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Arab nationalism's last gasp

January 07, 2007|Robert D. Kaplan | ROBERT D. KAPLAN is a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly and a visiting professor at the U.S. Naval Academy. He is the author of "The Arabists," among other books.

JUST AS THE demise of Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia closed the lid on national communist parties in Eastern Europe, the demise of Saddam Hussein in Iraq appears likely to do the same for secular Arab nationalism across the Middle East.

And just as communism exited the European stage exposed for what it always truly was -- fascism without fascism's ability to make the trains run on time -- secular Arab nationalism will exit the stage revealed for what it always was: a despotic perversion of the western nation-state that lasted as long as it did mainly because of secret-police techniques imported from the former Soviet Union.

Arab nationalism's roots go back to the revolt against European colonialism in the early decades of the 20th century. But as it developed, it faced a serious problem: Because it was organized around the artificial national borders that these same colonialists had drawn -- which generally ignored ethnic and sectarian lines -- the result, in too many cases, was multiethnic rivalry and the subjugation of one part of the population by another.

In Iraq, for instance, the national borders created a state in which the majority Shiites were subjugated by the minority Sunnis (as we all now know). In Syria, the majority Sunnis came to be subjugated by the minority Alawites, who constitute a branch of Shiism (and who had been favored in the armed forces by the French). In Lebanon, it was the Shiites who ended up subjugated by both Christians and Sunnis.

No sooner were these independent new states created than the ties of faith and tribe were undermining them. A fragile unity of sorts could only be achieved by recourse to secular nationalism, which, on paper at least, aimed to transcend those bitter rivalries.

Indeed, the more artificial the state, the more extreme the secular ideology had to be to hold it together. To secure unwieldy tribal assemblages, for instance, an austere state socialism was required in Algeria, and a form of "Dear Leader Absolutism" in Libya. Because Syria and Iraq were also artificial constructs, these two states resorted to Baathism -- another bastardized form of state socialism.

Contrast all this with places such as Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt, which were age-old civilization clusters whose identities, rather than artificial, harked back to antiquity. It should be no surprise that these places produced more benign forms of secular government.

The two extremes in the Arab world became Tunisia and Iraq. Tunisia, a small country of Sunni Arabs with no internal divisions, which traced its borders back to ancient Carthage, produced Habib Bourguiba, the Arab version of the enlightened Turkish modernizer Kemal Ataturk. Iraq, a Frankenstein monster of a country assembled from warring ethnic and sectarian groups by the British, produced Saddam Hussein, the Arab Stalin.

The defining fact of the Cold War years in the Middle East was competition among these insecure new states for the right to inherit the mantle of the deceased Ottoman Turkish empire, which had held sway over most of their territories for centuries. Because Israel served as a symbolic replacement for European colonialism, each new state tried to outdo the other to prove its anti-Zionist bona fides.

Egypt, the Arab world's demographic hub, had the advantage, especially as its leader, Gamal Abdel Nassar, psychologically mobilized the Arab masses by standing up to an invasion by Britain, France and Israel in October 1956, leading to a withdrawal of these "colonial" powers from the Suez Canal. Thus began the high-water mark of secular Arabism, which lasted until Nasser's humiliation by the Israelis in the 1967 war.

The Palestine Liberation Organization emerged in the waning years of Nasserism. It was modeled after the other secular nationalist movements -- so much so that its foundational text, the 1938 book "The Arab Awakening," was written not by a Muslim but by a Greek Orthodox Christian, George Antonius. Another Christian, George Habash, became one of the PLO's most radical guiding lights.

The defining organizational attribute of secular Arab nationalism was the military emergency regime -- witness Egypt, Syria and Iraq -- that justified its existence by the continued state of war with Israel. Also working against liberal change in the Middle East was the influence of the Soviet Union. With Soviet military and economic aid for the secular nationalists came the techniques of East Bloc security services.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the two Baathist countries, Syria and Iraq. The result of made-in-Moscow surveillance techniques was the emergence in the early 1970s of a new class of dictator -- Hafez Assad in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq -- who, unlike their predecessors, were not overthrown by yet another general or colonel after a short time in office.

These new men stayed in power for decades because anyone who opposed them, no matter how furtively, was soon identified and destroyed.

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