In Other Words

Arab Rationalism

– Weghat Nazar (Points of View), Vol. 5, No. 49, February 2003, Cairo As of March 2003, Arab rage at U.S. foreign policy was reaching unprecedented levels. Street demonstrators in Egypt held antiwar signs with one hand and pictures of the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser with the other. The revival of Nasser’s pictures in ...

– Weghat Nazar (Points of View), Vol. 5, No. 49, February 2003, Cairo

As of March 2003, Arab rage at U.S. foreign policy was reaching unprecedented levels. Street demonstrators in Egypt held antiwar signs with one hand and pictures of the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser with the other. The revival of Nasser’s pictures in demonstrations (a phenomenon that died with him in 1970) embodies the people’s yearning for the glory days of Arab nationalism, when Egypt’s president faced down the West and Israel. Some intellectuals, however, would rather see the Arab world transform its nostalgic anger into rational policies.

Foremost among them is Mohamed Hassanein Heikal. A former minister of information and foreign affairs of Egypt, Nasser’s advisor for 20 years, and an icon of Arab journalism for more than 60 years, Heikal is a respected and influential voice. He often limits his writing to Middle East politics, but his article in the February 2003 issue of Weghat Nazar addresses Arab-U.S. relations from a slightly different angle.

Although the monthly journal was established less than five years ago, Weghat Nazar has become a vibrant arena for many Arab intellectuals, including Heikal, who chose it as one of a select few venues for his writings. In "An Inspection of the American Conscience," he urges Arab nations to formulate a new strategy in the next two decades to deal with what he calls the "American empire." If Arabs fail to come to terms with this rising force, their strategic interests will be swept away, he warns.

Arabs must recognize that they cannot establish a true partnership with the United States, Heikal maintains, because they lost such an opportunity in 1948 during the first Arab-Israeli conflict. However, they cannot afford a hostile relationship with the United States, either, because such enmity is beyond Arab economic, strategic, and military capabilities. Nor would it be wise for Arabs to wait patiently for the American empire to fade. "The Arabs" relationship with the United States," Heikal writes, "is similar to an ancient Greek tragedy, if left for coincidence it would end with blood." Therefore, Arabs must seek to understand the character of the American empire, "its personality, goals, behavior, and political processes." Only when they learn what makes the United States tick will Arabs be able to appeal to U.S. interests, rather than to its sympathy for the Arab cause.

Heikal mines U.S. history for indicators of what constitutes American values. He finds a distinct contradiction between the ideals hailed at home and the policies the country pursues overseas. The United States only promotes democracy, freedom, human rights, and civil liberties in its foreign policy when these values serve its strategic interests. The refusal of the United States to commit to such agreements as the International Criminal Court, its record of unscrupulous CIA operations, and its continuous support of dictators around the world provide more than ample evidence for such perceptions.

Therefore, Heikal argues that Arabs should stop expecting the United States to voluntarily confine itself within the boundaries of international law and moral principles; instead, they should regard this empire as a business enterprise, one that acts solely on the basis of its strategic and economic interests. And he proposes that Arabs should unite with the international community in an attempt to limit the American sphere of influence.

But Heikal’s prescription is void of practical policy proposals. For instance, should Arab governments reform their political and economic institutions to gain the trust of the U.S. government and investors in order to build a solid alliance? Should Arabs place economic pressure on the United States to achieve their desired political goals? Or should the Arab League establish a genuine political and economic union among its members that can collectively resist U.S. interference in the region’s affairs?

Although Heikal does not offer a detailed road map to implement his strategy, this article nonetheless may represent the beginnings of a pragmatic shift in Arab political thought. For decades, the Arab intelligentsia has produced little beyond impassioned slogans that rage against U.S. power and call attention to legitimate Arab grievances. The extent to which the Arab world succeeds in redefining its relationship with the United States will determine whether the Middle East emerges as a shareholder in the American empire, or a vassal.

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