LONDON, United Kingdom — Biblical metaphors come easily when thinking about the Middle East and its endless stream of crises. Watching the continuing events in Egypt, the question of "original sin" keeps coming to mind.
What is the original sin that condemned the region to perpetual war and stagnation? If you asked that question in Cairo's Tahrir Square many would probably answer, the creation of Israel. Others might say, it is the American government's bipartisan ability to back the wrong horse decade after decade. In Egypt they remember that the United States feared the enormously popular Gamal Abdel-Nasser because of his perceived socialist views, then propped up Hosni Mubarak's regime long past the moment when it had lost all legitimacy.
But the people of Tahrir Square are wrong. Israel is not the original sin. And America (and once upon a time, the Soviet Union) simply reacts to events, it doesn’t cause them.
The Middle East's original sin was committed in that brief moment of Eden when colonialism ended, from 1945 to 1960. The idea of pan-Arabism very quickly took hold. The dream of a single Arab nation running from Morocco through Arabia distracted people from building modern states.
Unlike the biblical original sin, in which eating an apple gave Adam and Eve knowledge and self-awareness, pan-Arabism was a fruit that made people forget. They forsook the knowledge of centuries: the social, cultural and ethnic differences that marked Egyptians out as being different from Iraqis, Maghrebis (North Africans) different from those of the oil-rich Arabian peninsula.
In pan-Arabist theory, the Arab Nation, suppressed by the Ottoman Empire, followed by the British and French, would rise up again, do away with the arbitrary colonial boundaries, and reclaim its place in history. The idea had great appeal to the Arab masses in those first decades after the colonial era ended. They were poor and embarking on that most terrifying journey of modernization — from rural village life to the harsh environment of city slums. The social communitarian rhetoric of pan-Arabism had a huge appeal to the downtrodden. It focused all discontent on the interlopers, the Jews, in their little sliver of Palestine.
But the pan-Arab dream was never going to be possible. The differences among the Arab peoples are profound. Nasser set up a United Arab Republic with Syria. It lasted all of three years before collapsing in petty political and personal differences among the leadership. But it could never have worked for a simple fact: People from Damascus, Cairo and Baghdad may admire each other's culture, in the way that people from London, Paris and Berlin admire each other's culture, but if you ask them whose country is superior most would say their own.
The final nail in the coffin of pan-Arabist theory came in June 1967. In six days, the Israeli Defense Force crushed the combined might of the Arab armies. Worse than that, even on day three of the war, as Israeli tanks stormed toward the Suez Canal, the Arab leaders were telling their peoples that their troops were within striking distance of Tel Aviv.
Pan-Arabism never recovered from the combination of defeat and deceit, but the dream of reclaiming the greatness of 1,000 years ago did not die. It morphed. It became "Islamized," according to Mona Makram Obeid, a professor at the American University in Cairo, who explains that much of the pan-Arabist program was overlaid with Islam.
Many Egyptian university students at the time of the Six-Day War were pan-Arabists. They lost faith in secular politics. They shifted their focus toward religion. By the time they finished their studies they were becoming more devout, and some became politically active in radical Islamist movements. The Muslim Brotherhood, a non-factor in Egyptian life during the Nasser years, gained adherents.
In other parts of the Arab world, radical Islamic movements also gained strength. But as with pan-Arabism, the differences in the way Islam is lived country by country are such that pan-Islamism has no hope of success either.
The West has compounded this original sin of pan-Arabism/pan-Islamism with an original sin of its own: fear born of ignorance. In the 1950s and 1960s, the West feared pan-Arabism's socialist tendencies. Today it fears its Islamic tenor.
Whenever an Islamist party gets votes in a genuine plebiscite in an Arab state, alarm bells go off in Western capitals. In its fear, the West has made a habit of backing authoritarian governments such as Mubarak's. This has not helped the Arab world undo its original sin. Why should people stop looking backward to an idealized past, when their present life is utterly constrained by dictators?
If Egypt gets to real elections, it is probable the Muslim Brotherhood will do very well.
What will the West do? Will it compound its own original sin by seeking to undermine a government including the Brotherhood?
One voice of the West has me worried. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair holds the position of "Special Envoy of the Middle East Quartet." The Quartet comprises the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and Russia as they are involved in mediating the Israel-Palestine conflict. Blair’s comments this past weekend in a BBC interview make it clear that official thinking is still trapped inside the West's fear and ignorance.
As opposed to those who led the spontaneous uprising in Egypt, "the Muslim Brotherhood is very well-organized," Blair said. "It's very disciplined and very strategic " Then he added, ominously, "And there are links between the Muslim Brotherhood and other people in the region." It was quite clear he didn't mean they had links to cousins working in the oil fields of Bahrain. He meant Al Qaeda and Hamas.
Last week, even as U.S. President Barack Obama was calling for a transition from the Mubarak regime to begin, Blair was on CNN praising the Egyptian strong man: "I've worked with him on the Middle East peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians so this is somebody I'm constantly in contact with and working with and on that issue, I have to say, he's been immensely courageous and a force for good.”
The protesters in Tahrir Square and around the country seem to be focused on re-building Egypt, not the Arab Nation. It feels as if they may be trying to redeem themselves from that terrible error of 65 years ago. Blair doesn't seem ready to take a similar leap of faith. If he doesn't see this is a new beginning perhaps it would be best for him to stand down as a representative of democratic powers. And if he won't, the Obama administration should tell him forcefully to return to private life so that someone who is not tainted by the West's original sin can take his place.
More about the unrest in the Middle East:
|The altered aura of the Arab state||Everything you need to know||Egypt: Four ways forward|