Yesterday evening my graduate colloquium engaged in a lively discussion of two recent monographs on the history of pan-Arab nationalism and the resistance it encountered (especially in Iraq after 1958) from a more state-centered nationalism that nonetheless retained major focus on "Arabness" as a foundation of citizenship. (The books to which I refer are Adeed Dawisha's Arab Nationalism and Eric Davis' Memories of State, both of which I recommend highly.)
In Iraq and Syria, of course, the Baath party featured front-and-center in this struggle, as did the personal ambitions of the families who led the party: the Asads in Syria and the Tikritis who clustered around the regime of Saddam Hussein. The Baath emerged during the 1940s, then surged during the 1950s even as Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt leapt to the forefront of the pan-Arab nationalist movement by defying the former colonial powers (Great Britain and France) and the new colonial power (Israel) in the Middle East during the 1956 Suez Crisis. (And as we know, his defiance held up only because Dwight D. Eisenhower confronted all three aggressors and made them the proverbial offers they couldn't refuse, which caused all of them to back off. Nasser became the hero of the moment.)
Like Nasser's state socialism in Egypt, the Baath program in both Syria and Iraq featured state-socialist systems that functioned within an official ideology of secularism in which, ostensibly, all religious communities were to enjoy equal access to citizenship and economic opportunity provided that they conformed to the government's program. In actuality, though, the Iraqi Baathist regime remained intent on preserving the domination of a Sunni Arab minority over the majority Shii Arab population of central and southern Iraq, as well as over the often marginalized Kurdish and Turkmen populations of the north. By the later stages of Saddam's regime, of course, Sunni Arab domination in Iraq was centered increasingly on a subset associated with the region of Tikrit (Saddam's hometown) and its clans. But Saddam was also able to deal Sunni Arab domination throughout the majority of the Middle East outside Iraq as an essentially pan-Arab nationalist card against the perfidious Persians (and Shia) of Iran during the horrific Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988.
Similarly, in Syria, the Asad regime cemented its hold over the state by focusing power within (as in Iraq) a minority sect, the Alawis - an offshoot of Shi'ism to which Hafez al-Asad and his family belonged. In the case of Syria, then, an ostenisbly secularist/Arab-nationalist regime was in fact constructed to ensure the domination of an Alawi/Shii minority over a mostly Sunni Arab majority, with the Kurds (as in Iraq) largely marginalized.
The NY Times' Tim Arango today runs a story that lays bare how the unwinding of the Baath's ruling arrangements in those two countries is playing out - and especially, the impact that unwinding is having on Arab Shia (including Alawi) in the region. Arango filed his story from Najaf, the southern Iraq city that is also, and famously, the premier shrine city for Shii Muslims. Its significance derives from the fact that the First Imam, Ali ibn Abi Talib - who was also the cousin and son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad and the fourth of the so-called "rightly guided" caliphs, is buried there in a revered mosque-tomb, near which is the Wadi al-Salam, the world's largest cemetery, to which Shia across the planet aspire to have their corpses brought for interrment. As we all know, Iraq's Shii Arabs emerged as the real victors of the US-Anglo invasion of 2003 and subsequent occupation, which ended only weeks ago. Shii religious parties now dominate Iraq's government, much to the anger of the previously dominant Sunni, who increasingly seem to feel (and with good reason) that there will be no place for them in the new Iraq (and that Iraq's Shii neighbor, Iran, will insist that that remain so).
But as Arango lays out, many Shia in Najaf are terrified by what they see as a Sunni resurgence in neighboring Syria, which is being brutalized by a civil war that, according to many accounts, has taken on a dangerously sectarian character. The Alawi/Shii regime is resorting to extreme, systematically applied violence in a desperate attempt to hold onto power. It is confronted by a burgeoning yet fragmented resistance whose leaders tout democratic aims and try to assure the world of their freedom-and-democracy bona fides, but whose Sunni sectarian character and motivations are becoming increasingly evident, and extremely worrisome. Reports of Sunni killing of Alawis and other Shia in Syria (and, now, in Lebanon as well) are popping up with greater frequency. At the same time, the regime's forces are killing scores every day, most of them Sunni Arabs. According to a new report, 7500 have died - and there is no end in sight.
It's also reported that Sunni Arabs from the tribes of Anbar province in western Iraq are helping provide weapons for their tribal brethren across the border in Syria, and some may be joining the fight. The al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has called for a (Sunni) jihad against the regime in Syria as well, and it's quite likely that al-Qaeda elements were responsible for recent terror bombings in Damascus and Aleppo.
All of this is playing out on a broader Middle Eastern stage on which Sunni Muslim groups and/or regimes are feeling their oats and coming to the forefront. The (Sunni) Muslim Brotherhood, with (Sunni) Salafist parties as well, are set to have a major voice in Egypt's emerging government, where they dominate the new parliament. The Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan remains a potent force in a country where the Hashemite monarchy's ruling bargain with its subjects has been under increasing challenge. Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood's affiliate among Palestinians, only days ago stepped away from their long-time allegiance to Syria's Asad regime, which had long been their protector. Instead, Hamas may now look for support to the Middle East's most energized new power, Turkey, whose rise to prominence has been spearheaded by a Sunni Islamist party whose leader continues to take Israel to task for its 2008 military attack on Hamas-run Gaza. In Tunisia, where the "Arab Spring" first blossomed, a Sunni Islamist party, Ennahda, is positioned to play a significant role in that country's new democracy. Libya remains in turmoil, but no one expects Sunni Islamist groups to be kept out of whatever political solution emerges (if it indeed ever does)
The Sunni Arab monarchy of Bahrain continues to make it clear that they will brook no significant interference from their restive Shii subjects. In that confrontation, of course, they can rest assured of the military and financial support of a Saudi monarchy whose ruling family remains the standard bearer of a singularly puritanical and assertive aspect of Sunni Islam, Wahhabism, that regards Shia as beyond-the-pale heretics. The Saudis have also made very plain their antipathy toward the Shia-dominated regime that has emerged in Iraq.
The role that the US invasion of Iraq played in setting all this in motion is an issue that will be long debated. Mr. Bush and his pals meant that invasion to be, of course, only an initial step in fashioning a "new Middle East" - one that would be much more Israel-friendly and much more susceptible to manipulation in the cause of US interests.
Well, it seems clear that a new Middle East is indeed taking shape. But it also seems clear that it will be a far cry from any model the US had in mind. It's going to feature a resurgence across the Middle East of the people upon whom, despite its ostensibly secularist self-identification, pan-Arab nationalism most focused during its heyday: the Sunni Arabs of the Middle East.
But whereas the "Arabness" part of that formulation may have been spotlighted by Nasser and his Baathist allies during the 1950s and 1960s, its the "Sunni-ness" of those same Arabs that now is edging into that spotlight. And within that spotlight, they will no longer find room for any US-Israeli agenda.
I suspect that Nasser would be smiling.