From “Pan-Arabism” to “Grassroots Arabism”

Violation of cultural norms and inter-Arabic violence has demonstrated that Pan-Arabism is no longer considerable as a viable option. Despite this, amongst regional uprisings in 2011, recurring features such as revolutionary slogans, symbols and populations’ demands for political freedom and economic opportunities underline a sense of social unity. This analysis aims to demonstrate that the spread of Arab awakenings reaffirmed the sentiment of a new and revisited sense of Arabism amongst regional populations – that can be defined as “Grassroots Arabism.”

Nasser, former president of Egypt from 1956 until his death in 1970, is often mentioned for his Pan-Arabism policy inscribed in the larger context of decolonization and national liberation movements proper of the Global South during the 1950s. Nasser’s aims were to put an end to the political subordination to Western Imperialism, to foster Pan-Arabism, and to relaunch the economy. In order to pursue these goals, he dreamt about a political unit among the Arab countries. The idea of unifying the Arab world resulted in the creation of a larger Pan-Arab state: the United Arab Republic (UAR), a political union between Egypt and Syria that lasted from 1958 until 1961. Rather than a united republic, the UAR became a state completely dominated by Egyptians, and the Syrian bourgeoisie’s opposition to the policies of Nasser contributed to engineer its breakdown. The success of the Pan-Arab politics of Nasser can be traced back within the framework of inter-Arab and international politics. Nasser’s anti-Imperialist, Pan-Arab rhetoric, and his success after the Suez crisis made him de facto leader of the Arab World and the Palestinian cause became one of the main struggles against Western and Zionist interference in the Arab World. In this context, the will of solving the Palestinian question under Nasser meant pursuing an independent and nonaligned foreign policy. With the collapse of the UAR, the Arab defeat in the Six-Day War, and the inability of generating economic growth, the Pan-Arabism lost its credibility as a relevant option for the Arab community. The dream of political Pan-Arabism was clearly a failure. Barnett points out that the real outcome of Pan-Arabism was a “normative fragmentation,” which broke its hegemony as main ideology in the Arab world.[1] As Sela states, “By the mid-1970s, the idea of Arab unity became less and less apparent in Arab politics, though it remained a wishful goal among the masses.”[2]The vacuum in the Arab ideology following the decline of Pan-Arabism was filled up by Political Islam,

Given the current situation, it is safe to state that the role of supra-state identities is no longer influential. The low level of Arab cooperation is well explained by the words of Susser: “The Arab League is an empty vessel […] Never mind doing anything about the current conflagration, the Arab collective is incapable even to convening to talk about it. The Middle East, therefore, is no longer the Arab World, at least in the sense that it is not the Arab states that set the regional agenda.”[3] Notwithstanding the division between Arab League’s states, their citizens found common ground in the civil, political, and social rights’ demands during the awakenings in 2011: social media platforms strengthened this bond in an unprecedented way. The uprisings spread across the Arab World from Tunisia to Yemen and they have been commonly described as a “wave of protest,” “revolutionary wave” or even a “pro-democracy wave.”[4] Political revolts in the Middle East have spread through almost every part of the region, changing the political map beyond any recognition. Who could have predicted that a twenty-four-year-long regime in Tunisia and a thirty-year regime in Egypt could fall due to public uprisings? The source of power in the Arab World seemed to move outside of the presidential palaces into the squares and streets of the major cities. People’s voice seemed to become a considerable force that all leaders in the region had to take into account.[5] The 2011 revolts opened a new phase in the history of the Middle East and North Africa. Long-term regimes fell, free elections took place and new ideas spread in the region through Internet and social networks. Nonetheless, five years later, the reality in the Middle East appears completely different. The dream of democracy has failed, and the Middle East remains a region of great uncertainty and instability. The 2011 uprisings opened an on-going phase of political and social insecurity, characterized by the rise of new political actors, such as Daesh. The protests, the rallies, the fall of decade-old regimes had a strong impact not only in the specific country where they happened, it also concerned the whole balance of power in the region. For these reasons, some scholars talked about a New Cold War among Arab countries. The so called “Arab Spring” has turned into to a regional cold war, in which sectarian lines divide the region between Shia and Sunni, also dealing with internal struggles among dominant powers.

On the other hand, the above-mentioned revolts have shown some constant features, such as revolutionary slogans, symbols and populations’ demands for political freedom and economic opportunities.[6]Hence, the spread of Arab awakenings reaffirmed somehow the sentiment of a new and revisited sense of Arabism.[7]Some authors, such as Lamis Andoni, Patrick Seale, and Marc Lynch refer to this phenomenon as a new form of Arabism, or Pan-Arabism. A common trait of the uprisings’ spread was the role of media and of social networks. “Formulating the same demands for political freedom, economic opportunity and, above all, dignity, they (those who marched in the public space) call out to each other across national boundaries, copying each other, drawing encouragement from each other’s experience. The Arab people are responding to each other as never before. Satellite television and internet communications have undoubtedly succeeded in creating a sense of community, informing Arab societies about each other, ventilating common problems, linking Maghreb to Mashreq. Social networks such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have also played a role in bringing the Arabs together”[8]. This was the response to the new conditions created by globalization: an activist could share immediately the updates of the rally, and his fellows could read them as they happened. A common sense of making history collectively was shared among Arab civil societies during these events. As Javier Solana points out: “Without Al Jazeera is impossible to understand the success of Arab revolts, because its role can be compared with Nasser’s one in creating bonds among Arab communities.”[9] The political Pan-Arabism, promoted in the past by individual leaders such as Nasser, was substituted by a new form of bottom-up Arab unity, characterized by people engaged at grassroots level, rather than a top-down union of leaders bonded by their own geopolitical ambitions. Nasser’s efforts to spread Arab nationalism and solidarity were substituted during the revolts by social networks. Moreover, the Palestinian struggle against Israeli oppression relived again in the Egyptian uprisings. The burning of Israeli and US flags, accompanied by protests in front of the embassies, demanding to reconsider the peace-treaty with Israel, shows how much this sentiment is still a priority for Egyptians, even if it is no longer the case for the government.

In conclusion, as one of the numerous cross-cutting consequences of the Arab awakenings, it is suggested to refer to the mentioned phenomenon as “Grassroots Arabism,” rather than New Arabism or Pan-Arabism, since it does not imply any institutional unit among states. On the contrary, it refers to the new techniques used, such as social networks, and the sense of belonging to Arab civil society. Moreover, the core demand of the rallies is the change of the central government in each country, not a shared aim that includes all the states of the Arab World. For these reasons, if not in the political agenda of Arab countries, unity among Arabs may still be considered a key component in the Arab common sense.

Anita Sorrentini

Master’s degree in International Studies (University of Turin)

[1] R. Hinnebush, and A. Ehtesami, The Foreign Policies of Middle East States, Second Edition, Lynne Rienner Publishers, Boulder London, 2014, p. 15.

[2] A. Sela, The Continuum Political Encyclopedia of the Middle East, New York, 2002, pp. 160–166.

[3] Quoted in P. Seeberg, “The Weakening of the Arab States,” Centre for Contemporary Middle East Studies, Working Papers Series No. 11, University of Southern Denmark, May 2007, pp. 1–31.

[4] For the criticism to the use of the “metaphor of wave,” see: J. L. Gelvin, The Arab Uprisings: what Everyone Needs to Know, Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 30–31.

[5] C. Kane, and E. Murauskaite, Regional Security Dialogue in the Middle East: Changes, Challenges and Opportunities, Routledge, 2004.

[6]P. Seale, “The New Pan-Arabism,” Middle East Online, 27 April 2011. Available at:

[7] See among others: M. Lynch, “The Big Think behind the Arab Spring: do the Middle East’s Revolutions have a Unifying Ideology?,” 28 November 2011. Available at:

[8] Seale P.

[9]Quoted in J. Solana Madariaga and L. M. Bassets Sanchez, Primaveras, Terremotos y Crisis, Endebate, 2011.

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