North Africa, West Asia

The last Arab

Maged Mandour

The signs of the erosion of Arab identity are visible across the region. This identity is directly tied to the nature of the Arab political order: the two go together.

Maged Mandour
12 November 2014

The great German philosopher Frederic Nietzsche once said, “the last Christian died on the cross”, referring to the death of Jesus Christ.

This quote has been plaguing me lately as I have been contemplating the rise of ISIS, the apparent failure of the Arab Revolt and the rise of sectarianism in the Arab World. It made me think about a fundamental question, are there any Arabs left?

The question may sound counter-intuitive. If taken at face value the answer is, of course, a resounding 'yes' since there are people inhabiting the Arab World who speak Arabic as their mother tongue and are citizens of states defining themselves as Arab and, for example, as members of the Arab League.

However, scratch beneath the surface, and one could argue that the answer is not very clear. Arab identity has been steadily eroding in the Arab world with the common people as well as the elites distancing themselves from this identity. This process can be tied to the process of decay in the Arab political order. The events of the Arab Revolt, and their aftermath, did not signal the birth of a new order but rather accelerated a process of decay, and one of the victims of this decay is the identity of being Arab.    

The signs of the erosion of Arab identity are visible across the region. In Iraq, sectarianism is on the rise. The Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish communities are divided, with fault lines drawn in blood. The idea of being Iraqi is outdated, and the idea of being part of the Arab nation is even more distant.

Ever since the American invasion of Iraq, political divisions have been aggravated, and this has been deepened by political elites who have been using systematic state violence to stoke up sectarianism in order to cling to power. There has been a systemic elimination of Sunni community leaders from power by an overtly sectarian Iraqi government. The deliberate policy of "sectarianising" the security apparatus of the state has not only stoked sectarianism, it has caused the Sunni community as well as the Kurdish community to identify themselves in terms of their sect, rather than as Iraqi or Arab.  

In Egypt, the inward-looking policy of de-Arabizing that started with President Sadat has reached its apex. The clearest symptom of this is the national sentiment towards Palestinians as well as Syrians. Egypt’s stance has dramatically shifted against Gaza, especially Hamas, who are now being blamed for the terrorist attacks in Sinai, with the military regime using these attacks to tighten the blockade of the strip and increase domestic support.

In terms of attitudes towards Syria, the majority have dramatically shifted their support to Assad, as the mania of “fighting terrorism” sweeps the nation. There is very little sympathy for the Syrian people’s suffering even though Assad has been on a rampage for the better part of three years.

Egyptians no longer see themselves as Arab and are more inward-looking than ever. The plight of the Palestinians, the Syrians, and the Iraqis no longer occupies the average Egyptian citizen; on the contrary, there is a trend of blaming the victim and glorifying the criminals.  

Domestically, there is a large segment of Egyptian society that is not seen as Egyptian, but they are seen instead as agents of external powers, and most importantly, as foreign elements who identify themselves with a sect, namely the Muslim Brotherhood. Members of the Brotherhood are seen as placing their identity of belonging to the Brotherhood above their identity as Egyptians. In essence, Egypt is developing its own version of sectarianism. In this context, the divide is not religious or linguistic, it is secular/Islamist.

In Syria, the game of sectarianism has reached its apex. The revolt can now easily be characterised as a revolt by the Sunni majority against an openly sectarian regime. This, of course, ignores the more complex dynamic in Syria, with the critical role played by the Sunni urban middle class in their support for the regime. However, it is very difficult to ignore the fact that the Assad regime has mastered the sectarian game; gaining the support of the minorities as their protector against the Sunni onslaught, which threatens the very existence of some of these minorities, especially the Alawites. In effect, the struggle is turning into an existential struggle for these sects as they are no longer being identified as Syrian or Arab.

This, however, does not explain the reasons behind such a shift in identity, which could have some far-reaching implications. One could safely argue that this shift is part of the process of decay of the Arab political order. The ideological structure on which the Arab political order was based has been eroding at an exponential rate and the current basis is the rejection of the “other”, which means an increase in sectarianism.

In other words, in order to remain in power, the current elites have stoked up sectarianism, having deliberately eroded identities that could hold the social order in place and act as a basis for an inclusive political order. In essence, the erosion of Arab identity has been a deliberate process driven by the elites, whose main rationale for remaining in power is protection against the “other”. What is novel is that this “other” is not an external enemy; it is rather an internal enemy, who in their view needs to be cleansed.

Also, one could argue that the existence of the “Arab nation” was necessary for the different regimes, who had hoped to extend their powers across borders, increasing their soft powers and ability to affect the power dynamic in the region. Nasser’s Egypt is the clearest example of this phenomenon, as he used the idea of an “Arab Nation” as well as the opposition to Israel, as a pillar of his foreign policy in his attempt to spread Egyptian hegemony across the Arab world.

Currently, the Arab autocrats have neither the ability nor the desire to extend their power across their borders; rather these elites are mainly focused on remaining in power. Actually, one could argue that “Arab” identity has become a liability for these regimes. The Egyptian regime, for example, would find it more difficult to cooperate so openly with Israel and to participate so aggressively in the blockade of Gaza were Arab identity on the rise. In Iraq, the Shia government would find it more difficult to maintain such a close relationship with Iran, while it oppresses the Sunni Arab community. As such, the deconstruction of Arab identity is essential for the survival of the current elites.

It is important to note, however, that the process of elite identity manipulation is only part of the equation, and that the other side of the coin are the actions of secular democratic forces as well as moderate Islamist forces. Both these forces have failed to salvage an identity that can hold the Arab political order together.

The secular democratic forces had neither the means nor the ideological potency to perform such a feat. The rejectionist nature of the movements, as well as their ideological poverty, meant that their primary concern was the removal of current regimes, with little thought given to providing an alternative ideological vision, which would naturally include a constructed identity. In other words, this movement did not exhibit the ideological maturity to salvage the “Arab” or “national” identity which might have allowed it to extend its hegemony on a national, and then regional level.

As for the moderate Islamist forces, although they have the resources, in terms of their penetration of civil society, and some might say the ideological potency, they have also failed to build an identity that would transcend their narrow base of support. In reality, they followed the logic of the sect to take over, and have followed the same sectarian logic of Arab Autocrats, as they have attempted to exclude their rivals from power.

In the end, I return to my original question, are there any Arabs left?  Based on the above, “Arab” identity is directly tied to the nature of the Arab political order, and as such, the continuous disintegration of this order means that Arab identity will follow suit. Thus, the identity of 'the Arab' will only be salvaged if the current order is replaced with another that has the potential to create an identity that will be inclusive and cohesive.         

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