders walk down the same path as their predecessors they will fail. Their increasing acceptance to work within the governing frameworks (peace treaty and open door economy in Egypt, Oslo in Palestine, etc) reflects an inadequacy in dealing with the structure the caused their predecessors to fail. If these issues are redressed quickly they will no doubt cause them to also fail.
Accepting governing structures denotes the collapse of the Islamists’ “project” and their pursuit of change in favour of “governance,” which they want to maintain whether or not it serves their project. But they will not succeed in the medium or long run by preserving these structures that shroud contradictory promises to protect the interests of the usurper and exploiter, as well as pledging to restore the rights of the disenfranchised and exploited.
Anyone who tries to please both camps to stay in power is bound to eventually fail.