Middle East

Enduring divisions keep pan-Arab unity a dream

Egyptian President, Gamal Abdul Nasser speaks in Damascus at ceremonies to mark the second anniversary of the merger of Syria and Egypt to form the United Arab Republic, 2 March 1960
Image caption Egypt's Nasser inspired future leaders like Muammar Gaddafi with his vision of pan-Arab unity

Some dreams never die. The dream of Arab unity is one.

But the debate these days is less about how that dream might be realised and more about whether it should be dismissed as a mere nostalgic aspiration of the past, to be consigned to history.

Not all Arabs are giving up the struggle.

A group of supporters of the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt are setting up a satellite television channel in Cairo which, they say, will propagate his vision of pan-Arab unity.

They face an uphill task. While they are not alone in harbouring a romantic desire to see nation-state boundaries stripped away and Arabs coalescing around their shared religion, history and heritage, the facts on the ground today make the goal harder to achieve than ever before.

Vested interests

In President Nasser's heyday in the 1950s and 60s the conditions seemed favourable.

Countries that were shaking off the shackles of colonial rule were mesmerised by the Egyptian leader's enticing vision of a region regaining its self-esteem, uniting under a banner of anti-Western sentiments, and identifying more with the non-aligned bloc than with Europe and the United States.

The regimes of the day were largely dominated by the military or by traditional monarchies.

Image caption There is a rise in youth unemployment and a growing rich-poor divide across the Middle East

As much as they kept Islamists under tight control they also made sure that sectarian and ethnic allegiances did not surface as issues that might challenge the status quo.

But even under these propitious circumstances, unity remained a dream.

Vested state interests were always dominant, scuppering the one substantial step taken: the brief union of Egypt and Syria into the United Arab Republic, an unhappy marriage that collapsed in 1961 after just three years.

The catastrophic defeat of Egypt and other Arab states by Israel in the Six Day War of June 1967 made Arabs realise that President Nasser's promise of restoring their pride and bringing them into a single entity would not be fulfilled.

Today, with the Arab awakening that began with the popular revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and with instability inherent even in states where there have been no uprisings, the prospects for unity are bleak.

Islamist, ethnic and sectarian movements have adopted political agendas, fracturing not only the region into competing power blocs, but also leaving a number of nation states fighting for survival.

Internal divisions

Even the individual movements themselves are split: most dramatically and most dangerously between Sunni and Shia Islam.

Image caption Visible regional tensions remain between Sunni and Shia Islam

These tensions are visible on a regional scale in the competition for influence that pits Shia Iran (with greater or lesser support from Iraq, Syria and the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon) against the Sunni bloc dominated by Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

But even that bloc is not entirely solid, with Saudi Arabia, keen to promote its Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, uneasy at rising Muslim Brotherhood power in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan and Syria.

Iraq, for its part, is paralysed politically because of power-play involving Sunni and Shia Arabs, and Kurds in their semi-autonomous region in the north.

Shia communities in Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, are pressing with ever more fervour for greater political rights.

Talk of Arab unity, at this point then, is clearly an irrelevance. Today, no-one can predict the shape of the region in a year or two from now.

Some of the lines that the British and French colonialists drew to create the modern Middle East may well be erased or redrawn.

Huge questions remain unanswered. Will Iraq survive as a federal state, or be divided up into two or three separate countries?

Will the Kurds of northern Iraq form a state with Syrian Kurds, and perhaps some of Turkey's Kurdish community as well?

And what will become of Syria?

Economic factor

Until the shakedown is complete it will not be possible to assess whether the goal of Arab unity remains gathering dust in the cupboard of history or whether one day it might be brushed down again.

Judged from today, the chances of the latter do not appear great.

The current move is towards diversification of political expression, against a backdrop of continuing internal conflicts.

As a Saudi columnist recently observed: "Those whom we [Arabs] have killed ourselves outnumber by far those who have been killed by our enemies."

Perhaps the region's glue in the future will not be politics, or ethnic and sectarian affiliation, but economics.

In addition to language and culture, the other factor uniting the region is economic gloom, compounded by a chronic rise in youth unemployment and a growing rich-poor divide.

Intra-regional cooperation and internal investment would help hugely in addressing these ills.

So a satellite TV station promoting economic integration would have more value - but admittedly less nostalgic appeal - than one promoting the failed vision of President Nasser.