Opinion |

The Massacre of Arab Nationalism

'Palestine is the top Arab issue'? How repressive Arab regimes use Gaza as their scapegoat to reject their own people

Salaman Masalha
Salman Masalha
Arab fighters scan the hills of the Bab El Wad area on May 10, 1948. Arab and Jewish Forces clashed in a battle for control of the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway in Palestine.
Arab fighters scan the hills of the Bab El Wad area on May 10, 1948. Arab and Jewish Forces clashed in a battle for control of the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway in Palestine.Credit: Jim Pringle / AP Photo
Salaman Masalha
Salman Masalha

The Israel Defense Forces are slaughtering Palestinian civilians on the border of the Gaza Strip. Bashar Assad’s regime continues to slaughter Syrian civilians. And the entire world is sitting and watching with folded hands. Tweets, Facebook posts and press statements – these are the lip service the world knows how to pay to silence its conscience. But let’s focus on the Arab world, which presumes to describe itself as a single nation.

It must be admitted that the siege imposed on Gaza ever since Hamas took power there isn’t just an Israeli siege. It’s also an Arab one – because a single Egyptian decision would be enough to break the siege on Gaza’s border with Egypt. After all, the Egyptians pretend to be “Arab brothers,” and also “Sunni Muslim brothers.” Astoundingly, however, they aren’t Arab brothers at all.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has also joined in the festival of abuse heaped on Gaza residents. Every so often, he imposes sanctions on them and cuts the salaries of employees and bureaucrats.

The Palestinian issue always served repressive Arab regimes as a pretext for rejecting all civic demands from within their own countries for freedom, democracy, economic development and jobs for the young. These repressive regimes always beat their citizens with the stick of the slogan “Palestine is the top Arab issue,” and the slogan that followed from it, “No voice will take precedence over the voice of the war” to liberate Palestine. These slogans were the opium which with the regimes silenced and neutralized any aspiration for domestic political and social change.

Thus it’s no wonder that the intifadas that swept the region and became known as the “Arab Spring” occurred precisely in those presidential regimes that raised the standard of Arab nationalism and other empty slogans, such as freedom and socialism.

The past several years have provided decisive proof that all the pompous Arab slogans from the ideological school of the Syrian and Iraqi Ba’ath parties, about “a single Arab nation with an eternal mission,” were empty ones.

In this context, it’s worth noting that after the champions of these Ba’ath slogans, Assad’s father Hafez and Saddam Hussein, seized power in Syria and Iraq, respectively, there was no sign of these ideas of the unity of the “Arab nation” and its “eternal mission” being implemented on the ground. On the contrary, both in Syria and Iraq the “pan-Arab national party” served as a platform on which both tyrants, the Syrian and the Iraqi, built a sectarian and tribal regime.

In Syria, in every key governmental post, Assad placed members of his own tribe and sect – brothers, uncles, cousins – along with bootlickers from other communities, who received only governmental crumbs. Saddam Hussein did the same in Iraq. The empty slogans of Arab nationalism received grotesque expression in the 1991 Gulf War, when the elder Assad sent Syrian soldiers to join the American-led coalition that fought against Saddam Hussein, who had invaded Kuwait. So the standard-bearer of Arab nationalism from Damascus fought alongside the “imperialist” American superpower (to use the Ba’athists’ own term) against their “Arab brothers,” who ostensibly advocated the same ideology.

Recent years have provided evidence not just of the absolute failure of pan-Arab nationalism, but also additional evidence of the failure of the Arab “nation-states” created by the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement. Syria is the salient example of this failure.

The Syrian civil war, which has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and created millions of refugees, along with Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians, show that there is no “Syrian people.” A president who slaughters civilians who are supposed to be “members of his own nation” has through these crimes removed the mask he wore for many years and revealed the naked, tribal-sectarian truth for all to see.

In the face of these sights, every self-respecting Arab must recalculate his path.

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