Forget Gamal Abdel Nasser. The time for Arab unity is now.
- By Parag KhannaParag Khanna is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation and author of The Second World: How Emerging Powers Are Reshaping Global Competition in the 21st Century.
Arabs are learning to solve their own problems. For the first time in more than 500 years, the convulsions rippling across the Arab world cannot be blamed on Ottoman conquest, European imperialism, American hegemony, or Israeli bullying. As unpredictable as the current situations in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and other Arab states remain, we must remember that having had perhaps the worst possible leaders, their societies will very likely be better off in the medium and long term because their governance is for the first time becoming an inclusive arena — both nationally and regionally. The smartest thing the West can do is to help them help themselves.
From the time that Gamal Abdel Nasser took hold of Egypt in 1954 to Muammar al-Qaddafi’s charismatic coup in Libya in 1969, a generation of leaders came to power riding the wave of anti-colonial Arab sentiment. But decades of post-colonial entropy and decay have culminated in collapse. The Arab world is now graduating from anti-colonial to anti-authoritarian revolutions.
Beyond the toppling of corrupt regimes and the formation of new political orders, a new Arabism is coalescing, one that is truly pan-Arab in that it has little need for the insecure nationalism of the Nasserite era. It derives its strength instead from genuinely trans-Arab phenomena such as satellite television channels and the younger generation’s demand for more accountable governance. These movements are truly borderless, with Al Jazeera largely equal opportunity in its shaming of Arab autocrats — with the notable exception of Bahrain’s — and young activists training together across the region to successfully foment the current uprisings. As Al Jazeera director-general Wadah Khanfar declared at the recent TED conference in California, "The youth … are guarding the transformation.… These people are much more wiser than not only the political elite, [but] even the intellectual elite.… The youth in the Arab world are much more wiser and capable of creating the change than the old — including the political and cultural and ideological old regimes." Indeed, Al Jazeera, long shunned in the West, is finally being acknowledged as a force for openness, debate, and progress. American households are demanding, and getting, the channel via DirecTV.
The Arab League’s backing of a no-fly zone in Libya and its ongoing consideration of peacekeeping forces for Palestine and Lebanon are striking examples of a meaningful transnational Arab political sphere coming into being. Even ruthless intrusions like Saudi Arabia’s sending of forces into Bahrain to suppress the swelling street protests are evidence that Arabs cannot continue simply to rejoice in their neighbors’ suffering and instead see their collective stability on the line.
The next great step toward a new Arab renaissance will come through physically overcoming the region’s arbitrary political borders, most of which derive from European colonial callousness. As the European Union itself demonstrates, the only way to achieve genuine collective security and a political-economic order greater than the sum of its parts is to physically build it.
The Arab realm’s last period of borderless coexistence was under Ottoman suzerainty, but despite their inchoate rule the Ottomans also built vital infrastructural linkages such as the Hejaz Railway, which traveled from Istanbul to Medina and even had an offshoot to Haifa on the Mediterranean Sea. Today, the Hejaz rail line lies in tatters due to lack of investment and rigid border policies.
Yet no greater step could be taken to alleviate Arabs’ economic and political woes than investment in cross-border infrastructure. A new pan-Arab rail network could connect Tripoli to Cairo to Amman to Baghdad, and Damascus to Dubai. Remember that the stunningly massive granite columns and marble baths of the majestic Roman port city of Leptis Magna (just east of Tripoli in present-day Libya) were largely imported overland on roads all the way from Aswan in ancient Egypt. (There was, then, something sensible to Qaddafi’s symbolic bulldozing of Libya’s border fence with Egypt in 1974.) More pipelines and canals could connect oil-rich and low-population states with poor, heavily populated ones. Where borders are straight and arbitrary, these fluid and deliberately curvy lines — railways, pipelines, and water channels — will be the necessary and natural consequence of the opening of Arab societies to the logic of globalization.
The recent launch of the New Palestine Party — whose explicit platform is to implement the Rand Corporation’s proposal for an infrastructure "Arc" to unite the West Bank and Gaza into a viable and independent state — is a visceral reminder of how fundamental territorial realignments must be made to overcome political division and economic stagnation. Independence without infrastructure is futile.
It is important to emphasize that the Arab world is to a large extent not the Third World. Some oil-rich Arab countries are among the wealthiest societies on Earth, and Arab states together possess all the capital — financial and human — necessary to build themselves up without major outside assistance. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates could easily finance the Palestinian Arc project through the proposed Arc Development Bank, literally paving the path for a two-state solution. They could also underwrite the trans-Arab transport corridors necessary to stimulate broad-based Arab economic development, much as they have already pledged an estimated $3 trillion toward their own infrastructure projects in the coming decade leading up to Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup.
Arab politics are modernizing even if not immediately democratizing. Each government will by necessity become more accountable, with more active political parties, civil society, and independent business forces seeking opportunities to represent themselves and their constituents. This new Arabism deserves strong Western support. Its goals are secular: jobs, education, women’s rights, and good governance. If Europe and the United States play their relations with emerging leaders in government, the private sector, and civil society correctly, they can be more certain to have good ties with whoever prevails in future elections. Furthermore, as Hurriyet columnist Mustafa Akyol argues in a provocative new book titled Islam Without Extremes, these new secular young Arabs claiming a political voice can be Islamist without succumbing to political Islam. But unless the West buttresses the goals of these new secular Arabs through foreign investment and technical assistance, political Islam will continue to thrive among the marginalized underclass.
There is no doubt that a borderless new fraternal Arab realm has not yet suddenly come to pass. The GCC countries can’t agree on where to locate their common central bank, and "friendship bridges" between countries like Qatar and Bahrain or Qatar and the UAE have been undermined by Saudi suspicions. Indeed, most Arab regimes have not felt this vulnerable since independence.
But that is precisely what makes this moment ripe for revisiting what Arab states even mean in the first place. Arabs’ geopolitical future is best understood as an archipelago of cities and oases from North Africa’s Mediterranean coast curving north to Beirut and southeast across the Arabian Peninsula to Oman. Egyptian scholar Halim Barakat has argued that the Arab world should be viewed as "a single, overarching society rather than a collection of several independent nation-states." Not for centuries has that possibility been as true as today.