By Barry Rubin
An editorial in the moderate Lebanese publication, Lebanon Now, reminds us of just how dramatically the Middle East has changed. Many of the arguments and assumptions that governed the Arabic-speaking world for six decades have simply vanished. Others, though, have just been modified slightly.
The biggest change has been the collapse of Arab nationalism, the ideology and system that governed many countries, controlled the regional debate, and intimidated everyone else into line for six decades. But is the analogy to Eastern Europe in 1991—rescued from Communism and transformed into democracies—or to the situation there in 1945—save from fascism only to be taken over by Communism for almost a half-century?
In other words is the Arabic-speaking world moving into an era of democracy or merely a new form of authoritarianism?
We are reminded vividly of the death of the old order by an editorial in the moderate Lebanese publication, Lebanon Now, discussing President Bashar al-Assad’s attempts to say in control in Syria. The editors write:
“After months of procrastination, months of ignoring the insistence of the international community that he stop murdering his people; after nearly three weeks into the catastrophic Arab League mission to assess the level of violence in the country and after a body count that by conservative estimates has exceeded 5,000, he can only resort to the hollow and outdated rhetoric of an era the Arab world is aching to leave behind.”
What is this rhetoric? To blame everything on “the creation of Israel and the imperial reshaping of the Middle East” after World War One. Well, 1948 (the creation of Israel) and 1918 (when the old Ottoman Empire crumbled and Arab states began to emerge) were a long time ago. Arab nationalism was a response to these events and also to the belief that fascist and Communist systems in Europe offered role models for ruling the Arabic-speaking world.
Arabism was also a way to unite disparate peoples into a coherent state while focusing on a common ethnic identity that might suppress ideological and regional differences while transcending religious ones. In al-Assad’s recent speech, he stated, “Arabism is a question of civilization, a question of common interests, common will and common religions.”
Lebanon Now calls this a, “cobweb-ridden idea.” Yes, indeed, but it is one that sent the Arabs into immense enthusiasm until recently. Still, it no longer does. Today people are focused more on the failures of Arab nationalist regimes in the 1950-2010 period rather than on the alleged sins of the 1920-1948 era. Yet that might only lead to supporting a revolutionary Islamism that argues it can do better than its predecessors.
Same authoritarianism; same demagoguery; same enemies; just a different method of fighting them, the political use of religion rather than of nationalism.
One of the institutions the editorial ridicules is the Arab League. Using that group to advise people how to get rid of dictatorship and replace it with democracy, as is being tried in Syria, is like “a smoking doctor who advises the patient to quit smoking while putting a cigarette in his mouth.”
And yet that’s what Islamism is seeking to do, merely changing the cigarette for a cigar. In doing so, a lot of these old Arabist arguments are merely being recycled. For example:
- It isn’t “Arabism” that will unite the people but…Islam.
- One of Arabism’s failures is that it didn’t unite the Arabs, but Islamist ideology will unite the Muslims, which it insists is easier to do. That may prove true within individual countries and even across newly forming blocs, counties where the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood holds sway.
- Arabism failed to expel Western “imperialist” influence from the region and destroy Israel but Islam will succeed. One Islamist complaint is that nationalist rulers made deals with the West, as Mubarak did. The Islamists, due to the nature of their ideology, won’t make that “mistake.”
- Arabism didn’t bring economic success but Islam “is the solution.” It is easy to see that this won’t work in economic terms yet belt-tightening, a renewed revolutionary enthusiasm, and other means might survive hard times by producing pious times. Religion has often succeeded in doing so in the past.
Of course, Syria is also a special case, a place where—again a great turn of phrase by Lebanon Now’s editors—the ruling “a system more akin to organized crime than that inspired by Pericles,” i.e., democracy.
Clearly, Lebanon Now’s editors hope that Syria’s revolution does better than the one they helped lead in Lebanon. Remember, Lebanon was the original “spring” movement and now it is run by Islamists (Hizballah) who took power in an election but ultimately depend on Iranian money, Syrian assassins, and terrorist intimidation to stay in power.
One cannot also help but note that Arab nationalism did work to hold together a country including Alawites, Christians, Druze, and Sunni Muslims, along with non-Arab Kurds. Replacing that “glue” won’t be so easy. Iraq and to some extent Lebanon suggest the alternative solution of each community largely governing itself in practice, albeit with a lot of bloodshed. That won’t be so easy to achieve in Syria.
The editorial concludes:
“Those Syrian people who have decided to forgo sectarianism and self interest in the name of freedom, care not one jot for the illusion that is Arabism; for Syria’s equally mythical lead in taking the fight to the Zionist enemy.”
One hopes that those people win in Syria, where they do have a better chance, but they such a standpoint has clearly not won in Egypt, the Gaza Strip, Iran, Lebanon, Libya, Tunisia, and even—despite appearances—Turkey.
Whether justified by “Arab nationalist” or “Islamist” rhetoric the old scape-goating combined with dictatorship might be too useful a method to abandon.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An Introduction, will be published by Yale University Press in January. Latest books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at http://www.gloria-center.org and of his blog, Rubin Reports, http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com