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close this bookMaldevelopment - Anatomy of a Global Failure (United Nations University)
close this folder7. Inter-African and south-south co-operation
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentPan-Africanism in the light of the colonial inheritance1
View the documentThe problematic of the Arab nation2
View the documentAfro-arab co-operation3
View the documentProspects for south-south co-operation4
View the documentNotes

The problematic of the Arab nation2

If the Third World peoples are to meet the challenges of our time they have no option but to establish relatively broad solidarity groupings, well equipped in natural resources, able to prevent the subordination that their economic and financial vulnerability encourages, and even to give pause to a possible military aggressor. But their history and heritage in ethnic, cultural and linguistic terms, and their inheritance of frontiers and statist institutions, could serve as serious handicaps to this reconstruction. The Arab world embraces a vast geographical space that enjoys all these favourable conditions. Provided of course that what the Arabs call the 'Arab ration' becomes a reality. Aspirations for Arab unity - if there is an aspiration and whose? (of the peoples? of states and governments? of bourgeoisies? of intellecutals?) - are, in general, badly received in the West, whether they are regarded as utopian, unrealistic, or ludicrous, or whether they are regarded as a 'threat', the revenge of 'Muslim fanatics' on 'European Christianity'. Despite such prejudices, the achievement of Arab national unity is not only possible and desirable, but even objectively necessary in the interest of the Arab peoples. This 'historical necessity' is, however, no more inescapable than another, and more serious fact: that the Arab peoples are not currently embarked upon this path.

We shall not again go over the ground of the roots of the Arab question, discussed in its historical dimension in The Arab Nation, nor the issues arising from the theory of nation, discussed above. We shall say only: (i) that Arab unification in its heady early days rests on a material base, the centralization and circulation of surplus effected by the hegemonic state-class of 'merchant warriors'; (ii) that the subsequent fragmentation and decline were precisely the results of the disappearance of this system of centralization and circulation of surplus: (iii) that this contradictory heritage results in a 'nation' in two stages: a real potential of building a unified Arab nation (in Arabic qawmiya) already in possession of an essential instrument in common language and culture, and the parallel need at the inferior stage to recognize the reality of 'sub-nations' (in Arabic, watan), broadly corresponding to the main states of today.

There are serious obstacles to the achievement of this aim of unification. First, the interests of the hegemonic blocs constituted on the basis of existing states, which, as elsewhere in the peripheralized Third World, have no other ambition that that of attempting to 'adjust' individually to the demands of the world system. These 'adjustments' provoke inter-state rivalries and underlie some of the regional hegemonic aspirations. The relative and unequally distributed financial prosperity brought by oil exacerbates these negative trends. But there is also the obstacle of the Euro-American Western geostrategic concern to prevent by all possible means the emergence of this strong nation on Europe's southern flank. To the extent that Egypt is the kernel of the potential Arab construct, there has been a constant in Western policy - from Mohamed Ali at the beginning of the 19th century to Sadat: to smash any attempt to build a strong Egypt. The West did not create a full-fledged State of Israel for any other reason.

In the face of this challenge, two modern Arab ideological currents have looked towards unity. The Ba'athist current put forward the thesis of the priority of unity over social transformation (socialism in principle). History has shown that bourgeois nationalism (for this is what it boils down to) cannot under the circumstances of the contemporary challenges replicate what was possible in another age and other circumstances (in Germany or Italy). The Nasserist current from a neighbouring stance drew the lessons of the failure of the only real attempt at unification (the United Arab Republic of Egypt and Syria from 1958 to 1961), and began then to understand that the only social classes capable of carrying forward a unitary plan were the popular classes. But for complex reasons peculiar to the history of Egypt and of Nasserism, it did not succeed in overcoming the obstacles along the path to socialist construction and a strategy of de-linking from the world system, the only viable alternative to the impossible 'adjustments'. Meanwhile' imperialist aggression, through the Israeli attack of 1967, put an end to the experiment before it could make further progress and become irreversible.

The popular ideological reaction following this failure, and the recompradorization underway in the Arab world, is not currently part of a prospect of socialist and unitary supersession. We come back to our analysis of the 'Islamic renaissance', the form this reaction takes. Here for the sake of brevity let us recall only: (i) that the Muslim religion, like any religion, is susceptible to various interpretations, reactionary, conservative, progressive and revolutionary; it has in the past been able to adapt to social evolution and nothing prevents it from continuing to do so: it might even adapt to a secularization of society; (ii) the medley of contradictory tendencies within the global current dominated by fundamentalism is simultaneously evidence of a rejection of the prospect of compradorization that is all capitalism can offer and of the historical crisis of the socialist alternative; and (iii) that in the state, the current of Islamic revival, far from strengthening the prospect of Arab unity, works against it and offers nothing but sterile escapism.

The people do make their own history, but sometimes they do it badly. The challenge the Arab peoples must take on lies right in front of them.