As Arabs from the Mashriq to the Maghreb – one end of the Arab world to the other – contemplate where the six month-long upheavals that began with the Arab Spring are fated to deliver them those with longer memories may recall the dramatic summer 50 years ago when an earlier experiment at reshaping the political contours of Arab governance came unraveled: The 1961 breakup of the United Arab Republic (UAR) as the union of Syria and Egypt was known.
Declared in February 1958, the unification came in response to Syrian lobbying of Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser for a fusion and was popularly backed in both countries. The ideal of pan- Arab unity was all the rage and the hope was that other states beginning with Iraq would join.
Pan-Arabism was seen as a workaround for the lack of legitimacy that affected most Arab leaders as well as the political systems they oversaw. But Nasser, by dint of his personality and charisma, had enjoyed an almost mystical sense of God-given grace which Muslims term Baraka. However, the rulers of Saudi Arabia and Jordan perceived the pan-Arab model as a threat to their own religious-based claims for legitimacy; and even a new Iraqi government, purportedly favorable to pan-Arabism, found reasons not to join.
In short order, the experiment came undone. Nasser's idea of unity was for him to be the political and economic overlord of the UAR. Promises to protect private property fell by the wayside; as did pledges of bread and liberty. Syrian landowners resented Cairo's land reform policies; Syrian military officers bristled at taking orders from Egyptians; the business class took umbrage at nationalizations schemes, and the inherent inefficiencies of Nasser-style central economic planning soon became apparent.
The Syrian's broke away. Nasser prudently decided not to force the issue ("Arabs should not shed the blood of Arabs") and by August-September 1961 the union had been junked. A magnanimous Nasser allowed the Cairo-based Arab League to readmit Syria as an independent member. Still, the idea of Pan-Arabism survived for decades. In 1958, the monarchies of Jordan and Iraq attempted federation; later Egypt and Syria tried again, once with Libya and another time with Iraq; North Yemen twice sought to federate with Egypt (1958 and 1963); in 1961, Iraq sought to "merge" with Kuwait claiming the sheikdom as a province of its own; there was talk of merging Libya and Egypt (1973); Tunisia and Libya (1974) and a confederation of the West Bank and Jordan.
With neither Arab nationalism nor pan-Arabism having provided an authentic way forward, the quandary of political legitimacy remains unresolved. Some, including The Economist, are sanguine that the Arab Spring will ultimately deliver democratization and solve the problem. Yet for that to happen today's messy popular struggle for liberty will somehow need to be transformed into a concerted effort for genuine democratization in which regimes emerge that are capable of supporting modernity-embracing representative government and providing institutional protections for minority viewpoints.
But from the vantage point of 50 years since the breakdown of the UAR and its promise of legitimacy through pan-Arabism, the failure of Arab nationalist movements such as the Ba'ath in Syria and Iraq and now the ascendency of national-based Islamist parties (themselves fragmented over tactics and strategy) the prospect of democratization panning out seems improbable. Which raises the distinct possibility that the Arabs might entirely abandon the Western nation-state model as an artificial construct of colonial mapmakers unsuitable for Moslem civilization, opting instead for the pan-Islamist alternative.
Certainly, the state of the Arab state is hardly encouraging. Despite a brave front put up by the Arab League – inviting South Sudan to join after it broke away from Khartoum, for instance – Arab countries are foundering. To cite only the most obvious examples: Lebanon is a failed state under Hezbollah domination. In Libya and Yemen chaos has called attention to the intrinsic weakness of those states as viable political entities; the fragility of Bahrain has been exposed; in Egypt and Tunisia elections have had to be postponed out of sensible concerns that doing otherwise would result in a "democratic" victory for Islamist forces out to reshape the national character of those states; the Syrian regime may be in its death throes; Jordan's monarch is facing unprecedented challenges.
Obfuscating this reality, the Arab League has demanded the UN grant "Palestine" full membership even as the two contending Palestinian Arab regimes remain incapable of even the pretense of union.
If the nation-state paradigm in the Arab world is supplanted by the pan-Islamist alternative the challenge to the international order would be immense, as Charles T. Hill has pointed out in his recent monograph Trial of a Thousand Years: World Order and Islamism. For Islamists reject the state system embodied in the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia which had resolved that religious differences ought no longer to justify international wars. They moreover reject the boundaries, responsibilities, indeed the very premises upon which international order is anchored.
If the thesis that the state model in the Arab world is today facing its most critical test, than Western policymakers can have no higher interest than to ensure that the Arab Spring does lead to democratic reformation, that the Arabs become convinced that the state is compatible with Islam, and that Islam join other religions in what Hill calls the "debate over how far religion should go beyond private practice to display itself in the public square."
Failure would have consequences for both the Arabs and Western civilization too devastating to contemplate.
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