Research Office
31 January 2019

The Rise and Fall of Pan-Arabism

Was pan-Arabism essentially but a phase in the political history of the Middle East and North Africa? Yes, concludes Professor Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou after retracing the history of the movement in his contribution to The Handbook of South-South Relations, published by Routledge in December 2018.

Can you remind us of what pan-Arabism is and of its place within the Global South – especially its interplays with Middle Eastern and North African nationalisms?

Pan-Arabism is a political movement emerging in the mid-to-late nineteenth century and reaching its acme in the 1960s, which advocated the political, cultural and socioeconomic unity of Arabs across the different states that emerged after decolonisation, from the Mashreq (Arab East) to the Maghreb (Arab West). In that sense, it is a movement eminently tied to colonial and postcolonial history, indeed arguably conceived of indissociably from it. Pan-Arabism is, however, a more complex and layered phenomenon, subsuming these regional “sub-nationalisms”; it was also an at-times-fully-articulated ideological movement taking the form principally of a secular and socialist expression, as in the case of Ba’athism. Importantly, it was driven by middle-class and bourgeois urban actors rather than working class or peasantry/Bedouin ones in the different Arab countries where it manifested itself, and was notably used by the military to secure political control over the nascent state systems in Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Algeria in particular. Both in its call for Arab unity and its role in combating the colonial powers (British, French, Italian and Spanish), it was similarly inherently anticolonial and, from the 1970s onwards, anti-imperial, explicitly against the United States’ policies in the region. In this research, I argue that in spite of such important anchoring in Third Worldism and anticolonialism, pan-Arabism “failed” in aligning itself with the larger Global South struggle in which it was ensconced during its heyday, circa Suez 1956.

How so?

The failure, so to speak, is that the movement gradually turned inwardly, becoming concerned almost solely with intra-Arab issues, in isolation of what role pan-Arabism could play globally alongside pan-Africanism and pan-Asianism for instance, and indeed onto alliances with Latin American movements, to contribute to an alternative reading and organisation of international politics on the basis of regionalism. Such minimal ambition and limited purview – which were not necessarily the initial orientation, when say the April 1955 Bandung Conference was convened – ended up, too, facilitating the political drift of pan-Arabism as it became the basis of postcolonial authoritarianism in most of the countries where it had risen to political power.

Why do you describe pan-Arabism as illustrative of a “perfect storm” logic?

Pan-Arabism has often been discussed in flat terms, with the phenomenon treated as a static ideological variable – something that is also the result, I would say, of an Orientalist reading. Privileging emotions, representing societies one-dimensionally (for instance, the so-called Arab “man in the street”, in Bernard Lewis’s imagery) and painting them under unchanging terms, the movement is present in the Western academic literature as a “torrent”, as “venting”, soon enough a form of expression of the subaltern and their “violent frustrations”. If one shifts the perspective and historicises it, pan-Arabism emerges, differently, as a “historically situated” multilayered movement that, sequentially, builds up momentum against physical occupation (whether Ottoman or Western), taps in the deeper history of Arab empires to formulate a basis for emotional appeal, uses cultural commonalities (primarily linguistic) to express calls for political unity contra the colonisers and does all of that at a moment in history when the nation-state is emerging as the modern standard for these countries’ state-building processes. The coincidence of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Belle Époque of colonialism and the golden age of nationalism, not to mention the wider rising anticolonial movement, provided an external context that lined up optimally with the gestating internal drive for emancipation, modernisation and autonomy, all of it propelling pan-Arabism forcefully. The presence of a charismatic leader embodying it, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, further facilitated the materialisation of such “perfect storm”. All the same, a cogency of this sort would, paradoxically, enable later on a collapse more easily than a set of diffuse, wider social dynamics able to ebb and flow.

What kind of tensions and impediments do you observe in the ideas of Arab national and pan-national ideologies, and how have they been navigated?

Pan-Arabism was a strong movement with substantial appeal in large segments of the Arab world. However, it carried two principal fault lines. The first is the incipient tension between a movement that in effect advocated a transnational polity seeking to transcend local Mashriqi and Maghrebi identities and merge them under an overarching Arab grouping, and the local political stories and pursuit of sovereign domestic systems. As a cultural aspiration, the first dynamic was something that could be articulated in literature and poetry and even captured in several socio-political concepts in the nineteenth century depicting a movement of “awakening”, “renaissance” and “rising”, of which the early Arab nationalism ideologues Rifaa al Tahtawi, Abdelrahman al Kawakibi and Sati al Husri spoke. Yet the more the countries forged ahead with their own projects, the more pan-Arabism would become a hollow structure; its distinguishing nature more and more elusive as “Algerianess”, “Moroccaness”, “Egyptianess”, “Syrianess”, “Iraqiness” and so on started overtaking the minds and hearts of these countries’ citizens. The second fault line of pan-Arabism concerned its basis for appeal and indeed its contradiction as regarded Arab history. The movement’s narrative was a call for renaissance of the Arab golden age as basis for a modern and modernising platform for Arabs in the modern age. Yet that same golden age was characteristically of the Arab-Islamic Empire and it had been driven by religion, not by a secular form of ideology. As the nationalist regimes faltered in the 1970s – Nasser’s death in 1970 in effect being the tell-tale moment – and turned increasingly dictatorial, opposition could quite logically come from Islamist movements speaking a different language of renaissance, which is through faith rather than identity.

How do discussions of pan-Arabism inform studies of South-South relations – the theme of the handbook – given that the movement was influenced by ideas of European nationalism?

The term “pan-Arabism” itself does not appear as such in Arabic and, instead, the phrases al qawmiya al ‘arabiya (Arab nationalism), al wataniya al ‘arabiya (Arab patriotism), al wihda al ‘arabiya (Arab unity), al ittihad al ‘Arabi (Arab union) and al ‘uruba (Arabism or Arabhood) are used interchangeably in both the literature and political debate to convey the notion. Interestingly – and besides the influence of Turkish nationalists in the context of a waning Ottoman Empire, which inspired the set-up of several proto-pan-Arab societies such as Al Ahd (The Covenant) in Damascus in 1913 – pan-Arabism was influenced by Western nationalism. Paradoxically, pan-Arabism – a distinguishing feature of which was rejection of Western ways – was in many respects shaped by European ideas of nationalism, in particular Johann Fichte’s 1808 “Address to the German Nation” and Giuseppe Mazzini’s Italian Risorgimento movement in the 1830s. Still, pan-Arabism was in its “DNA” the expression of a modern-day southern “pushback” first against colonialism and then imperialism, and as such its commonalities with other transnational movements in Africa and Asia were straightforward and natural. The point, precisely, is that such overall potential for cooperation was rapidly pushed aside by the provincialism that came to colour the movement as it forged ahead and most importantly as it secured political power in some of these states. 

Could we discuss examples of ideas and attempts of pan-Arab projects, and what they might reflect about competing forms of the ideology or interregional tensions?

In a companion essay published in 2016 in the Third World Quarterly (“Arab Agency and the United Nations Project: The League of Arab States between Universality and Regionalism”), I examined the main institutional form that pan-Arabism took, specifically its weaving, of sorts, in the genesis of the League of Arab States formed in March 1945. As noted, pan-Arabism dominated Arab political life for much of the mid-twentieth century and it is important to register the fact that besides the variegated use of that ideology by several regimes – Ba’thi Iraq, Ba’thi Syria, Nasserite Egypt, FLN-Algeria and Qaddafi’s Libya during its first ten years – there have been, between 1945 and 1990, no less than eighteen attempts of voluntary unification between Arab states. The most advanced of these was the one of the already-independent countries of Syria and Egypt becoming de jure one single state from February 1958 to September 1961, known as the United Arab Republic (UAR) with its distinct flag. Regarding the League of Arab States, two formative logics were blended; on the one hand, the formation of these Arab state systems was itself an “organic” project establishing a relationship with alternative sites of power (primarily the tribe, qabila or ‘ashira). On the other hand, the intensifying diplomatic exchanges between the new states were the expression of a reaction to colonial arrangements, subsequent strategic calculations, division into different political camps and lasting alliances and counter-alliances. The League was both the embodiment of statist, weak-kneed pan-Arabism and the forum in which Arab sub-regionalism would play out increasingly divisively, all the way indeed to the current crisis in the once cohesive Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). 

Why did pan-Arabism lose momentum after the 1960s? And how does the history of the movement help us contextualise better the events of the Arab Spring and its contemporary legacies? 

My argument is that, politically, pan-Arabism is ultimately the story of one century, from about 1870 to 1970 – pretty much bookended by the Great Arab Revolt of 1916 and the June 1967 War. During those one hundred years or so, for a variety of reasons as noted, very real cultural commonalities across the Arab world and the long history of the Arab empires straddling East and West provided a ready-made basis to formulate a project meant to expel the colonisers and build new modern states while linking the Arab peoples. The thinkers and state-makers who formed that project and worked to advance it borrowed ideas of European nationalism and remixed them domestically to express local, Southern agency. Once decolonisation had been achieved, popular expectations shifted from becoming a nation to reaping the fruits of that emancipation. At that moment, the pan-Arabist states could not deliver economically, as the travails of state-making were both demanding and frustrating in the context of decolonisation, which was often merely one in name. And so the failure of the postcolonial authoritarian Arab state became associated – possibly unfairly so – with the ideology they championed. You could say that the pan-Arabist approach was always in competition with the irresistible demands of statehood. Yet, the feeling of pan-Arabism lingered and re-emerged, notably in 1990 during the Gulf Crisis as a segment of the Arab world rallied around Iraq, not in favour of its invasion of Kuwait but against the US intervention. Finally, a form of pan-Arabism – less state-centred, more bottom-up, resulting from interconnections across Arab civil society – was also noticeably present during the 2011 Arab Spring. However, for all their important regional commonalities, those revolts were primarily about local issues: Ben Ali’s nepotism, Mubarak’s corruption, Qaddafi’s authoritarianism, Saleh’s autocracy and Assad’s dictatorship, and so in that context pan-Arabism was, politically, of limited use and appeal. As we saw it subsequently, it was indeed the pan-Islamist movements that took over or attempted to do so politically in many of these theatres.

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Full citation of the chapter:
Ould Mohamedou, Mohammad-Mahmoud. “The Rise and Fall of Pan-Arabism.” In The Handbook of South-South Relations, edited by Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh and Patricia Daley, 168–77. London: Routledge, 2018.

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Front picture: Flickr photo by Joe Haupt/CC BY-SA 2.0.
Interview by Aditya Kiran Kakati, doctoral candidate in International History and Anthropology and Sociology.