In this article, we shall define and discuss the term “pan-Arabism” as it relates to Middle East politics, and more generally, in international relations as a whole. We will define the term, discuss the early history of Pan-Arabism, and trace its application. Specifically, we will discuss this concept as it related to the ideologies of Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. Then, we will analyze Pan-Arabism in the context of the Arab Spring, and then conclude with a reflection on where Pan-Arabism is today.
What is Pan-Arabism?
Pan-Arabism is the idea that individuals based on their common Arab identity should come together and cooperate on political, economic, and cultural affairs. The idea–while prevalent after the end of World War II, had previously been introduced during the early 1900s, where various political groups began organizing on the basis of Arab ethnicity. It is important to note that are different understandings of how people view pan-Arabism (Danielson, 2007). Sometimes it can be the advocacy of a common identity, cultural exchanges, whereas at other times the Pan-Arabists might call for a unified state under the banner of pan-Arab nationalism.
Before the beginnings of the Pan-Arabism, the Ottoman Empire was the dominant empire in the Middle East. This empire, while having a focus on Islam, also had strong commitments to Ottoman identity. However, with the weakening of the Ottoman Empire in the 1800s and early 1900s, groups other political and social movements began to organize both privately and publicly. Furthermore, scholars argue that one of the first pan-Arab political and military movements arose during World War I. At that time, the Ottoman Empire, and Germany, were fighting against countries such as Britain and France. Britain, concerned about the influence that the Ottomans could have over the international Muslim population, looked to find a Muslim leader that they would work with. Through a series of negotiations with Sharif Hussein Ibn Ali, the Amir of Mecca, they found a Muslim leader willing to challenge the Ottomans. It has been suggested that while there were clearly issues related to the importance of religious identities here, that the revolution itself, the “Arab Revolt” was centered on Arab nationalism as a unifying and acting political ideology (Temlali, 2011), as different Arab groups came together to not only fight the Ottoman Empire, but also hoped to establish their own Arab state following the end of the war.
Despite its historical underpinnings, the notion of Pan-Arabism or pan-Arab nationalism however gained large ground in 1952 with the military coup in Egypt. In 1952, a group of military officers called the Free Officers established power in the country. This group was led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, who adopted a pan-Arabism (or Arab nationalism) ideology. Nasser felt that aligning Egypt with either the United States or the U.S.S.R. would be equally problematic, and instead, continued to call for complete Egyptian independence from outside influence. The way he felt that this could be done in part was to unify the Arab Middle East under this banner of pan-Arabism.
Nasser’s message was well received by Arabs in the region. It is important to understand why the pan-Arab ideology was able to take off at this time. Nasser was able to not only challenge by the growing influence of the United States and the U.S.S.R., but he was able to take back control of the Suez Canal in 1956. After being found by the United States that Nasser had established an indirect military arms deal with the U.S.S.R. (through Czechoslovakia), the U.S. denied a loan that was requested by Nasser. In turn, he nationalized the Suez Canal, which led to an attack by Britain, France, and Israel. Through international diplomacy, a halt in conflict was established, and with foreign powers taking their presence out of Egypt and the canal, Nasser not only continued to maintain control of the Suez Canal, but he was viewed as a hero. This action, along with his speeches about Arab unity led many individuals to adopt his ideas of pan-Arabism.
Nasser not only spoke about pan-Arab nationalism, but he tried to put this ideology into practice. For example, Nasser expanded upon his goal to unite the Arab populations in the Middle East, and at times tried to do so through the unification of countries (such as the Egypt-Syria unification (the United Arab Republic in 1958-1961)). He also supported regimes (sometimes to Egypt’s detriment (such as Yemen)) that were also adherents to pan-Arabism.
Pan-Arabism and the Arab Spring
One of the more interesting questions about Pan-Arab nationalism in international relations as of late has been whether this ideology was referenced in the 2010-2011 Arab Spring. If we recall, beginning in Tunisia and extending throughout many other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, citizens challenged their national governments, demanding that these various authoritarian regimes (whether in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, etc…) resign. While regime change did not occur in every country, it did take place in many of them. The question is: What role, if any, did pan-Arabism have with regards to the Arab Spring?
Interestingly, there were many political leaders who tried to frame the revolutions as the “Arab revolutions,” with the attention to the role of this Arab nationalism in the revolts. Some, such as “Egyptian Yahia al-Qazzaz, for example, asserts that “what we are witnessing as revolutionary growth cannot be described as a series of national revolutions. It effectively represents an unprecedented revolution of the Arab nation, which burst into life in Tunisia and then found firm footing in Egypt, reflecting the latter’s position as largest Arab state”2. This Arab awakening is presented as a probable precursor to a transnational movement of unification: “The question remains: can [it] can provide the basis for a system of government that functions as a union, federation or confederation […]. This is what I hope; this is the old dream we all share!” (Temlali, 2011). Others, such as “Sudanese writer Taha al-Noaman does not hesitate to group these uprisings together under the heading of “second Arab Revolt” (Temlali, 2011).
Others suggest however that while there were clearly similar revolutions within Arab majority countries, saying that Pan-Arabism was somehow a driving force, and that the movements are the start of pan-Arab unity would not be accurate. The Arab Spring, if anything had common economic and political grievances, but whether Arab nationalism had anything (or a very large part) to do with it is questioned. There are also other factors to continue, which, when examined, might lead one to reconsider the Arab Spring as a Arab nationalist movement. For example, Temlali points out that many pro-Arab nationalist leaders were taken out of power by their citizens. In addition, many non-Arab citizens played large roles in the protest movements.
However, Temlali (2011 also goes on to say that media has helped push forward common Arabic language identities, which in turn may have had a part in the uprisings that we saw. He argues that the media has helped increase the usage of Modern Standard Arabic throughout the region. He writes: “Modern Standard Arabic is now entering its golden age. Never before has the language been so unified. In particular, never before has it so successfully facilitated communication between the elites in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and other Arab countries – communication that would otherwise have been severely hampered by national dialectal disparities” (49).
Pan-Arab Nationalism Today
There is a debate about the role of pan-Arabism and Arab nationalism in the Middle East and North Africa today. Many have suggested that the notion and application of Arab nationalism, and more specifically pan-Arabism ended with the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser. At this time, with Egypt’s defeat in the Six Day War, people began turning away from what they previously believed could be reached through pan-Arabism. It was also at this time that the world witnessed a rise in other political ideologies, which included–but were not limited to Islamist ideologies.
Even today, scholars question how adopted pan-Arabism is. As Kramer writes: “At present, many Arabs have suspended their belief in the Arab nation, and now openly doubt whether there is a collective Arab mission. Those recently swept up by Islamic activism prefer to think of themselves first and foremost as Muslims, and do so without apology. At times, their lexicon has turned “the Arabs” into a derogatory label, implying wastefulness, incompetence and subservience. Other Arabs prefer to be known as Egyptians, Syrians, Jordanians, or Moroccans–citizens over twenty independent states, each with its own flag and its own interests…”. However, he also goes on to argue that “A sense of “Arabness” still persists. It has existed for as long as the Arabs have walked the stage of history, and it has been subject to negotiation by every generation for nearly a millennium and a half” (172). Regardless if one believes that this Arab identity is one that has been examined and negotiated for that long, or if it is a much more recent political and cultural movement in the Middle East, it is important to understand the historical and current conditions that have led way to the acceptance of pan-Arabism at times, as well as the rejection of this ideology at other times.
Temlali (2011), when writing about whether a relationship between pan-Arabism and the Arab Spring existed, says: “Traditional Arabism, which sacrifices the imperatives of equality and freedom at the altar of an illusory unity, has had its day. It no longer acts as a barrier between the Arab peoples and their dignity. It is likely that another kind of Arabism is about to emerge into the light. If it is strongly anti-imperialist, this will not be solely because of the military powers occupying Iraq, but also because of their ongoing support for the autocratic regimes in the Middle East and North Africa. And if it is secular, this is because the uprisings of the Arab Spring are the work neither of Islamists nor of Arabists who, no matter how secular they may be, still believe that religion has an important place in any definition of a common Arab identity” (48-49).
Danielson, R. E. (2007). Nasser and Pan-Arabism: Explaining Egypt’s Rise in Power. Naval Postgraduate School Thesis. Available Online:
Kramer, M. (2010). Arab Nationalism. Available Online: http://www.martinkramer.org/sandbox/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/arabnationalism.pdf
Temlali, Y. (2011). The “Arab Spring”: Rebirth of Final Throes of Pan-Arabism? Heinrich Böll Stiftung, pages 46-49. Available Online: https://www.boell.de/sites/default/files/assets/boell.de/images/download_de/Perspectives_02-06_Yassine_Temlali.pdf