Nationalism, the Arab Spring, and the new Middle East

Before the Arab Spring, the assumption was that Arab nationalism had been tried and failed, and Islamism was the new – and dangerous – movement capable of mobilizing the ‘Arab street.’ What a difference one year can make. Nationalism is back in the Middle East. In reality it had never actually gone away, but had been in political remission.
Nationalism was the crucial element enabling the various factions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya to unite behind a common cause – using the national flag as their symbol. As the Libyan author Hisham Matar said on Al Jazeera earlier this year, “People in Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya are rediscovering what it means to be a people — their national identity, their sense of themselves.” It was not accidental that Tunisia was the country where the first and crucial democratic uprising took place. Tunisia had developed a robust sense of national identity – in part because of a vigorous nation-building campaign conducted by its first dictatorial ruler, Habib Bourguiba, who was in power from 1957-87. (On this, see A History of Modern Tunisia by Kenneth Perkins, 2004.)
After the revolution, the Egyptian military have been trying to regain the political initiative by stoking xenophobia – particularly anti-Americanism – in order to discredit the pro-democracy movement. This was explained in an important article by Yaroslav Trofimov in the Wall Street Journal on 10 August.  For example, the state-run media criticized the finance ministry for negotiating a $5.2 billion stand-by loan with the IMF as an example of neocolonial exploitation – even though the 2.5% interest rate was half that being offered by Qatar. The government has announced that international observers will not be allowed to monitor the elections in November.
On the other hand, nationalism may yet slip out of the Egyptian military’s control. The protesters’ attack on the Israeli embassy earlier this month was motivated by nationalism, and was something the government did not want to see happen. President Anwar Sadat had persuaded the Egyptian people that Egypt had won the October 1973 war, so Egyptians don’t realize that the Camp David peace with Israel was a result of Egypt’s military defeat. Instead they thought that Sadat had sold them out to the Americans.
The rise of nationalism is not confined to the countries of the Arab Spring. Ethan Bronner writing in the New York Times on September 18 noted the resurgence of nationalism in the two democracies of the region – Israel and Turkey. He wrote “The two countries have gone through remarkably similar political shifts in recent decades from aggressively secular societies run by Westernized elites to populist ethno-religious states where standing up to foreigners offers rich political rewards.” “Ben-Gurion, who studied law in Istanbul, modeled himself on Ataturk, seeking to build an instantly modern society of like-minded and ‘ideal’ citizens with few deviations in language or culture. Both saw religion as a deviation.”
Likewise, over in Iran President Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s struggle for power with the conservative clerics who rule Iran revolves around his aggressive promotion of Iranian nationalism, as explained by in this piece by Mahan Abedin.
It is not surprising, then, that the Palestinian National Authority wants to join the nationalist bandwagon by applying for recognition at the United Nations.


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