Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1307, (11- 17 August 2016)
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1307, (11- 17 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

A dream and its discontents

The abuse of power by the West in the Middle East will continue to trigger regional dreams and nightmares unless a lasting balance is found, writes Haro L Karkour

Al-Ahram Weekly

It was Egypt’s humiliation in the 1948 War that convinced former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser of the necessity of revolution. The historical role Nasser’s personality came to fulfil was to restore to the Egyptian people their dignity. This dignity, as Nasser wrote in his memoirs, could not be restored in isolation. Therefore, Nasser saw his role not only as an Egyptian reformer, but also as the leader of the post-colonial pan-Arab world.

Eloquent as he was, he mastered the powerful discourse that equated Egypt’s reason for existence with the existence of this post-colonial world. The historical circumstances that allowed Nasser to gain his opportunity to bring about reform in Egypt were his instrument to gain momentum beyond Egypt.

Revolution became international and a tool to unite the Arabs against Western colonial forces.

But as Nasser’s ambitions were colossal, so was the gap between his postulated dream and what he could achieve. Nasser’s dream for unity turned into just a conjecture. In reality, it remained a dream.

Thus, Nasser did not only fight French, British and Israeli forces, as in the 1956 Tri-Partite Aggression against Egypt, but also fellow Arabs who did not share his revolutionary ideology, as in Yemen in 1962, and Islamists within and beyond Egypt. In the final analysis, Nasser’s political vision was exclusionary. It divided as much as it united. Nasser’s dream ended in a nightmare when Egypt and the Arab world at large saw their most humiliating defeat in the 1967 War.

The moral of Nasser’s story is sobering: the abuse of power by the West triggers its own Middle Eastern dream. The attempt to balance Western power, unless it is politically inclusionary, leads to the failure of this dream. Unless politics brings reality and utopia closer to one another, it is bound to fail, and for utopia to become reality it requires the unity that mobilises the necessary agent of power. Power needs unity, and without unity the attempt to impose a political vision upon a recalcitrant reality, as Nasser tried to do, results in frustration. Nasser’s political vision led to the failure of his dream, for it entailed an ideology that excluded all those who did not share it.

Two decades following Nasser’s death, the Cold War ended. The Middle Eastern dream, however, remained alive, even if unfulfilled. In the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, Al-Qaeda under Osama Bin Laden’s leadership became convinced of its historical role to restore the dignity of the Arabs against the humiliations inflicted by Western interventions in the region. Though ideologically in disagreement with Nasser’s secular values, this group shared his concerns at Western intervention in the affairs of the Arabs and the power of the state of Israel.

In the aftermath of the 2003 Gulf War, the more powerful Islamic State (IS) group emerged, taking upon itself the task of fulfilling the Middle Eastern dream – the task of unity to balance Western power. The image of the past became one of glory and power, one of independence and unity, to be replicated in the present. Western colonial forces became the cause of disunity, and agreements such as the Sykes-Picot between Britain and France in 1916 provided the empirical proof.

But it is only one part of Nasser’s story that concludes with the idea that the abuse of power triggers its own balance. Another part adds that for the balance of power to be successful it requires a politically inclusionary ideology, not only in theory, but also in practice. IS’s postulated unity is in practice exclusionary. Nasser’s political vision, though it failed to materialise, at least allowed the unity of different religious groups and different sects within each religion because of its secular character. IS’s political vision, being strictly theological, excludes Christians and also fellow Shia and Sunni Muslims.

In comparison to Nasser’s pan-Arabism, therefore, the ideas of IS as a political organisation aiming to balance Western power are even weaker and less likely to succeed. The group’s political philosophy entails the seeds of its own destruction: it creates as many enemies from within as those it seeks to balance without.

IS’s dream of unity is thus just a dream. In practice, its political vision seeks to exclude. Rather than divide and conquer, it unites others against its own divisive ideology. Its use of violence against civilians is testimony to its weakness rather than to its strength, for this demonstrates its need to resort to the weapon of the weak in the political struggle for power: Terrorism.

Despite the West’s abuse of its power in the Middle East, the dream of balancing Western power has thus yet to materialise in the region. With the defeat of pan-Arabism, radical Islamism took upon itself the political task. In order to balance power, however, power first requires a unity that can only be brought about through a politically inclusive vision. Compared to Nasser’s, IS’s vision is the far more divisive.

There is no need to plan the defeat of IS as the lessons of history teach us that its defeat is inevitable.

As the discontents of the Middle Eastern dream continue, the more interesting question is which political organisation will now take upon itself the task of Arab unity to balance Western power? Will it learn from past experience? Having learned the lessons of history, what will be the additional challenges in future contexts? What will be the West and Israel’s reaction should a new political organisation take more successful steps towards the fulfilment of the Middle Eastern dream?

Will the dream remain indefinitely discontented and sporadic violence against civilians be the only weapon against the West?


The writer holds a PhD in international relations and teaches at the University of Leicester, UK.

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