The key to understanding the ‘Arab Spring’

October 11, 2012

The United States has been unable to develop a clear national policy about the Arab Spring largely because Washington does not fully understand what’s happening in the Middle East.

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 


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

Wow, that was really good! Thank you sir!

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

An Arab is a person who belongs to the Arab culture or has Arab cultural origins. The Arab identity is not linked to an ethnicity, religion, political stand, or ideology, and it does not depend on changing political circumstances.
Adhering to pan-Arabism means belonging to one nation with a common language and culture, and a shared history on a shared land. This nation also shares the same interests and destiny, which may, in the future, take the shape of a federation or an integration of its countries.
The Arab identity as a language and culture existed before Islam, but it was confined to Arab tribes that shared certain geographic boundaries.
Before Islam, pan-Arabism meant the Arabic language and culture, but it began to become a civilization and a cultural identity and allegiance with the birth of Islam and its strong connection with the Arabic language, the language of the Quran, and the spread of Islam by Arab pioneers.
Islam and the Quran contributed significantly to transforming Arabism from the identity of a small Arab race into the horizons of a greater cultural identity as part of a common Islamic Civilization that also includes Arab non-Muslims as well as non-Arab Muslims.
Arabism can provide a solution to the crisis of inter-Arab relations. It can also be a cultural and social fortress that can safeguard and protect the national identity of each Arab country.
Perhaps one of the most important obstacles that needs to be addressed is the current weak sense of national identity and the dominance of sectionalism, which prevails in many Arab countries. This weakens the domestic, constitutional, and political structure, leads to the dominance of sectarian and ethnic identities over Arab societies, and eventually leads to domestic crises and tensions in each Arab country. These sectionalist allegiances are also used to preserve political or personal gain or to seize them from others in power.
This weak sense of national identity also paves the way for foreign interference in some instances. This occurs when priority is given to narrow affiliations that are used as pretexts to deal with foreign parties.
The weak sense of common national identity is an expression of a misunderstanding about other affiliations. Belief in different religious sects or being proud of ethnic and tribal origins is a natural and healthy phenomenon in multi-ethnic and religious communities. But, a problem occurs when this difference is transformed into violent struggle and bloody political conflicts that contradict pluralism and cause us to hold others accountable for the group or religion they were born into, instead of for their deeds and ideas. This is in contradiction to all divine and earthly teachings.

Posted by Hewar | Report as abusive

Very good, except for one thing – despite what they say, the Islamists will not create ‘Sunni’ governments (many or most Sunnis are tolerant and accept secular societies, the current religious head of secular Syria is Sunni) but rather caliphates run by sects within Sunni Islam – the Saudi and Qatari-backed Wahabis and Salafis (who consider themselves the ‘only true’ Sunnis). That is, the sectarianism in Syria would be much worse than the ‘majority Sunni’ idea, which at face value might appear vaguely democratic.

Posted by Tim-aussie | Report as abusive

I believe you will find that genuinely Muslim-dominated governments will inevitably be hostile to the United States. Islamist radicals today effectively dominate the leadership of Islamic “culture”, and view “infidels” (everyone but Muslims) as undesirables on an Earth they intend to claim and control in it’s entirety (in the name of their “prophet”, of course).

The single weak flicker light at the end of this dark tunnel is those “…tens if not hundreds of thousands bright, young, articulate, Western-oriented, media-savvy demonstrators who rose against Arab nationalist governments…”. If they work together to denounce and illuminate the intimidation of the ignorant with nothing to lose and keep the uneducated but passionate from steering the society and economy of the Middle East back to the Twelfth Century, there is hope.

There is no “enlightened” or productive future for any people who deny economic and intellectual participation to half of their population, specifically the female half. I was In Iran for a month in 1976 before the fall of the Shah. My employer was there bidding for a contract to build four American quality 200-bed hospitals in the remote areas of Iran.

I found the people curious, intelligent, capable, and friendly. In that year Iran was graduating it’s first class of twelve year “high school” graduates. Half of them were female.

Fast forward” to today. Those hospitals have yet to be built. All those educated young women quietly disappeared without a whimper into a society defined and limited by a dead-end theocracy clearly more motivated by their desire for regional influence and power than the tenants of their religion. Is tyranny so fundamental to “human nature”?

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Few journalists or media pundits have understood what has been going on in the Middle East since the “Arab Spring” began. Mr. Bannerman’s article is a welcome change.

Posted by Dan85 | Report as abusive

I guess this isn’t the usual cynical commentary about the Middle East, which basically says they can’t govern themselves because they’re too ignorant and too religious. Isn’t it pretty much always the case that a relatively few people lead the way for the others? Technology has helped make it easier for people to see that life can be better and that maybe they don’t have to shut up and just take whatever they’re given. At least that’s a start. It would be nice to hear from the author what his recommendations are on how the West should respond to the new reality as he sees it.

Posted by Calfri | Report as abusive

The US policymakers have not always been so asleep as we think. In his book, War and Peace, 1950, U.S. Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles indicated one of the US’ most powerful foreign policy tools:

“The religions of the east are deeply rooted and have many precious values. Their spiritual belief cannot be reconciled with communist atheism and materialism. That creates a common bond between us, and our task is to find it and develop it.”

So, there was “madness” behind the method that lead to the results OneOfTheSheep has so eloquently lamented.

Posted by skteze | Report as abusive

So, then, with exactly what “policy” was President Bush (43) clearly so unimpressed as he addressed the National Endowment on Democracy in Washington November 2003:

”60 years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe.”

Posted by skteze | Report as abusive


Yes, it is “…pretty much always the case that a relatively few people lead the way for the others”. Few today seem aware of how “relatively few” Nazis (and allied violent intimidating thugs) took control of the Weimar Republic, a much more established and traditional democracy in Germany after WW I, from the citizenry. Those who are ignorant of such history may be doomed to repeat it.

The current “developments” in the middle east (which supported the Axis in WW II) should be of more than a little concern. If Islamist leaderships “lead the way for the others” in a way that threatens Western democracy or non-Muslims nations they may have to be convincingly reminded economically that they can’t eat sand or drink oil. They “hold the world hostage” for oil only so long as we let them.

Russia remains a spoiler to world peace only because they have convinced rational leaderships they may just be enough insane as to prefer suicide (in a way that would take the rest of the world with them) rather than live as productive equals without bullying others.

At some point the rest of the world will have do confront such blackmail or give blackmailers world leadership. That’s a game of “chicken” we cannot avoid and must not lose simply because North Korea and Iran also have delusions of putting their inconsequential chips “in play”.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Thank you for an interesting article.
If I get you right: There has been a well documented long-term trend in identity change.
You suggest an acceleration of this trend as an outcome of the arab spring.

I am curious about how you made this conclusion. Is it merely your own humble observations of daily life or has there been a more formal study?

Best regards
Swedish undergrad. student.

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

To a certain extent. But the death of the Baath Arab Socialism as pioneered by Nasser parallels the death of socialism in Europe.

For this reason it is valid to compare and contrast the realignment of Eastern Europe with the realignment of the middle east.

The wider context is the death of that great secular unifying ideology, socialism. This trend is also driving events in China. The only place that can’t keep up is the US, there the word socialism (as a pejorative aimed at the president) crops up more often than anywhere else.

Interestingly, the death of socialism represents a great victory for America. But the adoption of Islamism signals the terrible failure of the war on terror.

Posted by Dafydd | Report as abusive

The authors analysis of the ‘Arab spring’ is interesting.

‘Islamic identity’ by itself is too fuzzy to be acted upon assuming that the authors views are based on reliable data.

if ‘Islamic identity’ means “infidels” (everyone but Muslims) then there is trouble for every non islamic nation.

If it is a rational interpretation of islam for example like Maulana Wahiduddin Khans, then it is a welcome step and makes it easier for everybody on most issues including policy making.

Posted by GopalRao | Report as abusive