The US invasion of Iraq and the socio-political collapse that has ensued have sent shockwaves throughout the Middle East. I felt them firsthand during a recent month-long sojourn in Egypt, Jordan, and Syria.
Today, four main political ideas are battling for support in Arab nations. The outcome of this contest during the next three to five years is likely to determine the future of this strategically crucial region for a generation to come. These four ideas are:
1. Pan-Arab secular nationalism. This idea was dominant in the Arab world until it fell from favor in the wake of the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1967. Open to both Muslim and Christian Arabs, it once came in three competing varieties: Egypt-based Nasserism, Iraq-based Baathism and Syria-based Baathism. Today, only the third form remains in power – and it has assumed an increasingly Syria-bound focus. But Pan-Arabic sentiments remain widespread, upheld by common media and cultural activities. The rise of (Persian, not Arab) Iran has stimulated some "Pan-Arabist" concern in many Arab publics. However, most people in Arab countries bordering Israel still consider Israel a much greater threat than Iran.
2. State-based secular nationalism. The "system" of Arab states we see today was largely created after World War I, and since then, these states have won significant loyalty from their citizens. Today, a Lebanese citizen generally feels Lebanese, a Bahraini feels Bahraini, and so on. Inside Iraq, the war-spurred collapse of the central state has led to sectarian bloodbaths. In other Arab countries, many citizens have responded by rallying around the idea of a functioning central state – even if it lacks many elements of democracy, but only so long as it can prevent any replication of the lethal chaos of Iraq.