From Nationalism to Country-Building: A Necessary Shift in Emphasis


Observers of Middle East contemporary politics have always contended that the Palestinian cause has often been used by the various ruling Arab regimes to distract the minds of their oppressed peoples from the need for internal political, economic and social reforms. There is an urgent need, however, now that the region seems to be undergoing conditions similar to those that existed in the early twentieth century, to flesh out this argument even further.

Indeed, the Palestinian cause seems to be only one manifestation of the real weapon often wielded by Arab governments to manipulate the sentiments and thoughts of their populations, with the, unwitting in most cases, collaboration of Arab intellectuals. The real weapon is Arab nationalism itself.

Arab nationalism has been the most powerful oppressive and anti-democratic force in the Arab world for almost a century now. Ever since it appeared in Arab politics, it has served to distract Arab peoples from the real task of country-building, shifting their attention to the cure-all fantasy that is “Arab unity,” especially in the post-independence era.

Even as it is being steadily replaced by Islamic fundamentalism, Arab nationalism still acts as a disruptive force in Arab societies, as the recent demonstrations all over the Arab world against the war in Iraq show. By carrying pictures of Saddam Hussein and discounting the culpability of the Iraqi regime in bringing about the confrontation with the United States, that is, by glossing over the internal and external crimes of the Iraqi regime, the fervent demonstrators simplistically misidentified the homeland with the leader and, in the name of freedom, trampled on every ideal that gives freedom its meaning. In effect, the demonstrators gave plenty of impetus to their own governments to continue to oppress them and deny them their basic rights in the name of such double-edged notions as national security and national solidarity.

The basic problem of Arab nationalism is that it has been viewed as a means rather than a goal. But then, as an ideological construct, it cannot but inspire such confusion. As such, Arab nationalism was touted as the solution to all Arab problems, while the idea that the path towards Arab unity lies in having each Arab country focus first on addressing its basic political, economic and social problems, with some measure of coordination with other Arab countries, was dismissed as provincial, evenseparatist, thinking.

All Arab ruling regimes have exhibited such “provincialist” and separatist tendencies at one time or another. Seeing that they are neither capable nor interested, it seems, in undertaking the real challenges involved in country-building, they keep falling back on virulent, nationalist modes of address in order to divert their peoples’ attention from issues of internal reforms that should be the natural byproduct of “provincialist” thinking.

The presence of Americans in our midst is likely to lead to a revival of Arab nationalism and a strengthening of Islamic fundamentalism and extremism. As the Syrian case reveals, there are still leaders in the region who cannot think and behave in a manner commensurate with their actual size and capabilities as leaders, not to mention the size and potentials of the states they happen to rule. Such figures cannot be good country-builders, but then their people have not so far shown any indication that they could be ready to move beyond nationalism and into country-building.

Can the U.S. presence be used somehow to facilitate such a move? The following are a few recommendations that could help in this regard:


The United States needs to sponsor the creation of free and independent media outlets in Iraq that can serve as models throughout the region. The existing Lebanese model has been mostly compromised over the years by two important factors: 1) the close associ-ation between various media outlets and existing Lebanese factions reflecting Maronite, Sunni, or Shi’a interests, and 2) the exceptional nature of the Lebanese phenomenon in the Arab world. That is, the “free” discussions that take place via Lebanese outlets have come to be perceived, over the years¸ as more of a manifestation of a certain Lebanese cultural trait, rather than as a paradigm that other Arab peoples might seek to emulate.

The Arabs need new outlets and models that can underscore the need and importance of free media in the affairs of free societies. If the United States, or rather, if the Iraqis can do that with the help of the United States (though I personally doubt it), then an important battle will have been won in the ongoing confrontation in the region.

NGO and developmental activities

The United States needs to use its presence to exert pressure on the region’s regimes and leaders to allow various U.S. and international NGOs to operate, or operate more freely, in the region. This will give the United States and the international community a chance to build direct ties to the region’s peoples through existing NGOs, and to begin building some credibility and showcase the various benefits that more open relations with the United States and the international community can bring. Indeed, the tarnished image of the United States cannot be cleansed by invasion and military interventionism inasmuch as it can be by a heavy and constant investment in supporting NGO and developmental activities in the Middle East, something the United States has been unwilling to consider up to now.

It is high time that the Americans realize the illogic involved in maintaining such a paradoxical state of affairs, where the volume of vital interests that they have in a region is incommensurate with their investment in cultivating a proper image and supporting developmental activities. Although this state of affairs may have been in part because of a lack of cooperation by some Middle East regimes, the United States now seems to be in a better position to do something about it.


The need for creating effective and modern educational systems and programs in the Arab world is staggering. Its very future seems to depend in no small part on addressing this issue. If the Americans truly want to champion the cause of democratization in the region, they must be heavily involved in the education field.

The answer does not lie in the creation of American universities following the example already set in Cairo and Beirut, where tuition costs are so prohibitive that only the children of the often-corrupt elite with no interest in democratization can attend. Rather, the solution lies in the establishment of community colleges and schools where scholastic achievement plays a more important part in the selection process than financial capacity. Students who attend these schools and colleges will have more reason to appreciate U.S. support of these institutions, which may not have existed otherwise. AUB or AUC students, who come from a more privileged background, seem to have no real reason to feel indebted to the United States. The violent demonstrations usually organized by AUC students can testify to this regard.

There is also a great need to upgrade existing school systems and curricula through various pilot projects in selected cities and districts, with special focus on empowering rural communities, minorities, and women.


The United States should use its presence in Iraq to help build networks between regional NGOs, civil society advocates, human rights monitors, and opposition groups in the region. Baghdad should host training workshops and seminars on various civil, political, economic, and social issues, not only for the Iraqi people but also for people from all over the Arab world. If the United States truly wants to create a democratic system in Iraq, or, at the very least, a system that can accommodate a process of democratization, with the intention of spreading this “noble” experiment to other parts of the Middle East, input from the Arab people cannot be excluded. Nor should it be allowed to filter in through existing governmental channels in the various Middle East regimes, since these channels, by their very nature, seem to be designed to corrupt such experiences. Rather, it should be seen and experienced directly. As there were Arabs who were willing to come to Iraq to fight against the United States, there exist also Arabs who could help in, and would greatly benefit from exposure to, the potential process of democratization in Iraq.

A Grand Overture: The new Middle East initiative

One way the Americans could bolster their image and their chances of being perceived in a more positive light by the people of the Middle East is for them to make a clear policy statement underscoring the exact changes they want to see in the Middle East, and the benefits that could result. Vague statements in this regard will not be sufficient. Clarity and vision are needed, much more than has been shown in the Powell initiative. The new Middle East initiative needs to include the following elements:

  • It should state the problems confronting the region, including the Arab–Israeli conflict, minority rights, underdevelopment, poverty, environmental problems ,and the dwindling supplies of fresh water.
  • It should suggest methods of handling these problems through existing international and regional institutions, and, if needed, by creating new ones.
  • It should clarify how the United States can help and what its interests are.
  • It should remind regional players of the positives that the United States has helped bring about, including the generous aid package it provides to Egypt and its involvement in securing and supporting development in the Gulf states.
  • It should pledge to support the processes of development and modernization in the region to the tune of billions of dollars (and not $29 million USD), to be invested in the countries that show greater signs of openness, and in cooperation with SMEs, not just large corporations.

If the United States truly wishes to be involved in the affairs of the Middle East for an appreciable period of time, there is no escaping the need to enunciate a clear vision that can help frame their overall venture positively and make it more conducive to regional stability rather than to further radicalization. Showcasing the benefits of “Americanization” through a success in Iraq will not be sufficient. It must be coupled with promises and immediate attempts at spreading the benefits to the rest of the region through co-operation with NGOs and civil society activists, and through engaging the existing regimes in a relentless and complex process of pressures and overtures, quid pro quos, and other diplomatic and economic means. Threat of military intervention should be the last resort, as it will serve to radicalize the region even further and undermine whatever development efforts the United States might be supporting or attempting to support.

This paper was presented during a multilateral meeting in Europe.