The concept of the nation-state crystallised in Europe in the second half of the 19th century as empires crumbled. Italian and German intellectuals supported politicians seeking to restore the unity of Italy and Germany, and the idea sparked tremendous disputes in the Balkans, particularly due to the region’s ethnic diversity.
The concept says that a pure nationality, constituting a nation, has the right to its own state, regardless of its size. Although both World Wars were driven by militant nationalism, the call of this did not lose its appeal, especially in regions and countries striving for independence from colonialism or imperial domination.
US President Woodrow Wilson advocated the right of self-determination for colonised or subjugated peoples at the end of World War I. When the UN was established in 1945, it was made up of independent nation-states.
Between the two World Wars, Arab nationalism was strong for three reasons. The first was a shared culture represented by a common language. The second was that several of the Arab peoples felt that their shared Arab identity would enable them to break free from colonialism and the manipulation by the colonial powers of their borders, interests, and destinies.
The third reason was the existence of strong Arab states that had already gained their independence and formed the Arab League, with Egypt and Saudi Arabia at the forefront, and were helping other countries and nations achieve independence.
Why go back over this history of the emergence of the nation-state now?
The reason is that there are three countries in the east and west of the Arab world that have remained pillars of the nation and have a realistic vision of the state and its future in the Arab world. These three countries are Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco. They helped their neighbours during the independence phase and have continued to support them in terms of stability and development since.
As established nations, they gained experience and maintained a realistic vision of the region and of international relations. Ideologically nationalist states in the region labelled all existing political entities as “quataria,” meaning local and divided. Ultimately, this ideology threatened both its own survival and the countries it controlled, however. Some of the later became fragmented or lost their sovereignty. But the solid nation-states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia remained the backbone of stability.
They focused on supporting other entities and preserved their own unity and stability without making grandiose claims to neighbouring Arab lands that were fragile internally.
When the 2011 revolutions occurred, chaos spread in some areas of the Arab world and armed organisations emerged in others. I said at a lecture at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies at that time that “we used to fear the state, but now we fear for it.” By this I did not mean that we feared for a strong nation-state that had never existed, but instead that we feared for established entities, especially Egypt, which had deployed its national army and civil society to preserve its heritage, stability, and unity.
The Arab nation-state has since entered a new phase based on citizenship, sustainable development, sovereignty, and balanced relations with the rest of the world. Most of these elements were present in most Arab countries after independence, but there then came the emergence of states driven by ideology and others that fell into relations of dependency.
Despite the devastation that has been seen in several Arab countries and the dire conditions that still exist in Palestine, the experiment of the nation-state is being renewed and is growing in the Arab world. The nation-state was saved by strong leadership and a cohesive society in the past, and now the Arab world’s strong and stable states are moving to help the fragmented and intervention-plagued states.
The region is changing, and entities seeking domination are emerging that seek to intervene and pursue their own interests in the fragmented Arab countries. However, the rising Arab nation-states continue to protect their territory and stability and continue to contribute to the stability of their neighbours in Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Sudan, and Yemen.
Many Arab political thinkers are now talking about renewing the experience of the nation-state in the Arab world and of reviving it. They hope to reduce the pessimism of some intellectuals and to contribute to creating a new culture of the modern nation-state.
Their motto is to renew the experience of the nation-state in the Arab world, regain moderation in religion, and maintain healthy relations with the rest of the world.
The author is a Lebanese professor of political science.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 28 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly