The Coming Arab Identity Crisis

The Arab Spring could renew Nasser's 60-year-old mission for pan-Arabism, but the movement would face new challenges today.

amazigh march7 p.jpg

An Amazigh child in Algeria / Reuters

Just after the 18-day uprising in Tahrir Square ousted President Hosni Mubarak, a Cairene businessman living in Hong Kong told me in rapturous excitement, "Now that we are freeing ourselves from dictators, all we need is to unify. One currency like the E.U., a common goal of economic development, and integrity for our Arab world."

He was not the first Arab idealist to envision pan-Arab unification as a legitimate goal. In 1960, at the height of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser's Pan-Arabist, socialist movement, Egyptian musical icon Mohammed Abdel Wahab composed Watani al Akbar (in English, My Grand Nation), an ode to the idea of a united Arab super-state that would stretch from Morocco to Iraq. Many of the greatest singers of the Arab world came together on the same stage for the performance.

As independence movements pushed out European imperialists, Arabs were finally no longer second-class citizens in their own countries. Wahab's song for "a perfect unity" captured a goal that today, as democratic movements sweep the region, has returned to once again fill Arabs with hope and pride.

"Arab-ness is not a religion."

Just as Nasser's movement could not survive the political realities of his era, today's renewed pan-Arabism faces the same challenge it did in the 1960s: ethnic identity. If Arabs are to come together,-- this time not in a super-state but a union of regional economies -- they will first have to agree on who does and does not count as an Arab. That's a more complicated -- and potentially controversial -- question than outsiders might realize, but it is one that could challenge the Arab world, with or without a renewed pan-Arabism.

As problematic as Nasser's pan-Arabism was, its memory is still one of sentimentality and regret. Israel's bloody 1967 defeat of a unified Arab army and Egypt's virtual take-over of Syria under the banner of Nasserist pan-Arabism soured Arab opinions of a movement that could have elevated the region economically and politically. 

The Arab world encompasses a vast array of ethnic, cultural, and religious cleavages and countless skin color gradations. In Nasser's time, pan-Arabists had trouble deciding how to either include or exclude Christian Arabs, Jewish Arabs, Amazighs (more often referred to by the pejorative term Berber), Kurds, and others into the movement for Arab advancement.

"A pan-Arabist would see diversity as fitna [sedition]," said Karim Mezran, professor of Middle Eastern studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. "An intelligent person wouldn't see diversity that way." 

For Arab academics like Mezran, pan-Arabism has become more of a four-letter word than a legitimate aspiration of the Arab people.

"There were a lot of promises in [Nasser's] pan-Arabism that failed miserably," said Osama Abi-Mershed, director of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University. "The term is pejorative these days. ... Entry into Nasser's United Arab Republic thrust Yemen into a civil war, for example."

Still, there's some hope for regionalism. Earlier this month, Tunisia's newly elected President Moncef Marzouki announced a plan to reunify the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA), an economic union that went defunct in 1994 over a dispute between members Algeria and Morocco over control of Western Sahara. Founded in 1956, the UMA included Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya.

Marzouki told the AFP that a new UMA would politically and economically integrate North Africa to better attract foreign investment and combat terrorism.

But can it work? Georgetown's Abi-Mershed expressed skepticism for the feasibility of a UMA renaissance, saying that non-democratic countries like Algeria would be wary of integration..

"Regimes in power since colonialism, nationalist regimes see regionalism as a threat to autocratic powers," he said. "These regional forces can dilute national authority. They aren't interested in gaining legitimacy by enlarging enfranchisement."

Although they feel it's unlikely, academics say regionalism could do great things for the Middle East.

"A movement for freedom and improvement should unite the Arab state," said Johns Hopkins' Mezran. "It's not the time for calls for racial and religious uniformity --unity should be in terms of values."

"The European Union," he said, "that's what the [Arab states] should follow. They should seek the progressive integration of market functions. Slowly, states should enter the union -- two states first, then four and five."

The political community agrees. "I see the UMA as an important vehicle to develop economies and combat terrorism," said Edward Gabriel, a former U.S. ambassador to Morocco and a Lebanese-American. "We in the U.S. have short attention spans. If North Africa waits for help from the U.S. and Europe, they may be disappointed."

Although diversity has been a hurdle to Arab unity before, perhaps the rising democratic movements can help make it an asset. What the Arab rulers of previous generations saw as a threat to pan-Arabist identity, Mezran sees as an economic opportunity.

"Minorities are an enrichment because of their global ties and leanings. If you open up and incorporate minorities, they bring their contacts. Maronites [Christian Lebanese] have a lot of connections with Europe and the U.S." he pointed out. "What I know is if you exclude minorities, you close markets."

Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco, and Jordan -- Arab nations with some of the largest populations of the region's ethnic minorities -- are among the largest recipients of remittances in the world, according to the World Bank's most recent figures. In 2010, those four countries received $26.1 billion in remittances.

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Massoud Hayoun is a digital-news producer for Al Jazeera America.

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