Arab Spring, a need for re-awakening

No matter the Arab leaders’ achievements, it is their shortcomings and failures that define the current era.

Gamel Abdel Nasser and Mohammad Naguib parade on 20 Jun 1953
For two generations, figures like Gamal Abdel Nasser, and a kaleidoscope of national and regional commands led the effort of Arab modernisation, writes Aronson [Getty]

By any measure, the losses suffered by the Arab community this year have been dramatic and extraordinary. Throughout the entire Arab domain, the alarming trend towards national disintegration has gathered strength.

In many cases, the labours of generations of politicians, citizens and soldiers working for the creation of viable, vibrant and victorious Arab societies – the “Arab Awakening” immortalized by George Antonius – has been undone.

Not merely undone, but all but utterly destroyed. And in so doing, the shortcomings of this generation have created more challenging conditions for a future Arab renaissance than has ever been the case in the region’s troubled history.

Arab world and sovereignty

An Arab re-awakening is achievable. Borders and national compacts can be reconstructed. But the new order borne out of this process cannot aspire to simply duplicate systems – from Cairo to Damascus – that have imploded, or to celebrate what are at best ambiguous victories on the battlefield.

The struggle for the creation and consolidation of Arab sovereignty – the power of national societies to determine their own destiny according to their own distinctive calculus of national interest – has defined the national agenda of the Arab world since the destruction of Ottoman power and the entry of modern Arab states on the international scene.

This shared demand for sovereignty has had many names across the region – “Egypt for the Egyptians”, The Baath’s “Unity, Liberty, and Socialism”, and what Yasser Arafat called “the independence of Palestinian decision-making”.

But the goal has been the same – to establish autonomous national agendas free from the “tyranny of strangers” in order to create modern Arab states.

The key challenge of the new year is to reverse the tide that threatens to swamp Arab achievements of the last century.


Reaching this goal has been the work of generations. It energised the destruction of the old Ottoman order and the creation of a new political class of nationalists fighting – in Iraq, Syria, and Cairo – for freedom from the overbearing colonial and Mandate powers.

These forces – Egypt’s Wafd and an alphabet of national, secular parties throughout the region – succeeded, but they were exhausted and compromised by their struggle.

During the post-war decades they were replaced by a new class of modernisers based in the military. For two generations, Free Officers and a kaleidoscope of national and regional commands led this uneven effort. Gamal Abdel Nasser was the first and Hafez al-Assad and Saddam Hussein were the last, flawed giants of this generation.

No matter their achievements and successes, it is their shortcomings and failures that helped to usher in and to define the current era.

Most notably, Bashar al-Assad, the reluctant heir to this incomplete legacy, has surrendered what his father worked for a political lifetime to secure – Syria’s ability to make sovereign choices independent of the preferences of often stronger, self-interested powers.

The loss of Arab sovereignty

The tyranny of strangers looms larger in many Arab capitals today than it has in almost half a century.

The loss of Arab sovereignty has occurred on two related levels. On the regional level, the weakness of Arab states – most notably Iraq, Libya, and Syria – has been fomented and exploited by foreign parties in a manner unprecedented in the post-colonial era.

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Without exception and across the decades, victors have defined their occupation as generous and altruistic.

The patent for this claim was best made by Lieutenant General Sir Stanley Maude, commander of the British occupation of Baghdad in 1917. His proclamation, issued to the inhabitants of Baghdad, declared “our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators”.

In recent decades the capitals of Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and Libya have been occupied by foreign armies making similar claims.

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Military occupation is, however, the definition of defeat, the most visible testament to national weakness, and clear proof of the loss of Arab sovereignty that was the clarion call of Arab nationalist regimes in the decades after independence.

Today, the absence of Syrians from big power forums in Vienna and elsewhere that aim to chart the country’s future resembles nothing so much as the bad old days when the likes of Sykes-Picot charted an Arab destiny independent of Arabs themselves.

On the Arab level, the failure of nationalist regimes has created a rationale for the revival of the power of foreign – if Arab – agendas in Damascus, Benghazi, Baghdad, and most recently Sanaa.


Such interventions were the signature factor of unstable regimes that characterised post-war regimes throughout the region. This resurgent development signifies the dramatic failure of a principal objective of the post-war Arab agenda – to create a political culture in Arab capitals free, not only of the machinations of the West, but also liberated from the self-interested meddling of neighbours.

The key challenge of the new year is to reverse the tide that threatens to swamp Arab achievements of the past century. Victories like the one being celebrated in Ramadi today do not begin to address the crisis at the heart of the Arab malaise.

The best of those attempting to wrest the destinies of their countries from the self-interested grasp of outsiders share a determination to do no less than to make history – to be the agents of an independent national future for their long-suffering peoples.

Syria’s future, like that of Iraq and others, is in grave peril. But if the country is to be resurrected and if its citizens are to be the architects of their future, it is the Syrians themselves who must restore the sovereignty that they have squandered.

Geoffrey Aronson writes about Middle East affairs. He consults with a variety of public and private institutions dealing with regional political, security, and development issues.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.