Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

The quest for Arab unity is no joke

Once again the world has been greeted with news from the Middle East that the Arabs are establishing a unified state from two existing states, Libya and Syria. We have all heard this story so many times that is has become an international joke. The amusing part for those who follow international events is that within months the leaders who proclaim these eternal unions of Arab brotherhood are usually at one another's throats.

But while other people don't take the Arabs seriously, national unity can be serious business for Arabs. Deep and sincere national feelings about a unified, stable, and powerful framework that will allow for political expression are truly popular. This desire has literally kept the Arab world in turmoil for years.

About these ads

Why then have the Arabs failed to achieve their goal?

Two difficulties exist. First, fervent advocates of unity have a naive belief in an ability to achieve their goal by means of national acclamation -- as if some great force will sweep over the people, who will then emotionally embrace the concepts of Arabism, and thereafter a unified Arab state will exist. Unity is viewed almost as an act of religious conversion.

Organization and policy -- some act other than erasing political boundaries -- are seldom considered as part of the equation. The objective of unity is always said to be the defeat of Israel, but the steps that might be useful in achieving this end are usually limited to forming a unified military command. In short, unity movements have been a popular experience. They have had no institutional foundation.

A second problem for unity schemes is the way Arabs treat leadership. Gamal Abdel Nasser, himself a unity buff, once characterized unity as a mission in search of a leader. In this statement, Nasser was taking a traditional Arab and even Islamic position. In a traditional sense, the quality of Arab leadership has been that of enunciating God's law. There is one God who is sovereign, one spokesman who assumes worldly leadership in God's name, and popular acquiescence as proof of that spokesman's correctness. Leadership is authoritarian (being derived from God), but at the same time it relies on a public consensus. To lose the consensus is evidence of having lost God's favor. The loss of leadership is then the only acceptable outcome.

Invariably, when two chiefs of state enter a union, the question must arise over who is reallym leader. Because of the authority attributed to leadership, and owing to the almost mystical view of power that is derived from the thought of being sustained by a God-given consensus in his own state, neither leader can easily acquiesce to the other.

In the contemporary setting leadership can exist in an Arab state. But when Arabs address the issue of unity, they are not thinking about a state or even states. They want unity for the great overarching Arab nation -- an idea to which most Arabs subscribe despite what we might think of it. Within this context, national leadership is ephemeral insofar as it gives the possessor no sanction to command through legitimate force. It is almost a media event that depends on transmission of ideas across state boundaries through newspapers, radio, and television. Before mass media, it depended on messages imparted at mosque sermons and through subversion, two techniques that are still quite popular.

Under this system, national as opposed to state leadership becomes the prize to be seized by the individual in public life who happens to have sufficient charisma and good luck to fashion a popular consensus. Appeal has always depended on how well such a person has expressed Arab frustrations. Because the popular force generated by Arabism is beyond the control apparatus of any state, and because it has a reactive quality arising from the Arabs' experience with the West (and Israel), it has become an unstructured negative attribute of politics. It is not the material from which a unified political entity can be fashioned.

About these ads

In a practical sense, this type of leadership cannot be transmitted to lieutenants because it has to do with the personal status of the leader rather than with the acknowledged authority he might have in any administrative structure. Much the same tradition exists in Iran, and we have seen the difficulty of translating Khomeini's undisputed power into functions to be carried out by Bani-Sadr, Rajai, and other second-level leaders.

Arab unity, therefore, has always been limited to rhetoric, to a symbolic quest for a largely undefined ideal that has something to do with the Arabs' desire for national power. Given the emotional manner in which the Arabs have approached union, without any concern for the policy implications of such an act , the tradition of unity has not been sufficiently strong to permit national leadership to be transformed into national organization.

But the sense of being needlessly divided, which many Arabs feel in their national life, need not continue. A unified state is not essential for their purpose. Whenever they begin to see power and consensus achieved in ways other than through the romantic and historical notion of unifying territory, they can be expected to experience that power as those in Western countries who currently find the Arabs' political gyrations so amusing.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.