The shifting mood of Arab politics


Attitude to the Palestinian cause was used as the litmus test to judge the morality of each side.

by Bassem Ajami -Source: Annahar

Rockets are launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israel, Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019. (AP Photo)

Since the carving of several Arab states out of the fallen Ottoman Empire at the turn of the 20th century, Arab politics has been a struggle between two rivals: Those advocating the state system on one hand, and on the other, those calling for Arab unity and pan Arabism.

For several decades, the latter appeared to hold the upper hand. They embraced the Palestinian cause, and used it as a weapon to stir the masses, while the former states found themselves on the defensive.

Attitude to the Palestinian cause was used as the litmus test to judge the morality of each side. It was also a main source of legitimacy for all.

All except Egypt.

The peace between Egypt and Israel in 1979 was a juncture that halted the advance of the pan Arabists. Pan Arabism suffered a major loss while the state system appeared to assert itself.

When Egypt’s Anwar Sadat broke away from the restraint of Arabism and made the trip to Israel, he was considered an outcast. All but one or two Arab countries severed diplomatic relations with Cairo. Even the headquarters of the Arab League, a useless organization by default, was moved from Egypt to Tunisia in protest.

But the most significant fallout of the Camp David Accords was that Egypt took the initiative on its own. It did not have to wait to be joined by other Arab countries. Such move shook the foundations of the ideal of pan Arabism and reinforced the Arab state system.

Unlike the rest of the Arab countries, Egypt does not depend on Arabism as the main source for its identity. Egypt derives its identity from three sources: Islam, Egyptian nationalism as well as Arabism, in that order. Consequently, when Egypt broke away from Arabism it did not have to struggle with an identity problem.

When the UAE announced the normalizing of relations with the Jewish state, Arab reaction has been restricted to but a few voices of disapproval here and there.

Such change has been brought about by a series of events that reshaped the Arab priorities.

First, there was the Iranian revolution that was immediately followed by the 8-year Iran-Iraq war. The revolution was a threat to the Arab state system as the ruling mullahs in Iran declared their intention to “export” their methods to the outside world. Most Arab states, including Egypt, supported Iraq in that war. Syria, on the other hand, supported Iran.

Then came another significant threat to the Arab state system when Iraq’s Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 under the pretext of pan Arabism. The invasion brought the Arab countries that had severed their ties with Egypt in 1979 back to Cairo. And almost all joined a military effort that was led by the United States in order to restore Kuwait’s independence. The campaign in support of Kuwait reinforced the state system in the Arab world.

Pan Arabists were dealt another blow in 1994 after Israel reached a peace treaty with Jordan where 70 percent of the population is of Palestinian origin.

Then came the attacks of 9/11, which ushered in the war on terrorism. In the years that followed, terrorists advocated the destruction of the existing state system and replacing it with a united Islamic regime. They were crushed in their main theatres of operation in Syria and Iraq, and failed to gather any considerable popular support.

These series of events helped bring about the peace treaty between the UAE and Israel, and are likely to bring about a similar peace between Israel and other Arab countries in the not too distant future.



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