As millions of European soldiers were facing off each other in the doomed trenches of Verdun and the Somme during World War I, a fierce guerrilla war was raging in the dunes of Arabia. Thomas Edward Lawrence, a British army captain and archaeology enthusiast, led a ragtag force of several Arab tribes against the military might of the Ottoman Empire.
Called the “First Great Arab revolt”, this victorious uprising against nearly 400 years of Ottoman rule inspired the formation of the Arab National Council, a gathering of once warring tribes.
Lawrence’s influence in bringing these tribes together inspired Sherrif Hussein ibn Ali, the governor of the Hejaz region of Arabia, to seek a unified Arab state. But the British and French victors of the war had other plans. They formulated the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement which carved up the Middle East between themselves.
The Arabs felt betrayed. Promises made to them by various British generals – and Lawrence – failed to materialise.
That feeling of betrayal seeped into the collective Arab consciousness and as Fawwaz Traboulsi, a political analyst, explains, ‘Arabism’ emerged as a result of that betrayal by the West.
“[Arabs] had to put their demands concerning independence and unity in a language which met the dominant nationalism in Europe. So, Arab Nationalism is a vehicle of Arab demands for independence and unity addressed to Europe.”
By 1919, when Egyptians clashed with the British troops in Cairo and Alexandria, the die had been cast.
The persecution and exile of the Egyptian nationalist Saad Zaghlul – and his return to power – signalled a new paradigm in Arab-West relations. The age of revolution had begun.
During the 1920s and 1930s, three major nationalist movements took form. Pan-Arabism dismissed existing sovereign states as artificial colonial creations while local nationalism insisted on preserving the independence and sovereignty of individual Arab countries.
Then there were those who sought some form of regional unity, such as a Greater Syria or the North African union, either permanently or as a step toward a broader Arab unity.
In 1919, Zaghlul’s famous cry “Egypt for the Egyptians” set the ball rolling for regional nationalism. Zaghlul believed that Egypt and the Nile Valley, including the Sudan, were one entity.
In Lebanon, Antoun Saadeh carried the mantle of regional nationalism, proposing the creation of a Greater Syria and establishing the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) with this aim.
Rejecting the notion, dominant in pan-Arabism, that language was a defining characteristic of a nation, Saadeh argued that geography, history and culture made Greater Syria a naturally unified bloc.
‘Awakening Arab consciousness’
Baathism took off after 1948, when a lack of Arab unity was held responsible for the loss of Palestine and the defeat of Arab forces at the hands of the new state of Israel.
During the later half of the 20th century the party played a critical role across the region but the nationalist ideals of its founders were rarely reflected in their implementation.
With promises of a unified state broken, uprisings and revolt swept the Middle East.
Source: Part two of Al Jazeera’s nine-part series, A Question of Arab Unity, traces the disappointment felt by many Arabs who had fought against the Ottomans and had been hoping for independence from foreign colonialism. In Unity Betrayed, Al Jazeera examines the rise of Arab nationalism in an age of revolt.
20 June 2008