The Arab future: conspiracy vs reality

Hazem Saghieh
18 August 2009

The predicament of the Arab world is exposed in unexpected ways. Consider the following passage, part of a lengthy news-item in the 28 July 2009 edition of the London-based Palestinian daily newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi:

"The judgment-enforcement services visited Dr Hoda Abdel Nasser's apartment in the new Egyptian suburbs in order to seize her assets and furniture, in execution of a court judgment in favor of Ruqaya Sadat, daughter of late president Anwar Sadat. The south Cairo court had ordered [the daughter of Sadat's predecessor as Egypt's president, Gamal Abdel Nasser] to pay a 150,000 Egyptian-pound indemnity to Ruqaya, whom she had accused of tainting her father's image after she had accused him of masterminding a plan to kill Gamal Abdel Nasser."

Hazem Saghieh is senior commentator for the London-based paper al-Hayat

Hazem Saghieh's articles on openDemocracy include:

"Rafiq al-Hariri's murder: why do Lebanese blame Syria?" (21 February 2008)

"Syria and Lebanon: keeping it in the family" (14 December 2005)

"How the European left supports Lebanon" (14 August 2006)

"Lebanon's internal struggle: two logics in combat" (19 December 2006)

"The Arab defeat" (11 June 2007)

"Lebanon's ‘14 March': from protest to leadership" (1 April 2008)

"Lebanon's elections: reading the signs" (12 June 2009)

"Iran: dialectic of revolution" (23 June 2009)

"Arabs and the Iranian upheaval" (9 July 2009)

"Hizbollah's ‘divine victory': three years on" (20 July 2009)

"Israeli settlement, Arab movement" (28 July 2009) Hoda Abdel Nasser, the paper continued, had in 2008 lost a court case after describing Ruqaya Sadat as "the killer of my father" because he is "an American agent, and American newspapers have said this."

The main characters in this drama are not ordinary ones: the daughter of Nasser, who ruled Egypt for eighteen years (July 1952-June 1970), and the daughter of Sadat, who ruled it for eleven years (June 1970-October 1981) - and the link between them nothing less than a murder accusation! It is obvious that there is enough material here to produce a long and entertaining soap opera.

The plot is irresistible, and rewrites Egypt's modern history. The myth that Sadat was Nasser's loyal companion, his vice-president, speaker of parliament and heir is at last exploded. Rather, he is an anti-Nasser plotter; and since he killed him politically (by turning away from his policies) couldn't he also be his biological killer, and in the pay of the CIA?

The mix of farce and bathos here is accentuated by the story's timing: days after the commemoration of the "July 23 revolution", referring to the moment in 1952 when the young Nasser and his "free officer" colleagues seized power and changed Egypt for ever. The memory of this "revolution" is today so emptied of all meaning that the Israeli president Shimon Peres and his prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu could celebrate it in the Egyptian ambassador's house in Tel Aviv. Indeed, the daughters’ dispute is all that this year has had to energise the occasion and refill its void with content. 

But this content gives no ground for celebration. For what is on display here is only an exaggerated form of the conspiracy theories that are reaching unprecedented levels in Egypt and the Arab world. The leading Palestinian politician Farouk Qaddumi has accused the Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas of killing Abbas's own predecessor Yasser Arafat. It is surely time to ask: can the "natural" death of any Arab leader be taken as a fact? Is it possible for an Arab leader to die without being murdered?

The shared feature of the "murder victims", Nasser and Arafat is that these very different political figures represent a way of thinking and behaving that is now dead. Since admitting its death is hard, a resort to conspiracy theories becomes for those who seek to "keep them alive" an urgent duty and necessary outlet.

The alternative, after all, is hard. It would require the parties involved to discard conspiracies and summon the courage to face the death of the political current that prevailed between the mid-1950s and the early 1970s, known as the Arab national-liberation movement.

The evidence, from the Maghreb to the Mashreq, is plain. The Algerian revolution, the jewel of this movement, produced a regime that incubated a civil war costing around 200,000 deaths. The Yemeni revolutions of north and south were followed by military coups, mutinies, and assassinations; the dream of "unity" between the two states has for many Yemenis turned into a nightmare. The Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi marries pan-Arabism one day only to divorce it the next. Sudan has been transformed from the time of Jaafar Nimeiri (who initiated his regime by liquidating Sudan's Communist Party) into a state ruled by Islamists responsible for the Darfur genocide.

The Ba'ath party itself, crucible of the Arab nationalism mission and of the drive to unit the "eternal Arab nation", split into two groups centred on Damascus and Baghdad; each then gave birth to further rival claimants. Before and since Saddam Hussein's demise, the record of the Ba'athists in power in both capitals was characterised by voices of family betrayal, siblings at war, sons and daughters exchanging shrill accusations of violating the scared cause. The circle here loops back to the daughters of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat - the repetition of history, but "the second time as farce".

This spectacle, the death of an entire project, does not need conspiracies to grasp it. It only requires the tracing of the adventurous journey of the corpse, including Ayatollah Khomeini's attempt to inherit it in 1979 and George W Bush's very different effort to appropriate it in 2003.

Now, the decomposition is well advanced. To evade it, to prefer conspiracy to reality, is to allow the putrefaction to grow. Arabs can't keep quiet much longer. Hoda and Ruqaya are the latest to disclose our family secret.

Also in openDemocracy on the Arab world in 2009:

Ghassan Khatib, "Gaza: outlines of an endgame" (6 January 2009)

Tarek Osman, "Egypt's dilemma: Gaza and beyond" (12 January 2009)

Khaled Hroub, "Hamas after the Gaza war" (15 January 2009)

Prince Hassan of Jordan, "The failure of force: an alternative option" (16 January 2009)

Fred Halliday, "The greater middle east: Obama's six problems" (21 January 2009)

Khaled Hroub, "The ‘Arab system' after Gaza" (27 January 2009)

Joost R Hiltermann, "Iraq's elections: winners, losers, and what's next" (10 February 2009)

Prince Hassan of Jordan, "Palestine's right: past as prologue" (11 February 2009)

Faisal al Yafai, "What makes the Arabs a people?" (25 February 2009)

Tarek Osman, "Democracy-support and the Arab world: after the fall" (17 March 2009)

Ginny Hill, "Yemen: the weakest link" (31 March 2009)

Zaid Al-Ali, "Lebanon: chronicles of an attempted suicide" (20 May 2009)

Robert G Rabil, "Lebanon at the crossroads" (5 June 2009)

Karim Kasim & Zaid Al-Ali, "The Cairo speech: Arab Muslim voices" (8 June 2009)

Zaid Al-Ali, "Iraq: face of corruption, mask of politics" (2 July 2009)

Fred Halliday, "Yemen: travails of unity" (3 July 2009)

Akiva Eldar, "Iran, the Arabs and Israel: the domino-effect" (27 July 2009)


Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData