Saturday, February 19, 2011

Revolution in the Middle East: Rebirth of Pan-Arabism?

Reading an interesting article from Al Jazeera. The author, Jaswant Singh, suggests in his opening paragraph that this is the re-emergence of "pan-Arabism". That the revolutions are a show of Arab Unity.

In the days and weeks ahead, there could arise occasions when the news from Cairo is not uplifting, but let us never forget that Egypt has taken a giant step, which in reality is a giant step for all Arabs. After all, Egypt is the heart, brain, and nerve center of the Arab world. True, it once spawned the radical Muslim Brotherhood, but it also gave birth to Islamic socialism and anti-colonialism, Arab unity, and now a democratic affirmation of the people's will.

That is an odd take on the situation. The truth, when looking close enough at each of the subsequent revolutions, seems very far away from Arab Unity.

Pan Arabism was the idea that the nations of the Middle East, largely populated by "Arabs" and sharing a single faith, Islam (with it's multiple sects based on various Islamic jurisprudence, but let's not get into that) and one similar language (disrespecting indigenous languages or dialects) would unite to create an Arab Republic. Based on socialist-Islamic-democratic ideas, this Republic would create a political and economic giant that could compete with the various economic powerhouses of the time (USSR, United States, Europe). Most importantly, pan-Arabism would overthrow colonial powers and throw off western influence.

Pan Arabism enjoyed it's Hay-days in the mid sixties, barely getting off the ground and taking its last breath after the Six Day War with Israel. The rivalries for power over any such Arab Republic could never compromise enough nor could the realities of the real socio-economic necessities of the states depend only upon themselves. Most of these states had little in the way of natural resources to establish any industrial base besides oil, some states having more than others. A republic would require those states to share their wealth in some manner. That was not going to happen.

Are the revolutions from Tunisia to Egypt to Bahrain, Libya and Yemen the new "pan-Arabism"? No.

They certainly share some unique similarities such as peaceful protests, demands for a more representative government and despots ranging from incredibly corrupt and murderous (such as Gadaffi in Libya and Saleh in Yemen) to "despot light" (such as Bahrain), but the people involved are so disparate and their reasons unique to each of their situations that it is hard to envision this as some sort of new Pan Arabism. In fact, it is likely that these situations will both contract pan Arab state cooperation and increase it, for a time, leaving the states very much separate entities whose cooperation will still be determined by the circumstances of each situation.

For instance, Egypt is largely Sunni Muslim with Christian and Shia minorities. Egyptians see themselves as a group of people, powerful within their own right and with their own economic and political position to maintain. They are hardly likely to want to fall in with the Saudi government on all fronts. Especially now that they are democratic and Saudi Arabia is not.

Saudi Arabia will want to influence how Egypt leans in the Middle East so they will, undoubtedly, funnel large sums of money through various social and religious programs. Largely to keep Egypt from heading into the Iranian camp. Iran will do the same in the hopes of pulling Egypt towards their own sphere of influence, but it is even harder to see that occurring. Egyptians view the Iranians as both oppressive and possibly fanatical. The question will be whether the new Egypt will comprehend their unique place between these two rivals as a very real, potential power broker in the Middle East.

Far from shifting power into the hands of these two houses, it may shift completely towards the country on the Mediterranean Sea.

In Bahrain, the demand for political representation has only its similarities in that parts of society are excluded or limited in participation. However, those who have been limited in Bahrain are the Shia majority, making this a sectarian issue.

While the protesters in Bahrain have taken their cue from Egypt by largely "peaceful" demonstrations, they are not Egypt or Egyptians. They are not largely "cosmopolitan" in their views nor is their an overwhelming "liberal" demand to their protests. Few are seeking to over turn Sharia law nor liberalize the economic infrastructure. They just want to have their voices heard in the political arena and have their very local concerns about government heard and acted on.

Further, representation within the government is hardly likely to pull them towards any unity with other "Arab" nations. They have their own indigenous, social identity. Expressed in their protests are definite over tones of nationalism (witness protesters in each nation carrying their national flag, painting their faces with their national flag colors, etc), but we aren't talking about "Arab" nationalism. We are talking about "Bahraini" nationalism. As we can talk about Egyptian nationalism and Tunisian. That hardly opens the way for a new "Pan Arabism". In fact, democratic governments are usually overwhelmed far more with their local concerns and addressing their constituents direct needs such as jobs, education and security.

As far as Libya and Tunisia go, their populations are much more religiously conservative than their Egyptian neighbors. Overthrowing their dictators who have used an amalgam of secular, socialist and Islamic rule isn't more likely to pull them towards liberality, an issue that Egypt will now struggle with, but more likely to pull them towards conservative Islamic rule. The only real opposition that has existed in these nations for decades.

What we may see in the way of cooperation between these states will be three fold: 1) supporting democratic governments between them as a bulwark against the influence of non-democratic, Middle Eastern States (including Saudi Arabia and Iran) and overt western influence as they seek to establish their national identities; 2) economic cooperation; 3) security cooperation (see number one).

The most influential in the short run will likely be one and two with emphasis on #2: economic cooperation. If Egypt and Bahrain can stabilize quickly, there is a potential that new economic doorways will be opened as Libya (if Gadaffi can be overthrown) and Tunisia seek to improve it's infrastructure and economic conditions. Everything from technology to roads to agriculture will need to be built. If Libya and Tunisia can keep from exploding into sectarian or religious strife and security is largely guaranteed, Egyptian and Bahrain investors could see ample opportunities to develop businesses in these nations.

The major hindrance, beyond potential security issues in these nations, would be what resources or sources of wealth does Libya and Tunisia have that would lure investors and builders? They do have one excellent resource: a cheap labor pool that would be happy to improve their economic situation by any amount.

Then there is Yemen. It is difficult to see that Yemen would become any sort of democracy in a post Saleh era. Out of all of the so called "democratic revolutions" in the Middle East, Yemen is the least to actually represent it. This is about tribal areas that differentiate widely from each other attempting to gain their own power, not install democracy. We're talking about warlords in the south and despotic wannabe's in the north, each with its own tendency towards Islamic fundamentalism.

Still, while each of these "revolutions" is taking place in "Arab" countries, this isn't about an Arab identity. This is about Tunisian, Egyptian, Bahraini identity with a whole lot of tribalism thrown in to the rest of the states. A new era of Arab cooperation is not being born here. It is a new era of people in nations demanding that their nation represent them in all of their various forms and desires.

What these new nations will do with that representative government, the world awaits with bated breath.

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