MIDDLE EAST: Arab nationalism is a misnomer
Eric Rouleau

December 6, 2005

Is Iraq still an Arab nation? No longer, according to its new constitution. Although the constitution states that `Islam is the official religion of the state and a fundamental source of legislation` and that Iraq is `part of the Islamic world`, it does not mention either the Arab identity of the country or its belonging to the Arab community. Arabic is only one of two official languages, the other being Kurdish.

Iraq is thus the first state in the region to be bi-national in accordance with regular democratic norms. However, the constitution does not make a clean break with the country`s predominantly Arab environment: it states that Iraq `is a founding and active member of the Arab League and is committed to its covenant`. Clearly, this is the outcome of an elaborate compromise between the Arab majority and the Kurdish minority of the newly-established federation.

It would be a mistake to distinguish Sunnis from Shias in this respect. Their identity is virtually the same: they consider themselves simultaneously as Iraqis, Muslims and Arabs in spite of their present political differences.

The Shias have more than once demonstrated their nationalism; they were the spearhead of the resistance movement to the British occupation during and after World War I, and they fought the Iranian forces in the eight-year conflict (1980-88) that pitted Baghdad against Tehran in spite of their hatred for Saddam Hussein and their probable sympathies for the Khomeini regime.

As nationalist as the Sunnis, the Shias` present cooperation with the United States is purely tactical and has been dictated by two objectives: first, getting rid of Saddam Hussein; then, suppressing Sunni hegemony over the Iraqi state, both established by the British in the early 1920s. They will probably ask for the withdrawal of coalition troops as soon as they feel capable of crushing the Sunni armed insurgency.

So Arab nationalism is not dead in Iraq as some may be tempted to believe. It was the fashion a few years ago to argue that Egypt was not really Arab; `experts` explained at length, after peace was concluded between Menahem Begin and Anwar Al Sadat, that the people of the Nile Valley are, in reality, the descendants of the ancient Pharaohs who were led astray into the Arab fold by Gamal Abdel Nasser, the founder of the Egyptian republic and predecessor of Sadat.

A separate peace between Cairo and Jerusalem and the exclusion of Egypt from the Arab League seemed to confirm this appealing theory. True, Sadat - followed by his people - did put `Egypt, first`, but this did not mean that they had lost all interest in the Palestinian cause, as experience ultimately demonstrated. Egyptians turned out to be what they are: Egyptians, Muslims and Arabs.

This said, Arab nationalism has little to do with pan-Arabism. The latter has been dead and buried since the end of the Nasser era at the close of the 1960s. The Egyptian president publicly forsook the idea of Arab unity after his frustrating experience in Syria.

Despite the fact that the Syrians were those who insisted in 1958 that Nasser accept the merger of the two countries, it was they who took the initiative to break up the United Arab Republic only three years later. Syrian nationalism, in spite of its Arab dimension, prevailed over the myth of pan-Arabism, a basic concept in the ideology of the Baathists who then ruled, and still rule, the country.

During the same period, Nasser faced fierce opposition on the part of the Iraqi revolutionary regime established in 1958 by General Abdel Karim Qassem, who championed local nationalism. Nasser drew the lessons of these and other failures and proclaimed in 1962 that Arab unity could only be realized between countries that shared the same ideology, `scientific socialism`, while Arab solidarity based on `anti-imperialism` was henceforth paramount.

That was the end of the short and stormy history of active pan-Arabism. With the exception of Colonel Qadhafi`s Libya, no other Arab country has ever tried since 1970 to unite with another `brother` state.

On the other hand, Arab nationalism, as distinct from pan-Arabism, is a misnomer. It designates in practice a widespread feeling of solidarity (mostly passive) among neighborly peoples who share common language, history, woes and aspirations. For some at least, Arab unity is desirable but unattainable.

The Arab League, which is supposed to reflect and put into practice solidarity among its members, if judged by public opinion at large has proven a great disappointment. It has been inefficient in dealing with major issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the American invasion of Iraq.

In the latter case, it recently proved that it can be useful in certain circumstances. Amr Moussa, the secretary-general of the League, was able - to the great surprise of some observers - to convene a `national reconciliation` meeting in Cairo, to which virtually all Iraqi factions accepted to attend.

The Shias and the Kurds, although suspicious of this predominantly Sunni organization that did nothing to weaken Saddam Hussein, accepted the mediation in the hope that it would contribute to reducing the Sunni-inspired insurgency. As for Iraqi Sunnis, they obviously believe that the League will help them obtain a greater share of power in Baghdad.

In relative terms, the conference was a success. Virtually all factions, including insurgents, were represented; agreement was reached on most items on the agenda, although how much will be implemented in practice remains to be seen. Paradoxically, the Kurds played a major role in bridging differences between Arab groups, Shia and Sunni. Clearly, the Arab League still has a future as a regional organization.

Eric Rouleau is a journalist and author. He is former ambassador of France to Tunisia and Turkey. Acknowledgement to bitterlemons-international.org