At first, the notion of Arabism appeared to liberate the Levant from the Ottoman Empire. However, after the 1952 revolution, [Gamal] Abdel Nasser re-defined the Arab nationalism to fight traditional colonialism following its retreat after the two great powers (UK and France) fell back as a result of World War II. The national ideologies presented by Abdel Nasser and the Arab nationalists and Baathists helped mobilise social and political powers against colonialism. With time, the Arab nationalism to Abdel Nasser, founder of the 1952 family, became more than an ideology for liberation; on one side, it became a notion that fulfilled Abdel Nasser’s personal aspirations for expanding his power, and, from the other side, which is the more important, it fulfilled the expectations of the ruling class at that time to expand politically and economically in the region. This plan, which took liberation from colonialism as its basis, did not only include the Arab side but the African as well.
Arab nationalism has never expressed all the constants of Abdel Nasser’s regime, or the 1952 family; on the contrary, it was part of the constants of every regime, with a new form. Generally, if Arab nationalism was considered the ideological-political motive behind the 1952 regime’s regional role, this same motive was the reason behind all the regime’s aspirations to export the revolution or the Nasserite to the Arab countries. This revolution, however, was not just a ‘regime change’ that would build ideologies of the Arab nationalism; this revolution meant installing the Nasserite regime and the start of the 1952 family, with all its constants including the opinions on democracy, justice, and society.
Prior to 1952, there was no specific Arab or regional regime. The Mediterranean and Arab region was handled through the direct relations between Britain and France. Perhaps we all remember how Britain, which foresaw the end of the era of traditional colonialism, was keen on gathering the remains of the small territories in larger territories that could be handled after the end of the era. This may be the explanation to the formation of the Arab League of Nations in 1947 side by side with the modern nation states, with the support of Britain.
Part of the Arab regime, of which Abdel Nasser put the first brick, relied on a new global regime, where the influence was divided between the US and the USSR. Abdel Nasser chose, through a complicated path, to tend to the Soviets. Nasser’s model acquired some populist Soviet-Stalinist features, and the Arab regime in general became under what can be called popular-populist dominance, by Nasser’s model, under mechanisms of, sometimes silent, and conflict in some other times, between what was known as “Arab reactionaries” and supporters of Nasser’s model. What is notable is that a lot of Arab regimes at that time reproduced all, or some, of the features of Nasser’s model, while maintaining relationships marred by competition or conflict within this model itself.
This occurred as a result of whether the keenness of these regimes to combat what they considered Nasserism dominance or as a result of refusing Nasser’s model in the first place, while keeping a lot of its features for reasons related to its populism on the Arab level, and the unwillingness, or more precisely, the inability, to profess hostility to this model.
With the 1967 defeat, the Arab regime, dominated by the Nasserite model, received a fatal blow. With El-Sadat, the third president of the 1952 family, in power, the fall of the Nasserite model began. Arab nationalism became an expression of El-Sadat’s regime’s aspirations to rule. It eventually meant giving support of Arab states to Egypt. These states kept getting wealthier as the world became more dependent on petroleum especially after the October War in 1973. When El-Sadat decided to end the conflict with Israel, it was due to what some considered the abandonment by wealthy Arab states of the Egyptian economy, and hence the arising of El-Sadat’s urge to build strong relations with USA through signing the peace treaty with Israel.
When the Arab-Nasserism regime was at the peak of its strength, and in deep hostility with the US, what was known as “Arab reactionary regimes” had perfect relations with the western countries in general, and with the US in particular. Remarkably, these “reactionary” regimes were managing their relations with the West and Israel, as it was said, in secret, fearing people who were generally supporting Gamal Abdel Nasser and his model. What is really remarkable is that when El-Sadat visited Jerusalem and signed the Camp David Accords – and when the voices of the regimes that adopted, in some way or another, the Nasserism model were loud in confronting El-Sadat and the “treaty of shame and treason,” as they described it – the “Arab reactionaries” lined up, or more precisely hid behind the Steadfastness and Confrontation Front. The Arab regime led this front, which included different copies of Nasser’s model, since Camp David until El-Sadat’s death.
Shorty after El-Sadat’s death, in a very remarkable paradox, Mubarak started to improve his relations with the Arab states without having to withdraw from the treaty of “shame and treason”. Many things changed then, including traditional colonialism which no longer existed, nor the liberation model aspiring peoples; even the Steadfastness and Confrontation Front could not change what Camp David achieved. Consequently, the “nationalist regimes” lost their popularity.
El-Sadat’s era witnessed phases that played the major role in drawing pictures of the Arab regime. The first phase was before 1973, in which El-Sadat tried to rebuild Egypt’s relations with “Arab reactionaries” and stop exporting a liberation model that no longer existed, alongside with mobilising support to Egypt in a victorious military battle that allowed it to acquire a honourable peace, which he actually succeeded in by 1973. However, repercussions of the war did not achieve fast peace. Moreover, the “Arab reactionaries” did not support him as much as he wanted. Consequently, the second phase of El-Sadat’s rule started after his visit to Jerusalem, where the Steadfastness and Confrontation Front topped the Arab regime, supported by “Arab reactionaries”.
“Egypt-El-Sadat” was pushed away. It tried to keep its presence in the scene through practices appearing as arrogant as bumptious by El-Sadat, without any base to rely on, similar to death rattle. This is how the Egyptian role retreated from the forefront of the regional-Arab scene.
With El-Sadat’s death, and the decline of the Soviet role in the region, Mubarak acknowledged the retreat of Egypt, especially in light of the need for support from the wealthy states. Saudi Arabia became an important pole in the Arab regime in the face of the Steadfastness and Confrontation Front led by “Iraq-Saddam”, but this regional bipolar system, where Egypt supported the Saudi role, quickly fell after Saddam’s collapse, paving way for the “Saudi-petroleum” era led by Saudi Arabia without competition and with Egypt’s full support.
The Arab regime had moved from the “decolonisation” era to the Nasserist-El-Sadat era of “elimination of the attack impacts”, then to the Saudi-Baathist era of “steadfastness and confrontation”, and to the “Saudi-petroleum” era with the support of Mubarak. So, where is the Arab regime heading now?
The most important feature distinguishing the Saudi-petroleum era was the Islamic Salafist role, which was all that Saudi Arabia could offer to neighbouring countries, in addition to the huge financial support. Now, this very same role, after the appearance of the Islamic State, became subject to accusations. On the other hand, the Egyptian regime does not have a model that can lead the Arab regime. Especially the idea of hostility towards political Islam, something that Al-Sisi can present as basis for a new Arab regime, is not subject of agreement, because Sunni political Islam which can confront the Shi’a danger in Saudi Arabia may not be acceptable to Egypt. In other words, we can say that estimation of the danger of political Shi’a Islam compared to that of Sunni political Islam may be subject of disagreement between Egypt and Saudi Arabia due to the difference in their geopolitical attitudes towards both threats.
The most important question is: even if both parties agreed on fighting the same enemies and how to face them, can an Arab regime be built upon the basis of rejecting a certain model? Is this enough? Does the situation need to offer a model that is more popular in regard of facing political Islam with all its natures, Sunni, Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic State, Shi’a, and Iranian?
Can the Arab League provide answers to these difficult questions or will Arabs ruminate time and stall in the same place waiting for another wave of revolutions that can present alternatives to political Islam with its Sunni and Shi’a nature?
Farid Zahran is a publisher and writer. He is the co-founder of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party.