Arab nationalism has its roots in the late nineteenth century, when European ideas of nationalism affected the Ottoman Empire. After World War I, as the British and French acquired mandate authority over various Arab territories of the former Ottoman Empire, Arab nationalist sentiment was divided between unifying notions of Pan-Arabism and individual independence movements. Such thinking contributed to the formation of the Arab League on the one hand and the growth of numerous regional nationalist groups such as the Society of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt and the Étoile Nord-Africaine in Algeria on the other. These and similar groups combined nationalism with strong Islamic identity in their drive for independence from Britain and France.
In the years following World War II, most Arab states gained their independence yet were ruled by governments sympathetic to the interests of the European powers. Political crises in the late 1940s and 1950s, including the Arab defeat in the first war with Israel (1948), resulted in the overthrow of many of these governments and the establishment of new regimes willing to challenge the West, particularly in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. These nations lay at the heart of the Arab nationalist movement during the Cold War. Ongoing conflict with Israel would play a major role in the growth of Arab unity. The common Israeli enemy provided the Arab states with a greater cause that overshadowed their individual differences.
Opposition to Israel and support for Palestinian refugees also served to link the resources of the newly wealthy oil states of the Persian Gulf to the larger Arab cause. Finally, the conflict with Israel, combined with the importance of petroleum resources, made the Middle East a region of great strategic interest to the United States and the Soviet Union, and the two superpowers would have a substantial effect on the development and destiny of Arab nationalism.
Arab nationalism during the period of the Cold War stressed Arab unity, but not necessarily in the form of a single Arab state; different states could act in concert to achieve goals that would benefit the entire Arab world. In addition, Arab nationalist movements fit into a broader picture of postcolonial political ideologies popular in the developing world. Such ideologies stressed national or cultural identity, along with Marxist or socialist ideas, as a counter to Western influence. Promoted by the Soviets, socialism served as a reaction among developing nations to their former experiences with European imperialism.
The two most important Arab nationalist movements that took root were Baathism and Nasserism. The Baath (or Resurrection) Party became prominent in Syria after World War II. One of its founders, Michel 'Aflaq, a Syrian Christian, conceived of a single Arab nation embracing all the Arab states and recapturing the glory of the Arabian past. While the movement was respectful of Islamic tenets, its rhetoric and agenda were largely secular and socialist. This socialism grew partly as a response to Western imperialism and partly as a result of increasing Soviet political and military support of Baathist Arab states. The Baath Party increased in influence in Syria and Iraq throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s. In Syria, it came to dominate the country's turbulent politics by the early 1960s and continued to do so throughout the regime of Hafez al-Assad (1971–2001). In Iraq, the party rose to power in 1963 and remained the predominant political force until the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Nasserism reflected the agenda and the political prowess of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt's leader during 1952–1970. Raised amid British domination in Egypt, Nasser combined his rejection of imperialist influence with socialist principles and progressive Islam. Although he used religious rhetoric to appeal to the Egyptian people, his outlook, like that of the Baathists, was primarily secular. Nasser stressed modernization, state ownership of industry, and Egypt's role as the "natural" leader of the Arab world. His suspicion of the West, socialist economic prescriptions, and acceptance of Soviet military aid after 1955 drew him toward the Soviet sphere, but he nonetheless avoided subservience to Moscow and supported the Non-Aligned Movement among developing nations. Nasser actively sought the leadership of a unified Arab world. The temporary union of Egypt and Syria in the United Arab Republic (1958–1961) illustrated his nationalist vision and the overlap of Nasserist and Baathist ideologies.
Israel, of course, served as a focal point for Nasser's brand of Arab nationalism; he viewed the defeat of Israel (never achieved) as an expression of Arab unity and a rejection of imperialist interference in the Middle East. In addition, Egyptian leadership in the struggle with Israel contributed to his stature in the Arab world as a whole. Nasser's position in Egypt and among Arab nations was further enhanced by the 1956 Suez Crisis. However, Egypt's attempted military intervention in Yemen (1962–1967) brought Nasser's vision of Arab nationalism into conflict with the royalist, Islamic views of Saudi Arabia and demonstrated the limits of his influence. Further, Egypt's disastrous defeat in the Six-Day War with Israel in June 1967 dealt a crippling blow to his power and prestige. Nasser's authority survived the 1967 War, and the overwhelming popular rejection of his resignation testified to the scope of his popular appeal, but the 1967 defeat ultimately signaled the end of the Nasserist vision of Arab unity. From that point onward, Baathism remained as the strongest single force of Arab nationalism.
Robert S. Kiely
Hourani, Albert. A History of the Arab Peoples. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991.; Oren, Michael. The Six Day War. Novato, CA: Presidio, 2002.