Thursday, August 16, 2007

Arab Nationalism: The Tie that Binds

For almost a century until the present, the Middle East has been the site of relentless political tensions that has involved not only regional state actors but even Western powers such as the United States and the former USSR, in a backdrop of a struggle for greater influence and control over badly needed energy resources such as natural gas and petroleum. Since the time of Western colonialism in the region, the primary political debate has always been the control and exploitation of the vast gas and oil resources, and to whose control and benefit must these resources be, especially when traces of foreign interventionism is replete in many countries. Wars have been fought over this debate and will continue to be such, especially at this time of a US-led global war against terror. Nonetheless, the Middle East, despite its Islamic conservatism, has not been spared from the rising secular tide of nationalism that has swept most of the Third World and former colonies of Western powers. In the context of a dwindling British empire and the protracted tensions of the Cold War came the rise of Arab nationalism – an ideology that sought to unite the nations from Morocco to the Arabian peninsula would be united under a common linguistic, cultural and historical heritage, notwithstanding the removal or minimization of direct Western influence in the Middle East, and the dissolution of regimes in the Arab world which are considered to be dependent upon favorability with the West to the detriment of their local populations. Arab nationalism is the ideology that bound the foreign policies of the leading Arab nationalist states in the region, Syria and Egypt, and the liberation forces of Palestine. This paper will study the intermingling of the foreign policies of these sovereign[1] entities from 1964-1993 in the context of their roles in the spread and increase of Arab nationalism in the region.

United Arab Republic

In 1958 the states of Egypt and Syria temporarily joined to create a new nation, the United Arab Republic. Such a union was generally seen as a general outgrowth of Arab nationalism (Bronson, 2000, p. 92), with both countries united in their disdain for Western interventionism in their vast resources. While such a union had its political faults which eventually led to its dissolution in the next years, it cemented a broad Arab united front against Western interventionism in the region – supporting the struggle of the Palestinian people and taking initiative in asserting Arab sovereignty in their own countries. Under the leadership of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt successfully nationalized the Suez Canal, the centuries-old gateway of trade and people, notwithstanding recognizing the right to self-determination of smaller neighboring states such as Sudan. Foreign policies like such were very effective in consolidating a deep support cause of Arab nationalism among states which were not yet co-opted by Western powers. Egypt under Nasser shaped coups and revolutions throughout the Arab world in the 1950s and 1960s. (Alterman, 2005, p. 359). More so, Egypt continued to challenge the legitimacy of the existence of an Israeli state, especially when Israeli security forces militarily grabbed Egyptian territories and assimilated these as part of Israeli sovereignty. Nonetheless, Egypt soon after had a gradual openness on Israel as peace with Israel is not merely a goal in and of itself, but also a means to achieve other vital objectives which included tangible economic and military assistance, but also more intangibly in terms of diplomatic prominence, intelligence strengthening, technology transfer, and other areas. (Alterman, p. 358). But as soon as Egypt under the succeeding regimes after Nasser were seen to be co-opted as well by the Western powers, especially in Egypt’s peace pact with Israel in the 1979, its leading role in Arab nationalism started to dwindle as well, notwithstanding its lessening impact in regional relations, to the extent that it was expelled by the Arab League for a decade. On the other hand, while Syria gained little from the United Arab Republic (UAR), such a diplomatic arrangement led to the institutionalization of socialist programs of land reform and nationalization of basic industries until a coup was launched by military generals in 1961, which reversed the socialist gains under the UAR. Nonetheless, Syria was also united with Egypt in the struggle against the growing military power of Israel, where both states were embroiled in the Six Day Was and the Yom Kippur War where they utterly lost in the former and were relatively victorious in the latter. These wars and the political tensions in between them have been caused by the occupation of Israeli forces of former Arab territories such as Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula. (Kramer, 1993) Such bitter diplomatic tensions between the three states have continued through the years, save until the time when Egypt’s foreign policy shifted towards accommodating Israel and other Western powers.

Palestine: The Tie That Binds

The struggle of the Palestinian people for their right to self-determination and against aggression sprang up at a time when parochial differences between Syria and Egypt came about which led to the collapse of the United Arab Republic. However, differences between these two leading Arab nationalist states never precluded the unwavering support of these nations to the fight of a dispossessed Palestinian people by Israel with the backing of the United States. Palestine, through an exiled Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), waged an armed struggle against Israel which concluded only during the Oslo Accords in the early 90s. While not a sovereign entity, the Palestinians through the PLO adopted a foreign policy that had its roots on secular Arab nationalism that sought the creation of the state of Palestine in the territories occupied by Israel, which Palestinians and most Arab nationalists as the leading vassal of the United States in the Middle East. The political tension with Israel started during the UN partition after World War II to provide the Jews with a homeland, where through such UN partition, Palestine was eliminated as a distinct territory. According to Heikal (1978), the main rallying point of Egypt, Syria and other Arab countries, especially in the pursuit of a united Arab system, was the Palestinian issue where even conservative regimes hostile to groupings such as the UAR were convinced of taking the Palestinian cause. Nonetheless, support by Arab nations of the Palestinian struggle against Israeli oppression and occupation and remains to be a source of unity among them, even if such support be tacit and indirect compared before.

In all of this, it is clear that a certain period in the history of the Middle East, a united Middle East was possible under the banner of Arab nationalism. However, due to regional, internal and external contradictions among the states, the cause of Arab nationalism has faltered and seems to be now relegated in the dustbins of history especially at a time that Israel continues to rise militarily and Arab regimes, save for Syria, are swept by the West’s call for democratization and reform.


  1. Alterman, Jon (2005). Dynamics Without Drama: New Options and Old Compromises in Egypt’s Foreign Policy. Cambridge Review of International Affairs, vol. 8, no. 3. pp.357-369.
  2. Bronson, Rachel (2000). Syria: Hanging Together or Hanging Separately. The Washington Quarterly. pp. 91–105.
  3. de La Gorce, Paul-Marie (1997). Europe and the Arab-Israel Conflict: A Survey. Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 26, No. 3., pp. 5-16.
  4. Heikal, Mohamed Hassanein (1978). Egyptian Foreign Policy. Foreign Affairs.
  5. Kramer, Martin, "Arab Nationalism: Mistaken Identity," Daedalus, Summer 1993, pp. 171-206.
  6. Porath, Yehoshua (1974). The Emergence of the Palestinian-Arab National Movement, 1918-1929. London: Frank Cass.
  7. Shikaki, Khalil (2002). Palestinians Divided. Foreign Affairs. p. 89-105.
  8. Safty, Adel (2006). The Failure of Total War against Palestine and Lebanon. Z Magazine.< &I temID=10864>. Retreived March 20, 2007

[1] Sovereign is used in a broad political sense, especially on Palestine, which is still not recognized to be in existence under international law.

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