Two scenes

Abdel-Moneim Said
Tuesday 20 Sep 2022

The dichotomy of cooperation and conflict.


It was James Rosenau who came up with the law of motion for states and societies in the post-Cold War era. He said they would swing between integration and disintegration. Europe was the model of the former: countries and tribes that had been at each other’s throats for centuries now merged to forge an integrated entity in the framework of the liberal capitalist order.

Examples of the reverse, as in the breakup of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and other such large entities, on the other hand, testified to an inability to manage plurality and diversity. However, a quarter of a century after Rosenau formulated this law and Fukuyama pronounced “the end of history,” the global situation is more complicated than ever. The UK’s exit from the EU set in motion a phase of disintegration no one had expected. The Crimean people’s vote in favour of annexation with Russia revived a form of integration based on power equations, even if that brought about an instance of disintegration for Ukraine, which so far remains the current status quo.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the nationalist school of political thought gained currency in the Arab World. It held that the bonds established by the relationship with the state should supersede all other social bonds, creating an overarching link between citizens that transcends religious and ethnic affiliations.

Given the challenges this posed, the nationalists worked to promote national bonds through programmes that emphasised the common language, “shared” history, and common interests of all members of the same polity. They also stressed the common “threat” that constantly lurked everywhere: the “enemies” who conspired to fragment the nation. Therefore, it was no coincidence that this school of thought totally denied the existence of ethnic and sectarian differences. If it did acknowledge such differences, it created political indoctrination and formation mechanisms using educational, media and political party instruments to mould generations of ardent nationalists of all hues.

One of the surprising consequences of the nationalist school and its drives was that it triggered countercurrents among minorities who found they could only express their culture and traditions in the framework of a nation state of their own. In the Arab World, the Arab nationalists had this effect. For years their answer to questions on the state of minorities in this Arab country or that they were as well content as the rest of the people. More often than not they would even refuse to use the word “minority.”  There was no such thing, they said, since all citizens were equal and fused into a homogeneous whole.

The nationalist school in Arab countries faced some tough tests in the second decade of this century. The most gruelling was the turbulence the West has termed the “Arab Spring” out of the belief that the revolutions and participant groups were calling for democracy, liberalism and capitalism.

What emerged, in fact, was a religious fascism so far removed from nationalism that it did not even recognise the nation state. Its approach to the political sphere at home and abroad was founded on the “superiority” of its particular religious identity. The result has been an endless nightmare of violence, bloodshed and destruction, leaving devastated towns and cities and untold millions of dead, wounded, displaced persons and refugees.

An appalling incident occurred in Syria where national unionism was carried out through a population exchange agreement between fighting parties whereby Shias would move to Shia areas and Sunnis to Sunni areas in a perfect exercise of ethnic cleansing. In that setting, terrorism found no moral impediment to detonating a bus full of people, creating a landscape of total carnage in which it was impossible to tell Sunni from Shia.

Such scenes remain commonplace in Syria and Yemen. Similar tragedies constantly erupt in Iraq, Lebanon, Libya and Sudan. Combined, they form a profound picture of resistance to change, regardless of whether it is engineered through quota systems, regional partition, a military-civilian power sharing formula or arrangements struck between religious leaders, tribal elders or provincial chiefs. Disintegration has been the order of the day. Major international and regional efforts, both diplomatic and political, are needed to salvage whatever possible.

However, we have another, contrasting scene in the Arab World. It comes from the monarchies that managed to avoid the Arab Spring entirely or countries that were able to come out the other end in a relatively short time. These countries ushered in a new phase by launching deep and sweeping nationwide reform programmes aimed at achieving comprehensive development by tapping the nation’s full demographic, geographic and historical.

In addition to the Gulf countries, this club of nations includes Egypt, Algeria, Morocco and more recently Tunisia. All have accommodated to their domestic diversity and all are involved in the constant quest to achieve regional stability and economic cooperation between Arab countries and between them and any ready and willing neighbours.

The AlUla Declaration, adopted in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia, marked a turning point in favour of the understanding that domestic reform processes must be accompanied by a reform in the tenor of relations in the Arab region and its environment. Expressions of this realisation took various forms, the most salient of which was the Arab-US summit in Saudi Arabia between nine Arab heads of state and the US president. I believe that more such Arab summits with other world powers will build on this.

As we have seen, the two dynamics that Rosenau had identified are tangibly evident and unfolding in the Arab region. While disintegration persists, bent on its insularism, introversion and narrow-mindedness and the consequent tragedies, cooperation is growing with peace initiatives, maritime border planning, the establishment of economic forums, and the clarification and redefinition of national interests in ways that facilitate the diplomacy of construction and development. The relationship between the two is delicate and precarious.

Perhaps Iraq stands midway between the two orientations as it is still caught in the previous phase of Arab history that was characterised by fits of internal polarisation and polarisation between Iraq and the outside world. Iraq is an integral part of the Arab Gulf and its social and historical traditions, but it is also situated in the zone of great upheaval in the Arab world: the Arab Mashriq, or Levant. In the Gulf, the ruling dynasties had the ability to maintain stability. With the discovery of oil, the means increased to attract and assimilate all within the framework of the nation state. Meanwhile, the Levant has faced the spectre of partition since Sykes Picot and the centuries of ethnic sectarian divisions and strife before that.

Iraq stands somewhere in between, at a loss. It wants to cooperate with Egypt and Jordan in the framework of what Baghdad itself has called the New Levant, in which oil and gas have a central role to play. At the same time, it is captive to the gravitational pull of Iranian influence, which draws it away from its national identity, as well as to the historical pull of the Saddam Hussein era and the nationalist structures that preceded that.

The dialectic between the processes and products of integration and disintegration will remain on the agenda of Arab history for the foreseeable future. The main burden of this dialectic falls on the proponents of cooperation and integration because their reforms can not take hold completely until stability prevails over the forces of disintegration. And the dimensions of the latter are numerous, which is what the problem is.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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