The Arab democratic revolt has highlighted a potential reshaping of Pan-Arabism for the 21st century, and it is exciting to observe.
In the period from Abdul Gamal Nasser's coup against the then King of Egypt in 1952 through the mid-1970s, there was a sense of Pan-Arabism that shook North Africa and the Middle East. This was a Pan Arabism that grew out of the anti-colonial and national liberation struggles of the period. These efforts, whether in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Algeria, or later Yemen,
South Yemen, Palestine, the Sudan and Libya, were anti- imperialist and, on the global stage largely neutralist vis a vis the two superpowers of the time (the USA and the USSR). This Pan Arabism even took the form of efforts at structural unification, such as the failed merger of Egypt and Syria (to form the United Arab Republic) and efforts to include Iraq in that process.
The disastrous June 1967 war with Israel, along with the failure of the Arab states to develop a coherent and implementable strategy to support Palestinian liberation, compounded by the debt crisis (and rise of neo-liberalism) undermined the progressive impulse that was Pan Arabism. All that was left was the rhetoric and a few political "outposts" attempting to keep the flag of Pan Arabism flying.
The failure of Pan Arabism to fulfill a revolutionary mission, both in terms of truly liberating the people,
eliminating corruption and authoritarianism, as well as keeping Western imperialism at bay, resulted in the creation of a void. This void began to be filled by various forms of what came to be known as political
Islam (or Islamism). It is important to clarify that Pan Arabism always contained an Islamic `flavor', but it included within it non-Muslims. For that matter, it included within its tent peoples who would not necessarily see themselves as Arabs or be seen as Arabs. Political Islam emerged, in both its right-wing and left-wing variants, as a challenge to what was by the 1980s a decrepit Pan Arabism, and substituted a more global Islamic mission.
The Arab democratic revolt of 2011 represents the potential for a renewal and transformation of Pan Arabism. First, it is a popular movement that is relying on the masses of people not as instruments of someone's agenda but as self-conscious political forces who are seeking freedom. As many people have noted, this is a movement without leaders, but, as I have said previously, it is not a movement without organizations.
It represents an effort by social movements of the people to find their own voices. Hopefully clear leadership will emerge and the necessary organization in order to transform the revolts into revolutions, but that said, the movements have themselves proven to be transformative. If one compares this with even the most progressive coups that took place in the Arab World, e.g., 1952 Egypt; 1958 Iraq, those coups were not what one could call popular democratic revolutions. Though they were generally supported by masses of people, they were engineered by small groups. The Algerian Revolution (1954-1962), of course, stands in contrast given the mass nature of the war against the French.
The 2011 Arab democratic revolt, in transforming Pan Arabism, could also have a major impact on the rest of Africa. It is important to remember that the earlier generation of Pan Arabism emerged in the context of the broader struggles, not just in the Arab World, but in what we call today the "global South." Egypt's Nasser, for instance, was not simply seen as an Arab leader,
but as an African leader (including by African Americans in the USA). The Algerian Revolution was not viewed as an Arab/Berber uprising against the French, but part of a wave of national liberation struggles throughout Africa and the Arab World. In fact, after the victory of the Algerian Revolution, Algeria undertook efforts to support other struggles for liberation within Africa and saw itself as part of the progressive Pan Africanist movement.
To the extent to which the renewed Pan Arabism retains its democratic impulse, it can address not only tyrannies, such as the northern Sudan under Al Bashir, but also represent an example of mass democratic movements against corrupt neo-colonial/post-colonial regimes that have plagued the continent. In this sense the Arab democratic revolt , though shaped by the Arab experience, need not be exclusive to the Arab World.
In far too many countries on the Continent regimes have arisen that have become retrograde. In other cases, regimes have come into existence that have, irrespective of their rhetoric, aligned themselves with an anti-people, neo-liberal agenda that benefits a small minority. The current global economic crisis is exacerbating these divisions and can produce disastrous explosions, e.g., 1994 Rwanda, or mass democratic eruptions as witnessed in the Arab World.
For these and many other reasons the Arab democratic revolt needs to be embraced as very much a North AFRICAN democratic revolt that holds lessons for the rest of the continent and with which progressive Africans and progressive Pan Africanists throughout the Continent and the African Diaspora should express solidarity.
It is no exaggeration to suggest that the Arab democratic revolt has the potential to shift global politics. Perhaps it can not only shift politics in the rest of Africa but also contribute to a 21st century renewal of Pan Africanism.
BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board member Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfricaForum and co-author of Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice (University of California Press), which examines the crisis of organized labor in the USA.