Nation state

Abdel-Moneim Said
Saturday 10 Feb 2024

Abdel-Moneim Said returns to basics.


Countries generally manifest their existence in three ways: territory, people, and political authority. Like individuals, they differ in virtually everything else.

No country is like any other in its geopolitical position. Just as a person does not choose their parents, so too do states not choose their neighbours. In the modern era, what makes a country unique is its national character. States have a “personality”; they are defined not solely by their topographical features and demographic make-up, but also by their history and culture. From the latter come the assorted codes, symbols and memes that help us make sense of the differences between countries and nations.

The British are only separated from the French by a narrow channel, but they have totally different national traits. In Britain, the “crown” was instrumental in forging the “British” being by dint of the political stability and the wisdom that prevailed in the period of the empire upon which the sun never set as well as in the period in which the country could no longer bear to remain under the European shadow.

France played a major part in the formation of the European collective. Not only did it throw off the French crown, its rebellion transformed into a revolution which, under Napoleon, spread its spirit and laws across the whole of Europe to the gates of Moscow. Germany, under Hitler, tried to link its identity to the “Aryan” race and establish its masterdom.

However, the attempt failed. What did succeed was its unification project which made it a latecomer – like Italy – to the development of a distinct nationalism at the hands of Metternich or Mazzini in the Italian case. Demography and the need for unity fired Germany’s determination to reunite after the partition in World War II and to become the guardian of the European Union even if this required bending French recalcitrance and Italian pride to a unique framework which may be best described as a historical, philosophical, civilisational project that may even hark back to ancient Greece.  

However, the subject that interests me here is not Europe but the Arab state and, in particular, the flights of nationalist thought towards a larger pan-Arab realm and even a broader pan-Islamic expanse or, conversely, its recoil into narrow sectarian and doctrinal trenches.

In the Arab nationalist political lexicon, the “nation-state” refers to the Arab states that emerged in their current boundaries which were bequeathed by the colonial era and foreign invasions. But it also refers to the monarchies or emirates in which the throne embodied a distinct historic identity and a certain unity between the ruling authority and religion or doctrine, much in the manner of the British Crown.

This is the type of nation-state we find in the Gulf region. As the factors of unity and stability it prevailed over the disintegrative factors, it withstood the storms of the so-called Arab Spring. Indeed, part of its ability to do so stemmed from the realisation that the state was being put to a gruelling test and that it was necessary to summon the resolve to stand firm against the forces of anarchy and division that were coming from outside the national entity. The same applied to Jordan and Morocco where there was also the resolve to rally around the throne to ensure the survival of the nation state which had proven to be more cohesive than just a geographic entity produced by colonial partitions.

The Arab republics attempted to weave their patriotic narratives around historical origins. As the Levant is a complex patchwork of different religious sects and denominations, that type of patriotic bond was weak. Damascus’ Umayyad roots did not spare Syria from a protracted Civil War. Nor was Lebanon, with its unique composition, spared recurrent civil wars, whether overt or seething beneath the surface. Iraq may be currently waging a national battle that fuses the ills of the Saddam regime with a succession of conflicts that have left enduring memories of misery in a collective conscience that sees oil as a path to salvation for all.

This struggle is still in its early days. It is difficult to compare with the Palestinian experience in which the suffering spanned bouts of fragmentation topped with violence while a Zionist force assembled itself from around the world to implant a national state on Palestinian land. Moving towards Africa, if Sudan is the Iraq of the Nile Valley and Libya the Syria of North Africa, Tunisia and Algeria share similar experiences in building distinct nation-states of their own. And, yes, the Arab nationalism that characterised Tunisia’s modernist project after independence and Algeria’s history of liberation struggle rendered the “revolution of a million martyrs” a national flame that continues to burn despite countless challenges.

Egypt has always been a special case. In its modern history, it was the state that entered the dark tunnel of Muslim Brotherhood rule and came out the other end a year later. Egypt’s geographic and historical singularity inspired the Egyptian geographer Gamal Hamdan’s seminal work on the personality of Egypt. Before him, the country underwent a long process of modernist evolution that proceeded at its own pace during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

It was a period punctuated by various soft revolutions that ushered in transitions from one regime to another with relative ease and flexibility. If Hamdan’s work was inspired by geography, history inspired his contemporary, the nationalist thinker and politician Milad Hanna to distil his findings in The Seven Pillars of Egyptian Identity.

Ultimately, we find that nation-states in the Arab world in the Middle East and North Africa fall into two categories: those that have a reformist modernist project and those in which “revolution” continues to sow chaos and keeps national cohesion out of reach. I cannot help but recall the article that was later published as a book in Lebanon called “My Love.” It brimmed with nostalgia for the early roots of the state which were characterised by security, order, and the ability to work together as a nation in a shared homeland.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 8 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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