The key to understanding the ‘Arab Spring’
The term, “Arab Spring” is itself misleading. The changes over the past 20 months have produced a fundamental transformation of the region – but not in the way most outside observers anticipated: They reflect the replacement of the dominant Arab national identity by a more Islamic identity.
This change has been evolving for more than 40 years and did not begin in January 2011 with the demonstrations across the Middle East.
The Middle East today is less Arab and more Muslim. It was clear from the start of last year’s protests that the successor governments would be less Arab nationalist and secular, and more Islamic.
The widespread use of “Arab Spring” helped conceal this reality. The term brought to mind the changes that had swept through Eastern Europe with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Numerous, but inaccurate, parallels were drawn between the Eastern Bloc and the Middle East.
These false premises were reinforced by the tens if not hundreds of thousands bright, young, articulate, Western-oriented, media-savvy demonstrators who rose against Arab nationalist governments. Despite the attention given to them, these youthful demonstrators never represented more than a small minority of the population.
The fabric of Middle Eastern society has fundamentally changed. Being Muslim has replaced being Arab as the primary identifying factor. The consequences are profound.
Minorities, which had prospered by emphasizing their common Arab identity, now face a very worrisome future. Schismatic Muslim sects – Shia, Druze, Alawites and others – are unlikely to fare well under Sunni Muslim-dominated governments. Secularists are also likely to suffer.
Understanding the dogged determination of the supporters of the Assad government in Syria, for example, is impossible unless you factor in the fear that minorities and secularists have of a Sunni Muslim government.
The Iraq experience reinforces these minority fears. If one asks Christians, Turkomen or other minorities whether they are better off today or under Saddam Hussein’s despotic regime, many may say that as awful as Hussein was, minorities were better off before.
For example, the Christian population of Iraq today is less than half of what it was when the U.S. invaded. Many prosperous Christian Iraqis fled the nation during the years of brutal Arab sectarian violence.
This shift from strong Arab nationalism to a powerful Islamic identity has evolved over the last half-century.
In the 1950s, Arab nationalism emerged as the dominant political philosophy. Arab nationalist governments replaced regimes established by the withdrawing European colonial governments. Arabs sought to address the question of who they were and how they should engage with the West.
Arab nationalists answered these questions by asserting that Arabs were bound together by a common language and culture. The best way for them to meet the challenge of Western dominance was to strengthen their common identity and apply to the Arab world those practices that had made the West successful. They could be liberal democrats, socialists, communists or Baathist – but they all were Arab nationalists. And they were secular.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Arab nationalists achieved power in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Tunisia, Algeria and Yemen, and exerted great influence elsewhere. By the mid-1960s, a majority of Middle Easterners answered the question: “Who are you?” with: “I am an Arab.”
Not everyone, however, accepted this Arab nationalist approach. Some asserted the best path was not mimicking the West, but rather being true to their Islamic values. Arab fortunes had waned, these critics argued, not because they were not enough like the West, but because they had lost sight of their own values. This view was held by only a minority – but always had a significant following.
Following the Arab nationalist armies’ humiliating defeat by Israel in 1967, public opinion began to move more strongly against the Arab nationalist movements. Their approach and philosophy lost appeal. Despotic and sclerotic governments further discredited the cause.
Today the overwhelming majority say: “I am a Muslim.” In no country in the region does a majority respond by saying: “I am an Arab.”
In Lebanon and Egypt many believe they are, first and foremost, Lebanese and Egyptians. Therefore, in Egypt, and to a lesser degree Lebanon, stronger national identity tempers an increasing tendency to identify as Muslim.
Each country in the region is unique and will make its own history. Nonetheless, the replacement of the dominant Arab identity by a Muslim identity is a regional trend that will likely affect every nation to varying degrees.
The challenge to Washington intelligence analysts and policymakers will be to understand and develop policies that address the new realities. Muslim-dominated governments are not innately hostile to the United States. But Washington will need different approaches toward them if it is to promote U.S. national interests.
The first step in this process is to recognize that the Arab era is fading and the Muslim era is beginning.
PHOTO: Demonstrators take part in a protest marking the first anniversary of Egypt’s uprising at Tahrir square in Cairo January 25, 2012. REUTERS/ Mohamed Abd El-Ghany