A new regional order or a global catastrophe in the making?
Director- Arab Forum for Alternatives
Saudi Arabia expressed its reservations on the vote Egypt cast at the UN on Syria. This was demonstrated through official statements and media coverage and extended to social networking websites. Many might think that this dispute is the result of lack of coordination or a tactical difference while it actually reflects two different visions of the region, one in Saudi and another in Egypt, each of which connected to the other in some way. Saudi’s vision of the region goes back a long time and is not associated with Arab Spring revolutions. The Arab Spring has, in fact, only been one stage in a longer conflict between a progressive project that promotes Arab nationalism and a reactionary one with a religious façade, where in the latter Egypt turns from an Arab leader into a Sunni subordinate. Following intervention in Libya and abstention from repeating the same scenario in Syria and the United States’ relative detachment under the Obama administration, the powers representing the second project found the stage set for hijacking the revolutions to serve its own interests even if at the expense of the stability of other states and the lives of their people.
This conflict goes back to the 18th century when Mohamed Ali embarked on establishing modern Egypt and discovered in the process the importance of communication and integration across Arab states. This refutes allegations by a number of Arab orientalists about Arab nationalism being founded on race and belonging. These allegations were further refuted by the emergence in the 19th century of the Arab Awakening trend that aimed at reuniting Arabs and defending the Arab region against disintegration. This trend started in the Levant when the pioneers of Arab renaissance Nasif al-Yazijy and Botros al-Bustani established the Arab Association for the Arts and Sciences in 1847. In the early 20th century, the Ottoman Empire underwent a number of developments that drove international powers to change their policies towards it. This was especially the case after toppling Sultan Abdul Hamid II (1909- 1914) and the rise of Turkish nationalist movements that, under the leadership of the Pan-Turanism movement, called for the “Turkization” of all Ottoman territories. This impacted Arab territories under Ottoman rule as it led to the emergence of intellectual and political movements, whether clandestine or public, that aimed at ending Ottoman hegemony and doing away with religious allegiance to the Caliph. Because of the role Arab Christians played at this stage, those nascent movements adopted a secular approach as far as their vision of the future of the Arab world in concerned. They, thus, followed Abdel Rahman al-Kawakbi’s ideology as explained in his book The Nature of Despotism: “Let us manage our worldly affairs and leave religions to the afterlife. Let us agree on the same mottos: long live the nation, long live the homeland, and long live freedom!” (2009, 2nd edition, pp.114-15).
The creation of Saudi Arabia and the discovery of oil marked the second phase of this conflict that reached its peak during the reign of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt. However, Nasser’s death, the flow of oil revenues, and labor migration to the Gulf region tipped the balance in favor of the religious project as opposed to the Arab nationalist project. The isolation from which Egypt suffered following the signing of Camp David and the weakness of the Mubarak regime aided the spread of Wahhabi thought across the Arab region and its manifestation in a number of cultural and social aspects. The October 1973 war highlighted the importance of oil, which was then used as a weapon, and the regional and international role it is capable of playing in what later came to be called the “petro-dollar policies.” On the cultural level, oil states did not have a heritage with which they can counter that of other Arab countries so they worked in the 1980s and 1990s on creating a new parallel heritage as well as attempting to control the old one through money. A large number of Egyptian and Arab artists and intellectuals unfortunately took part in this process.
The eruption of the Iranian Revolution and its adoption of a new approach to religion that is totally different from the Wahhabi one threw the Saudi Arabian project off balance. It was then that Saudi Arabia had to develop a new internationally condoned strategy through which it can counter both the Arab project and the Iranian Revolution: the Sunni project. The first manifestations of this sectarian project appeared in Iraq and Lebanon before the Arab Spring. The 2011 revolutions constituted a major threat—a Sunni one mainly—to the monarchies of the Gulf region. That is why Saudi Arabia embarked on turning these revolutions to a sectarian strife through which it attempted to establish a new Sunni order in the region and through which Iran replaced Israel as the archenemy. In fact, Saudi Arabia was reportedly involved in several negotiations, both secret and public, that aimed at forging new alliances and reaching compromises, including a reconsideration of the boycott with Israel. The handing over to Saudi Arabia of the two Egyptian islands Tiran and Sanafir constituted part of this new approach. Current regional balances of power also play a major role in using the Arab League as a tool in this project, a much easier task now with the League’s new leadership.
The ramifications of this sectarian project are now poignantly visible in Syria. However, it is quite naïve to think that such project would stop at sectarian conflicts or at the borders of sectarian-structured countries. Its impact is bound to extend to the rest of the region and will be manifested in the oppression of religious minorities and women as well as the impoverished who are naturally marginalized by such a capitalist, rentier-based project. Countering this project is expected to take place through revolts that are much more violent that those the region witnessed in 2011. As for Western powers, they could pay a dear price for condoning, whether logistically or through turning a blind eye, this project that by definition constitutes a grave threat to the modernist ideologies they have been adopting and that is likely to generate waves of violence of which they can be a main target.
It is important to note that this project would not have progressed had the Arab regional system not been defective already, thus providing loopholes through which it can be undermined. The region has for years been suffering from a number of ailments, including the status of minorities, the inefficiency of the Arab League, and the absence of democracy. Added to this is the emergence in the last 20 years of political Islam as part of a desperate attempt to bridge the gap between the nationalist and Islamist projects, which are by definition contradictory. This sectarian project is not expected to fail as long as the regional system is founded on sectarian or ethnic basis rather than on the principles of citizenship and social justice. As long as these conditions persist, this project will keep exerting its utmost effort to expand in the region as well as internationally until it eventually leads to the materialization of Samuel Huntington’s theory on the clash of civilizations.