A few days ago, Iranians staged demonstrations to call upon their government to forget about Syria and Lebanon and to pay more attention to Iran’s domestic grievances. Green Movement protests did something similar a few years ago when they demanded that their country gets priority over Lebanon and Gaza.
Those demonstrators remind us that national policies are usually determined according to the circumstances of the nation in which they are applied. However, this is not the case in the Arab region, where cross-border ideological causes replace issues pertaining to a specific nation. On the other hand, nationalism takes a different shape so that instead of being a response to the nation’s internal needs, it turns into an anti-imperialist discourse. This form of “nationalism” that is not confined to specific nation basically came into being with the Arab-Israeli conflict and the “Arab nation” and the “Muslim nation” took precedence over the interests of each individual nation in the hope of reviving an old glory.
One of the most important achievements of Arab revolutions is retrieving the importance of nations and waving their flags while avoiding any chauvinist rhetoric even though the tendency to view nationalism outside the nation could still be felt.
However, it is only going back to the nation and catering to its needs that lay the foundations of real politics and neglecting domestic affairs under the pretext of defending a “sacred cause” is political manipulation. If it is possible to redirect nationalisms to where they belong, the nation, then we can confidently say that Arab revolutions will have gone a long way.
The current situation offers a mixture of the old and the new perspectives on nationalism.
Egyptian president Mohammed Mursi recently paid tribute to late President Anwar Sadat and referred to him as the man who returned Egyptian land to its rightful owners. This contradicts the tendency to consider Sadat a traitor and makes a hero out of Nasser because he was fighting for the entire Arab nation and even though he was the reason for the loss of this land.
The Syrian revolution erupted against a regime that is part of the “resistance axis” and therefore neglected the nation in favor of another cause and gave precedence to foreign allies over local citizens. The revolution, therefore, is delivering the message that the interests of Syrians should be the crux of national policies and nothing else.
This is an attempt to redirect attention towards what is tangible and concrete instead of abstract ideological slogans that have proved futile. Even Islamists who come from a background that cherishes such slogans will have to deal with facts on the ground now that they are in power. They will have to pay more attention to realistic issues like education, the economy, freedoms, and so on. They will also have to readjust their view of the West as “infidel” since this is another ideological mistake that harms the interests of the nation.
Will nationalism finally be linked to nation in modern Arab history and politics, like it is in all countries across the globe? Could this actually happen for the first time since the series of military coups the region had gone through?
The writer is a columnist at the London-based al-Hayat, where this article was published on Oct. 9, 2012