The Arab Spring popular uprisings have ushered in a new era in the Arab world. The pan-Arab secular nationalists who dominated the scene for more than 60 years are being ousted by Muslim fundamentalists who had been marginalised and persecuted by the secular nationalists and demonised by the West.
The pan-Arab nationalists embodied by the Arab Nationalist Movement (Nasserites), the Baath Party, and, to a lesser extent, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, are in the process of being ousted because they failed to achieve their primary objective: Arab cooperation, unity, and the liberation of Palestine.
They have left the Arabs competing for political and economic advantage and deeply divided. All of Palestine, the Syrian Golan Heights, and small tracts of Lebanese territory remain occupied by Israel. These regimes have also failed to bring economic development and prosperity to the majority of Arabs. Finally the regimes established by secular nationalists degenerated into dictatorships and hereditary republics where wealth has been accumulated by the ruling elite.
Key Arab nationalist regimes, founded by mainly military men who promised independence, eventually aligned with the US, Israel’s ally, the chief enemy of Arab unity. Egypt broke military ranks with the Arab front against Israel in 1979 when Cairo signed a peace treaty with Israel. This left the Arabs exposed, without the possibility of deterring Israeli offensives or using force to regain Arab territory occupied by Israel in 1967.
Egypt’s defection meant that the Palestinians had little choice but to agree to the 1993 Oslo Accord with Israel and prompted Jordan to sign its 1994 peace treaty with Israel. These deals would have brought peace if Israel had had the intention of permitting the emergence of a viable Palestinian state in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza and returning the Golan Heights to Syria and several small tracts of land to Lebanon. But Israel reneged on the Oslo Accord. Instead of pulling out of the occupied Palestinian territories, Israel redoubled its efforts to colonise them, trebling the population to half a million illegal colonists while engaging in prolonged fruitless “negotiations” with the Palestinians.
With nothing to fear from Egypt’s armed forces, the largest in the Arab world, Israel attacked Iraq’s Osirak research reactor in 1981, occupied half of Lebanon in 1982, reoccupied the West Bank in 2002 (after the Arab summit proposed its land for peace deal), mounted a full-scale offensive against Lebanon in 2006, bombed an alleged Syrian nuclear facility in 2007 and launched an onslaught on Gaza in 2008-09.
The lack of Arab unity and of a deterrent capacity enabled the US to invade and occupy Iraq in 2003 and replace a secular nationalist regime with pro-Iranian Shia fundamentalists. This left the Arab world all the more divided and vulnerable to external aggression.
The failings of the secular nationalist regimes have ensured the defeat of the liberal Arab nationalists who have mounted the uprisings against these regimes.
The mainstream Muslim Brotherhood, its offshoots and radical ultra-orthodox Salafi parties have been the main beneficiaries of the nationalists’ defeat in post-uprising elections in Tunisia and Egypt.
In Tunisia, Al Nahda (Renaissance) Party won 40 per cent of the 217 seats in the country’s new assembly. The assembly has formed a new Cabinet to exercise executive power, chosen a president, and is empowered to legislate until fresh elections are held.
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the hardline Saudi-inspired Salafi Noor Party have secured the largest number of seats in the first two of three rounds of the parliamentary election. Once parliament is in session, Freedom and Justice has pledged not to form an alliance with Noor but with the Egyptian Bloc, a grouping of three secular parties, the centrist Wasat Party, and the liberal Wafd.
Freedom and Justice and Noor have, however, indicated that they are prepared to share power with the military council which assumed presidential powers after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. This could put the fundamentalists on a collision course with the secular revolutionaries who insist that the military must stand down immediately because it is waging a counterrevolution in order to prevent the transition from autocratic to democratic rule.
In Morocco, King Mohammad VI has initiated reforms, drafted a new constitution, and conducted elections in which the fundamentalist Justice and Development Party won the largest number of seats in parliament and has been asked to form a government.
In Algeria, Muslim fundamentalists who waged an eight-year war against the regime expect to prosper in elections scheduled for next spring. In Libya, the Islamic Fighting Group that helped rout the forces of Muammar Qadhafi insists that it has earned the right to take part in government. Some of these fighters are veterans of the US- backed war against the Soviets in Afghanistan and have been connected with Al Qaeda.
The nationalist regimes of Yemen and Syria are besieged. The Islah Party in Yemen, comprising tribal and fundamentalist factions, could emerge as the strongest group on the political scene. The Muslim Brotherhood, outlawed in Syria, is heavily represented in the Syrian National Council, the umbrella grouping of factions supported by the West. Armed Brotherhood militants are said to be involved in anti-regime paramilitary operations.
Fundamentalists have secured large blocs of seats in the parliaments of Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt because they represent the majority of the citizens of these countries who are devout, conservative, and distrustful of secular nationalists, leftists and liberals who have been associated with the discredited nationalist regimes.
Although Tunisia’s Al Nahda, Morocco’s Justice and Development Party, and Egypt’s Freedom and Justice are committed to “civil states,” these “moderate” parties will be constantly undermined by Salafis who are determined to impose Islamic canon law, Sharia, and conservative social practices, and, ultimately, transform their countries into Sunni “Islamic states.”
Western powers that have for decades used fundamentalists to counter Arab nationalists are preparing to exploit the rise of the fundamentalists. Their emergence will exacerbate tensions and open new divisions in this region, enabling Israel to carry on its colonisation of Palestinian and Syrian land and allowing the US to maintain its interests and military bases.
For Israel the rise of the fundamentalists is a blessing. Israel, a state based on ethnicity and rooted in the Jewish faith, very much prefers to be surrounded by countries ruled by religious parties. Israelis see the creation of “Islamic states” as a way to justify the existence of a “Jewish state.” Israel was seriously challenged by the secular nationalist regimes which have been its neighbours for the past half century.
Fundamentalists might not be as confrontational as secular nationalists. Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Brotherhood, has called for changes in, but not abrogation of, the country’s one-sided peace treaty with Israel while one of the first pronouncements of the ultra-orthodox Sunni Noor Party was to affirm its adherence to the treaty as it stands.