The Arab States in the Regional and International System:
II. Rise of New Governing Elite and the Militarization of the
Political System (Evolution)
Dr. Bahgat Korany

Rise of New Governing Elite and the Militarization of the Political System (1949-54)

The period from 1949 until 1954 was characterized by two factors: a feeling of general instability throughout the Arab world, and the rise of Egypt.

Following the failure of the Arab League to stop the Partition Plan, and the loss of the 1948 war, there was a widespread sense of societal disappointment and of revolt in the Arab countries. The people felt betrayed by their governments, which had failed to meet expectations. For example, in 1949, Syria witnessed three coups. Britain, France, and the US, in order to maintain the status quo established after the war, signed the ‘Tripartite Declaration,’ which limited the export of arms to the region, mainly to the Arab countries. This agreement confirmed the feeling of weakness and defeat and did not prevent the coups that took place, the most important being in Egypt.

The year 1952 represented the most important event in this period: the Free Officers Movement and the rise of Abdul Nasser. It was the traumatization that followed the 1948 war that led the leaders of the Egyptian coup to believe that, in order to change the Palestinian-Israel situation, they had to change the situation at home. The movement was led by Gamal Abdul Nasser, a nationalist who had just returned from the battlefield in Palestine and who wanted to keep the Middle East Arab and out of Western hands.

Pan-Nationalist Populism and its Limits (1955-61)

This stage was characterized by three major events:

The Baghdad Pact: This was a defense pact against the non-real enemies of the Arab World, i.e., the Soviet Union but not Israel, that included both Arab and non-Arab countries. According to Arab nationalists the pact prolonged colonial relations because the British were still involved. It collapsed in 1958 when Iraq withdrew from the agreement.

The founding of the Non-Aligned Movement: The non-aligned stance represented a foreign policy whose principles were independence and freedom in decision-making and not to be aligned to anyone, neither in the West nor the East. The movement was initiated with the creation of the Non-Alignment Pact, which represented the interests of the Third World, at the Bandung Conference in 1955. Abdul Nasser, Nehru, and Tito were the architects of this pact. The Bandung Conference is considered the birthplace of the Third World.

Success in the Arab Nationalist Movement: This period witnessed several major successes, such as the 1958 union between Egypt and Syria (UAR). Nadim Al-Bitar believed that culture and language were key factors for nationalism and unity, but stressed that two other elements were also needed: a base/center (e.g., Prussia was the base for Germany, while Egypt became the Arab base), and a charismatic leader, i.e., one who would take the people beyond the concentration on territory. With Gamal Abdul Nasser, Egypt had one such leader.

There were various remarkable events during this period, such as the construction of the high dam in Egypt, the withdrawal of World Bank funds, and the nationalization of the Suez Canal, but, with the demise of the UAR in 1961, the Arab nationalist dream went into decline.

The Arab Cold War and the All Liability Situation (1962-67)

The Arab "Cold War" era witnessed the following major events:

The Arab civil war over Yemen: Yemen was considered Egypt’s Vietnam; Egypt overstretched itself and its resources during the war, leaving it unprepared for the June War of 1967.

The 1967 Six Day War: This was the second nakba (catastrophe), which proved the failure of Pan-Arabism.

The Khartoum Conference in 1967: The conference indicated that Abdul Nasser was accommodating himself to the rise of oil-producing countries and was preparing for a temporary settlement with Israel, provided Arab land was returned.

Grouping after the Second Nakba (1968-72)

With the decline of Pan-Arabism, this period represents the beginning of the calls for Pan-Islamism. Following the Arab defeat in the 1967 war, the role of the Arab governments with regard to the Palestine Question declined. It was during this time that a non-state actor, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), entered the scene with the Karameh Battle. Also during this period, Gamal Abdul Nasser died and was succeeded by Anwar Sadat who strengthened Egypt’s relations with Saudi Arabia, and initiated an entirely new ball game in the Middle East.

The Arabs in Power...but Short-Lived (1973-77)

This era in Arab politics is represented by four events:

The October 1973 War: The war rehabilitated the Arab world at the psychological and military levels, and led to a regrouping of the Arab countries.

The oil embargo: The embargo represented a move towards Arab unity through economic tools. With some Arab countries becoming rich due to their wealth in natural resources, mainly oil, an exchange of labor and remittances between countries was created, generating a new link between the Gulf and the poorer Arab states. Through this economic bond, the mutual benefits of oil increased.

Kissinger and the lifting of the oil embargo (Arab re-fragmentation): The US was concerned that such a regional power might hinder its own policy. Kissinger’s activities and policies succeeded in ending the embargo and breaking up this new economic form of Arab unity.

Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem: Sadat had his own goals and decided to make a separate peace with Israel. His main aim was to secure US aid and he knew that this could not be accomplished without peace with Israel. This event sharply indicated the Arab decline, as the center of the system had now defected.

Lebanonization of the Arab System (1978-86)

This period saw a total change in both moods and ideologies. People concentrated more on economic issues and were mainly concerned with day-to-day issues and survival. The Arab core state that had rallied the different members of the system together was missing; instead, there were many factions fighting for unclear reasons. There was no clear vision but a tendency to focus on national politics. This became evident with the Lebanese War of 1982, when the only demonstrations that took place to protest the occupation of the Arab capital occurred in Israel. At the same time, Camp David gave the region a vision of a more permanent regional order: a Middle East, not an Arab world.

During this period, the Islamic movement became increasingly popular, representing an Islam that had gradually become more politicized and radical. The phenomenon of Islamization was reinforced by the fall of the Shah and the coming to power of the Islamists in Iran.

Competition for Focus (1987-90)

The Palestine Question had become a marginalized issue as the Iran-Iraq War took center stage. The Arab focus also centered on the Iranian threat, as the Gulf states directed their aid and resources towards the Iraqi troops. It was the outbreak of the Palestinian Intifada in 1987 that ended the marginalization of the Palestinian cause and redirected the focus towards the Palestinians.

Arab Balance of Weakness and the New Regional Restructuring (1991-96)

This last period was affected mainly by one cataclysmic event: the 1991 Gulf War, marking the third nakba. This first inter-Arab war was traumatic and demonstrated that the Arab divisions still ran deep, both at the state and civil society level. The war brought nothing positive to the region and resulted in a weakened Arab position vis--vis the non-Arab states - Iran, Israel and Turkey. Turkey benefited from the war, emerging with a new role as guardian of the Middle East for the West. Iran saw a defeated Iraq and Israel gained the Madrid Conference. It heralded a new game for the Middle East: one of economics and cooperation among all Arab and non-Arab countries. As noted by Shimon Peres, peace led to a re-organization of the Middle East into a regional community, and one modeled on the EU rather than focused on an Arab core.