A century after the Ottomans ­— (V) Arab nationalism

Tarek Osman
Tuesday 5 Mar 2024

In the century since the fall of the Ottomans, no political project has proved more successful or more calamitous than Arab nationalism, writes Tarek Osman


Modern Arab nationalism was born in the Levant in the second half of the 19th century.

Although Egypt was the first part of the then Ottoman Empire to be truly exposed to Westernisation and serious modernisation – starting with the Napoleonic campaign in Egypt from 1799 to 1802 and later because of the major reforms during the reign of Mohamed Ali Pasha – in the mid-19th century, the Levant also became highly exposed to Western and especially French political and social ideas.

This was partly because owing to its social composition the Levant contained different and sizeable Eastern Christian groups that had long been inspired by Europe. It was also because throughout most of the 19th century the Levant was an open environment with increasingly weak central authority and tenuous links to Istanbul.

As the Ottomans’ hold over the Levant, and the entire Mashreq, grew weaker, different political ideas came to the surface, aiming to serve as the inheritors of Ottomanism. The idea of Arab identity was one of the most attractive to large groups in the Levant because it was anchored in a secular view of history.

Secularism was key to Arab nationalism because despite the reforms that the Ottomans had introduced in the mid-19th century that aimed to install political equality between Muslims and non-Muslims across the Empire, four centuries of Ottoman rule had left strong feelings of religious demarcation in almost all its provinces.

In some cases, periods of the Ottoman oppression of religious minorities had left feelings of strong rejection of anything Ottoman or Turkish. Save for a thin layer of the social elite in the Empire’s eastern provinces, the rejection of Ottomanism was quite a widespread feeling even among large sections of Muslims. For those who objected to sectarian identities – such as Islamist, political Maronism, or others that had begun to appear in the Levant – secularism was at the core of what they wanted to see replace Ottomanism.

The idea of Arabness had all the ingredients of a strongly secular national identity. The Arabic language with its extremely rich literature and philosophical heritage served as an omnipresent cultural framework that had already brought together the peoples of the Levant and North Africa for whom Arabic had earlier become the mother tongue.

It was a natural step for this cultural identity to evolve into a political project. Unlike the idea of a Greater Syria presented in an earlier article in this series, Arab nationalism was grounded in material history. Despite the fact that since the emergence of Islam in the 7th century CE almost all the dynasties that had ruled the region extending from the Arabian Peninsula to the Maghreb had anchored their rule on forms of Islamic legitimacy, Arabness was close to and entangled with political power and authority throughout the period and across the entire region.

The Hashemite project, presented in the second article in this series, gave strong momentum to Arabness, as the Sharif Hussein and his sons, who came to rule Syria, Jordan, and Iraq after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, had all fought the Ottomans, negotiated with external powers, and built their kingdoms on the basis of Arabness and Arab nobility.

The fact that the Arabs has been unified as a nation since the advent of Islam gave them an overarching sociopolitical framework. This had extended beyond the Arabian Peninsula to the Levant, Iraq, and North Africa over the course of centuries. It was distinct from the Turkish and Persian identities of other Middle Eastern Muslim-majority societies that had accepted Islam but had rejected the Arabic language.  

As a result, throughout the first half of the 20th century Arab nationalism was a potent ideological force with major potential because it resonated with the history and cultural affiliation of the largest social groups in the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, the Levant, and parts of North Africa.

However, it was the change that took place in Egypt in the mid-20th century that propelled Arab nationalism into the stratosphere of Middle Eastern politics. Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s overthrow of the Egyptian monarchy in 1952, the oldest and most established in the entire Mashreq, was a momentous event. Nasser’s adamant challenge of the former imperialist powers of Britain and France in Egypt and his support for freedom movements across the region gave rise to the idea that he had a political project whose aspirations transcended Egypt and went beyond merely driving European colonialism out of the Mashreq.

Many groups across the Levant, the Arabian Peninsula, and North Africa quickly developed an attachment to this project, even though its contours were at first still malleable.

When Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal in 1956, dealing a strong blow to the then British Empire and challenging the entire architecture of Western interests in the region, his project acquired both clarity and tremendous momentum. Yet, he did not nationalise the canal, the most prized and most strategically important Western-controlled asset in the entire Middle East, in the name of Arab nationalism. Instead, he did so in order to finance some of his most ambitious development projects, and, equally importantly, to demonstrate his defiance of Western power in the region.

This defiance resonated with a widespread desire for freedom from Western influence across the region, as well as, at a deeper level, with what seemed to be a call emanating from history to resuscitate Arab dignity after centuries of Ottoman and then Western domination. Since Nasser was a secularist who had already clashed with the Islamists in Egypt, and since he had personally fought Israeli forces in Palestine in 1948, a secular Arab identity came almost naturally to him. Arab nationalism acquired its hero.

As I argued in my book “Egypt on the Brink,” the real power behind Nasser’s project lay in its emotional charge in Egypt and beyond, both in the Arab world and across large parts of what is today called the Global South. What made Nasser a global leader, and one on a par with the likes of India’s Nehru and Yugoslavia’s Tito, was not merely his popularity in the Arab world and his strategic defeat of Britain and France in the Suez Crisis, but also his emergence as a reflection of a desire not only to destroy the colonial political order that had ruled the world before World War II and to replace it with the most potent form of Arab nationalism the Arab world had ever witnessed.

Tens of millions of Arabs saw in Nasser a symbol of their glorious past and the potential that his project, his representation of collective dignity, could reincarnate that past in their immediate future.

This did not happen, however. Arab nationalism, whether of the Nasserite or later variants, failed to materialise the potential of the future, and as the decades passed it squandered all the opportunities it was given to make itself the catalyst of the resuscitation of the glorious past. The regimes that espoused Arab nationalism in the second half of the 20th century became synonymous with oppression, military defeats, institutional decay, one-man rule, and political vacuousness. The gap between the grandeur of the rhetoric that surrounded Arab nationalism and the travesty of the reality of its implementation drowned this political project in the flights of fancy of its believers and the hatred of its opponents.

This was a loss for modern Arab history. 20th-century Arab nationalism deserves proper closure within the collective Arab psyche.    


The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).

* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 March, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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