It was James Rosenau who formulated the law of international momentum in post-Cold War times. National entities and societies would be caught in the pull between integration and disintegration. The EU was a model of the former; the break up of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia were examples of the inability to manage diversity and plurality in the state.
That was also the time when Francis Fukuyama proclaimed “the end of history” and the universal predominance of liberal capitalism. Today, about three decades later, the world appears much more complicated. The British exit from the EU ushered in an unanticipated process of disintegration. The gap that former US President Donald Trump created between Washington and its transatlantic allies followed by the US withdrawal from the Middle East generated additional circumstances that propelled toward a revision of the world order, one of the consequences of which is the Ukrainian crisis.
The Arab nationalist school that prevailed across the Arab world in the 1950s held that the overarching bonds of the so-called Arab Nation should take priority over country-level interests. This was a difficult objective to attain, especially in the light of the increasing urgency of the interests of the nation state in the post-independence period. Advocates of Arab nationalism therefore worked to promote such pan-Arab bonds as language, culture, “shared” history and common interests.
This school also made it a daily practice to emphasise the “shared danger” which was primarily to be found in enemy designs to fragment the Arab people. It was no surprise that Arab nationalists were emphatically opposed to distinctions between Arab countries and, to further their ideal, created indoctrination mechanisms to produce generations of ardent Arab nationalists of all stripes.
However, this drive also gave rise to what the US political scientist Malcolm Kerr called “the Arab Cold War”. The phenomenon mirrored the global Cold War between the US-led West and the Soviet Union and its allies in the East. In the Arab Cold War, the media was instrumental to fraying inter-Arab bonds through propagandistic one-upmanship on various issues, especially the Arab-Israeli conflict. Newspapers and broadcasting stations in Arab capitals threw themselves into the race to pass judgement on the ostensible lack of patriotism among the political elites of other Arab countries.
A truce of sorts took place after defeat in the June 1967 war and lasted through victory in the October 1973 war. But then, the media war broke out again, along with the divisions that flared following the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, and reached a height with the departure of the Arab League from Cairo.
Around that time, the Iraq-Iran war broke out and eight years later the “victorious” Iraq invaded Kuwait. We all know the rest of the story. The Arab nationalist band dispersed and the dominant mode of inter-Arab relations became bilateral, with varying degrees of warmth or frigidity depending on the circumstances, including complicating factors related to globalisation and technological development.
Then, at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the so-called Arab Spring erupted, delivering a huge shock and with it some major lessons. Above all, it drove home the fact that Arab countries could not go on as before. They desperately needed a national project to propel them forward into the ranks of the developed world.
But the way forward would not be easy. The Arab region had imploded and was riddled with violence, terrorism, civil conflict and internecine strife. Non-Arab regional powers took advantage of these conditions to sow further discord and havoc. Iran, as we know, manoeuvred to encircle the Arabian Peninsula via Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. The Israeli story is equally familiar. It picked up the pace of settlement expansion in the occupied territories and, over the course of successive governments, it abandoned the implementation of the Oslo Accords, the principle of land for peace, and the two-state solution, bringing us to the present moment of “peace for peace”.
Meanwhile, the Arab nation state evolved. Around 2015, Arab reform movements superseded the Muslim Brotherhood and its fellow terrorist organisations in setting the agenda, and they succeeded in establishing the priority of building the modern nation state. However, contrary to Khedive Ismail who wanted to make Egypt “a part of Europe”, the architects of the 21st century Arab reform projects envisioned “a new Europe” in the Middle East. They argued that if Europe led the way to the modern era, and Asia became the trailblazer of today to the extent that US presidents have reoriented Washington’s compass in that direction, then why not turn the Arab world into a base and a hub for further global progress?
Essentially, the idea was to launch a process of sweeping reform within the framework of the nation state, extending comprehensive development to all corners of the state and furthering these aims through regional cooperation based on common interests in security, the economy and contemporary ideas. The process is also based on rational regional and international outlooks and the acknowledgement that each country will do the best it can in accordance with its particular circumstances.
Of course, great ideas must always safeguard themselves against the type of corrosion that afflicted Arab nationalist thought in the 1960s and paved the way to one disaster after another. There are regional powers and transnational organisations set on undermining Arab reform processes. To this end, they have developed strategies that utilise modern technologies, social media and other tools in order to sow division and stir rivalries, whether between Saudi Arabia and the UAE or between Saudi Arabia and Egypt, or between these three countries and other Arab countries. In short, they want to provoke another “Arab Cold War”.
I doubt our current Arab leaders will fall into this trap. They understand that reform processes are not easy to sustain under complex international and regional circumstances. They are aware that while such circumstances create crises whether in food or energy, they also create opportunities unknown to previous Arab generations. Moreover, these opportunities are as propitious as the Arab region is extensive and has the resources and know-how to expand in agriculture, industry and services, all of which can foster closer cooperation and partnership that further the interests of the nation state.
The spirit of nationalism stems, in part, from a certain vanity and sense of uniqueness. But in recent months, Arab peoples have taught us that the good we find in one Arab country also exists in all others. This was made palpably clear during and after the World Cup in Doha. A small instance of this occurred recently when I expressed my gratitude to a Moroccan friend for the Moroccan club’s support for the Egyptian Al-Ahly club during the FIFA Club World Cup in Rabat. He answered, “Could we possibly forget how Arab fans supported the Moroccan team during the World Cup?”
* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly