Pan-Arabism, or simply Arabism, is an ideology which espouses the unification of the countries of North Africa and Western Asia from the Atlantic Ocean to the Arabian Sea, which is referred to as the Arab world. It is closely connected to Arab nationalism, which asserts the view that the Arabs constitute a single nation. Its popularity reached its height during the 1950s and 1960s. Advocates of pan-Arabism have often espoused socialist principles and strongly opposed Western political involvement in the Arab world. It also sought to empower Arab states against outside forces by forming alliances and – to a lesser extent – economic co-operation.
Origins and development
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The origins of pan-Arabism are often attributed to Jurji Zaydan (1861–1914) and his Nahda (Revival) movement. He was one of the first intellectuals to espouse pan-Arabism as a cultural nationalist force. Zaydan had critical influence on acceptance of a modernized version of the Quranic Arabic language (Modern Standard Arabic) as the universal written and official language throughout the Arab world, instead of adoption of local dialects in the various countries. Zaydan wrote several articles during the early 20th century which emphasized that Arabic-speaking regions stretching from the Maghreb to Persian Gulf constitute one people with a shared national consciousness and that this linguistic bond trumped religious, racial and specific territorial bonds, inspired in part by his status as a Levantine Christian emigre in 19th century Egypt. He also popularized through his historical novels a secular understanding of Arab history encompassing the pre-Islamic and Islamic periods into a shared history that all Arabs could claim as their own. As a political project, Pan-Arabism was first pressed by Sharif Hussein ibn Ali, the Sharif of Mecca, who sought independence for the Mashreq Arabs from the Ottoman Empire, and the establishment of a unified Arab state in the Mashreq. In 1915 and 1916, the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence resulted in an agreement between the United Kingdom and the Sharif that if the Mashreq Arabs revolted successfully against the Ottomans, the United Kingdom would support claims for Mashreq Arab independence. In 1916, however, the Sykes-Picot Agreement between the United Kingdom and France determined that parts of the Mashreq would be divided between those powers rather than forming part of an independent Arab state. When the Ottoman Empire surrendered in 1918, the United Kingdom refused to keep to the letter of its arrangements with Hussein, and the two nations assumed guardianship of Mesopotamia, Lebanon, Palestine and what became modern Syria. Ultimately, Hussein became King of only Hijaz, in the then less strategically valuable south, but lost his Caliphate throne when the kingdom was sacked by the Najdi Ikhwan forces of the Saudites and forcefully incorporated into the newly created Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
A more formalized pan-Arab ideology than that of Hussein was first espoused in the 1930s, notably by Syrian thinkers such as Constantin Zureiq, Sati' al-Husri, Zaki al-Arsuzi, and Michel Aflaq. Aflaq and al-Arsuzi were key figures in the establishment of the Arab Ba’ath (Renaissance) Party, and the former was for long its chief ideologist, combining elements of Marxist thought with a nationalism to a considerable extent reminiscent of nineteenth-century European romantic nationalism. It has been said that Arsuzi was fascinated with the Nazi ideology of "racial purity" and impacted Aflaq.
Abdullah I of Jordan dreamed of uniting Syria, Palestine, and Jordan under his leadership in what he would call Greater Syria. He unsuccessfully proposed a plan to this effect to the United Kingdom, which controlled Palestine at that time. The plan was not popular among the majority of Arabs and fostered distrust among the leaders of the other Middle Eastern countries against Abdallah. The distrust of Abdallah's expansionist aspirations was one of the principal reasons for the founding of the Arab League in 1945. Once Abdallah was assassinated by a Palestinian nationalist in 1951, the vision of Greater Syria was dropped from the Jordanian agenda.
Although pan-Arabism began at the time of World War I, Egypt (the most populous and arguably most important Arab country) was not interested in pan-Arabism prior to the 1950s. Thus, in the 1930s and 1940s, Egyptian nationalism – not pan-Arabism – was the dominant mode of expression of Egyptian political activists. James Jankowski wrote about Egypt at the time,
What is most significant is the absence of an Arab component in early Egyptian nationalism. The thrust of Egyptian political, economic, and cultural development throughout the nineteenth century worked against, rather than for, an 'Arab' orientation. ... This situation—that of divergent political trajectories for Egyptians and Arabs—if anything increased after 1900.
Attempts at Arab union
It was not until Gamal Abdel Nasser that Arab nationalism (in addition to Arab socialism) became a state policy and a means with which to define Egypt's position in the Middle East and the world, usually articulated vis-à-vis Zionism in the neighbouring state of Israel.
There have been several attempts to bring about a pan-Arab state by many well-known Arab leaders, all of which ultimately resulted in failure. British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden called for Arab unity during the 1940s, and was followed by specific proposals from pro-British leaders, including King Abdullah of Transjordan and Prime Minister Nuri al-Said of Iraq, but Egyptian proposals for a broader grouping of independent Arab states prevailed with the establishment of the League of Arab States, a regional international organization, in 1945. In large part representing the popularity Nasser had gained among the masses in the Arab world following the Suez crisis, the United Arab Republic (UAR) in 1958 was the first case of the actual merger of two previously-independent Arab countries. Hastily formed under President Nasser's leadership but on the initiative of Syrian leaders who feared a takeover by communists or "reactionaries" and hoped to lead the new entity, the UAR was a unitary state, not a federal union, with its critics seeing this as hardly more than a small country being annexed by a larger one. It lasted until 1961, when Syrian army officers carried out a coup d'état and withdrew from the union. As politicians felt pressured by the wide public to espouse the idea of unity, Egypt, Syria and Iraq entered into an abortive agreement in 1963 to form the United Arab Republic, which was to be "federal in structure, leaving each member state its identity and institutions." By 1961, Egypt had become the only remaining member but continued to call itself "the UAR" (thereby implying it was open for unification with other Arab countries), but it eventually renamed itself the "Arab Republic of Egypt" in 1973.
Also in 1958, a Hashemite-led rival, the Arab Federation, was founded between Jordan and Iraq. Tensions with the UAR and the 14 July Revolution made the Arab Federation collapse after only six months. Another attempt, the United Arab States, existed as a confederation between the United Arab Republic and the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen, but it dissolved in 1961.
Two later attempts represented the enthusiasm of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, the Federation of Arab Republics, which lasted five years, and the Arab Islamic Republic, which never emerged in practice. Aside from the forcible unification of much of the Arabian Peninsula by the Saudi rulers of Najd during the 1920s, the unity of seven Arab emirates that form the United Arab Emirates and the unification of North Yemen and South Yemen stand today as rare examples of actual unification. The current Syrian government is and the former government of Iraq was led by rival factions of the Ba'ath Party, which continues to espouse pan-Arabism and is organized in several other countries.
The Arab defeat by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War and the inability of pan-Arabist governments to generate economic growth severely damaged the credibility of pan-Arabism as a relevant ideology. "By the mid-1970s," according to The Continuum Political Encyclopedia of the Middle East, "the idea of Arab unity became less and less apparent in Arab politics, though it remained a wishful goal among the masses."
Egyptians' attachment to pan-Arabism was particularly questioned after the Six-Day War. Nasser had overplayed his hand in trying to form a pan-Arab hegemony under himself. Thousands of Egyptians had lost their lives, and the country became disillusioned with Arab politics. The Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel in 1978 further fractured the Arabic-speaking countries. Nasser's successor Anwar Sadat, both through public policy and his peace initiative with Israel, revived an uncontested Egyptian orientation, unequivocally asserting that only Egypt and Egyptians were his responsibility. The terms Arab, Arabism, and Arab unity became conspicuously absent.
By the late 1980s, pan-Arabism began to be eclipsed by both nationalist and Islamist ideologies.
Egyptian critics of Arab nationalism contend that it has worked to erode and relegate native Egyptian identity by superimposing only one aspect of Egypt's culture. Those views and sources for collective identification in the Egyptian state are captured in the words of a linguistic anthropologist who conducted fieldwork in Cairo:
Historically, Egyptians have considered themselves as distinct from 'Arabs' and even at present rarely do they make that identification in casual contexts; il-'arab [the Arabs] as used by Egyptians refers mainly to the inhabitants of the Gulf states... Egypt has been both a leader of pan-Arabism and a site of intense resentment towards that ideology. Egyptians had to be made, often forcefully, into "Arabs" [during the Nasser era] because they did not historically identify themselves as such. Egypt was self-consciously a nation not only before pan-Arabism but also before becoming a colony of the British Empire. Its territorial continuity since ancient times, its unique history as exemplified in its pharaonic past and later on its Coptic language and culture, had already made Egypt into a nation for centuries. Egyptians saw themselves, their history, culture and language as specifically Egyptian and not "Arab."
- "Arab Unity." The Continuum Political Encyclopedia of the Middle East. Ed. Avraham Sela. New York: Continuum, 2002. pp. 160–166.
- Contemporary Politics in the Middle East, Beverly Milton-Edwards, Polity Press, 2006, p. 57-59
- The Syrian Arab Republic: a handbook, Anne Sinai, Allen Pollack, 1976, p. 45
- Google Books
- Pan-Arabism and Arab nationalism: the continuing debate by Tawfic Farah, Publisher Westview Press, 1987, p. 37
- Sela, Avraham. "Arab League." Sela. The Continuum Political Encyclopedia of the Middle East. 147-150.
- Jankowski, James. "Egypt and Early Arab Nationalism" in Rashid Khalidi, ed. The Origins of Arab Nationalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990, pp. 244–45
- For more information, see Aburish, Said K. (2004), Nasser, the Last Arab, New York City: St. Martin's Press, ISBN 978-0-312-28683-5
- "Before Nasser, Egypt, which had been ruled by Britain since 1882, was more in favor of territorial, Egyptian nationalism and distant from the pan-Arab ideology. Egyptians often did not identify themselves primarily as Arabs, and it is revealing that when the Egyptian nationalist leader Saad Zaghlul met the Arab delegates at Versailles in 1918, he insisted that their struggles for statehood were not connected, claiming that the problem of Egypt was an Egyptian problem and not an Arab one." Makropoulou, Ifigenia. Pan - Arabism: What Destroyed the Ideology of Arab Nationalism?. Hellenic Center for European Studies. January 15, 2007.
- "United Arab Republic (UAR)." Sela. The Continuum Political Encyclopedia of the Middle East. 873-874.
- Dawisha, p. 237
- Dawisha, pp. 264–65, 267
- Haeri, Niloofar. Sacred language, Ordinary People: Dilemmas of Culture and Politics in Egypt. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 2003, pp. 47, 136.