CAIRO: In 1989, the prominent Orientalist Bernard Lewis argued that the Arab world was disintegrating into fragmented ethnic and sectarian enclaves, dissipating any sense of collective solidarity and identity. Looking at the Arab world today, from the ugly spat between Egypt and Algeria, countries once identified with pan-Arabism, to the openly sectarian and ethnic power struggle in US occupied-Iraq, Lewis ominous prediction is gradually becoming a reality.
The imperial theorist, however, was not making predictions but advocating policies to be implemented through American and Israeli wars. Lewis was never simply an academician, but a main pillar of neoconservative thought and a direct participant in decisions leading up to the Afghan and Iraqi wars. The guiding idea was that post-colonial Arab nation-states did not have solid foundations as modern states and would eventually crumble.
I am not talking here about a grand conspiracy theory nor am I blaming Lewis or the West for the deep divisions that are tearing through the Arab world. The American empire, which succeeded Britain, is mainly bent on consolidating its domination over the region s resources and securing Israel, the front line against pan-Arab nationalism. Certainly, US wars of destruction and Israeli aggression are major culprits in the prevailing regional sense of defeat and demoralization that is largely responsible for the spreading entrenchment behind ethnic and sectarian tribalism. But Lewis was merely dutifully serving the empire by justifying and instigating policies that aim at inflicting consecutive defeats not only on Arab armies but also the Arab spirit. Consecutive defeats would see a strong sense of collective Arab belonging be replaced by a collective sense of defeat – triggering ethnic and sectarian struggles and competition among the ruling elites.
It is our part in this shameful saga of petty destructive rivalries and unabashed power struggle in the name of sects and religion that we should start seriously scrutinizing. True, it was the 1967 military defeat of mainly pan-Arab regimes that proved the strongest blow to what then appeared a powerful and progressive wave of pro-independence pan-Arabism. But it was the dictatorships and erosion of political freedoms that not only contributed to the military defeats but deepened an individual as well as collective sense of humiliation and powerlessness.
The Arab states failure to pursue development policies, reliance on western support in place of domestic legitimacy, and continued suppression of political freedoms have prevented any genuine resurgence of an Arab movement or parties that could effectively ensure citizens rights and participation. The ongoing crack down on social and political movements allows political leaders to manipulate poverty and a sense of loss into sectarian divisions. It pushes a desperate Arab citizen, deprived of any real sense of citizenship, to focus on false victories, the football game between Egypt and Algeria being a case in point where a sporting event becomes an occasion for defeating an imaginary other .
In Jordan, fear of Israeli expansion that would turn the kingdom into a substitute homeland is being used by the power elites to foment and widen a Palestinian-Jordanian divide. The failure of Palestinian reconciliation is producing a geographic divide that enables Israel to complete the fragmentation of any Palestinian homeland. Our utter failure to solve, and the disgraceful mishandling, of minority and ethnic grievances and problems, from the Kurds in Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen, Darfur in Sudan to the Sahara in Morocco, have invited foreign intervention and threaten to break up Iraq and Sudan.
The regimes sense of impotence is trickling down, becoming a collective sense of helplessness as a function of repression and increasing poverty. The international criminalization of resistance, including peaceful forms of resistance, through blockades and the exercise of American power also function to deepen social, class, sectarian and ethnic fault lines. The alarming cooptation of Arab intellectuals by Arab and particularly Gulf states reduce their rhetoric on pan-Arabism to vacuous slogans that deceive people into believing in hollow acts of resistance fought on satellite TV and talk shows. New fault lines will appear as the region s social and political conflicts, especially the Arab-Israel one, are gradually presented as religious conflicts, threatening to distort what in the latter case is essentially a struggle for liberation and justice.
But there are glimmers of hope in this gloomy picture. The movement against an inherited presidency in Egypt, the spread of human rights watchdogs and initiatives to deal with serious social problems in the Arab world are all promising acts of resistance to bigoted ideas and hatred. The continued Palestinian resistance, from Bili in to Gaza, is also a sign of a rejection of submission to despondency that could turn into civil war.
But without a serious movement in the Arab world, and inside Palestine, to put a halt to violations of human rights by all sides, the Palestinian struggle and all social movements will suffer even more. One of the most dangerous signs of increasing divisions in the Arab world is the ideological entrenchment that justifies human rights violations by political parties as if all is fair in support of a political agenda. As it is between Fatah and Hamas, so it is in most Arab states: human rights are merely used as tools to serve political elites rather than as a means to bring about the kind of accountability that is our only guarantee against descending into an abyss.
Lamis Andoniis a veteran journalist and commentator on Middle East affairs. This commentary is published by Daily News Egypt in collaboration with bitterlemons.org.