In the century since the fall of the Ottomans, no political project proved more successful and more calamitous than Arab nationalism.

Modern Arab nationalism was born in the Levant in the second half of the 19th century. Although Egypt was the first part of the Ottoman Empire to be truly exposed to Westernisation and serious modernisation – starting with the Napoleonic campaign on Egypt, from 1799 to 1802, and later because of the major reforms during the reign of Mohamed Ali Pasha – the Levant, in the mid 19th century, became highly exposed to Western, especially French, political and social ideas. This was partly because the Levant had, by its social composition, different sizeable Eastern Christian groups that had always been inspired by Europe. It was also because the Levant, was throughout most of the 19th century, an open environment with increasingly weak central authority and tenuous links to Istanbul, the Ottoman nerve centre. As the Ottomans’ hold over the Levant, and the entire Mashreq, grew weaker, different political ideas came to the surface, aiming to inherit Ottomanism. The idea of an Arab identity was one of the most attractive to large groups in the Levant, because it was anchored on a secular view of history.

Secularism was key to Arab nationalism, because, despite the reforms that the Ottomans had introduced in the mid 19thcentury, that aimed to install political equality between Muslims and non-Muslims in the Empire, four centuries of Ottoman rule had left strong feelings of religious demarcation in almost all provinces of the empire. In some cases, periods of Ottoman oppression of religious minorities had left feelings of strong rejection of anything Ottoman or Turkish. Actually, save for a thin layer of social elite in the Empire’s eastern provinces, rejecting Ottomanism was quite a widespread feeling even among large sections of Muslims. And for those who objected to sectarian identities – such as Islamist, political Maronism, or others that had begun to appear in the Levant – secularism was at the core of what they aspired to replace Ottomanism.

Arabness had the ingredients of a strong secular, national identity. The Arabic language, with its extremely rich poetry, literature, and philosophical heritage was an omnipresent cultural framework that had already brought together the peoples of the Levant and North Africa for whom, centuries earlier, Arabic had become mother tongue.

It was a natural step for this cultural identity to evolve into a political project. Unlike the idea of a Greater Syria, that the previous article in this series presented, Arab nationalism was grounded in material examples in history. Despite the fact that, since the emergence of Islam in the seventh century, almost all the dynasties that had ruled the region extending from the Arabian Peninsula to the Maghreb had anchored their rule on forms of Islamic legitimacy, Arabness was, throughout that period and across the entire region, close to and entangled with political power and authority.

The Hashemite project, which the second article in this series presented, gave strong momentum to Arabness, for Sharif Hussein and his sons, who came to rule Syria, Jordan, and Iraq, had all fought the Ottomans, negotiated with external powers, and built their kingdoms, on the basis of, in their narrative, noble Arabness.

Add to that the Arabs were a nation for centuries since Islam had unified them and gave them an overarching sociopolitical framework. And for centuries, this sociopolitical framework has been extending Arabness beyond the Arabian Peninsula, particularly in the Levant, Iraq, and North Africa. This Arabness was a marked distinction from the Turkishness and Persianness of the wider Middle Eastern Muslim-majority societies that had accepted Islam but rejected the Arabic language.

And so throughout the first half of the twentieth century, Arab nationalism was a potent power with major potential because it resonated with the history and cultural affiliation of the largest social groups in the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, the Levant, and parts of North Africa.

But it was a change that had taken place in Egypt in the mid twentieth century that catapulted Arab nationalism to the stratosphere of Middle Eastern politics. Gamal Abdel Nasser’s overthrowing of the Egyptian monarchy, the oldest and most established in the entire Mashreq, was in itself a momentous event. But Nasser’s adamant challenging of the old imperial powers – Britain and France – in Egypt, and support for freedom movements across the region, gave rise to the idea that Nasser had a political project whose aspirations transcended Egypt and went beyond mere driving colonialism out of the Mashreq. Many groups across the Levant, the Arabian Peninsula, and North Africa quickly developed an attachment to this nascent project, even though this project’s core and contours were at the time still malleable.

When Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal, dealing a strong blow to the British Empire and challenging the entire architecture of western interests in the region, his project acquired both, clarity and tremendous momentum. Nasser did not nationalise the Suez Canal - the most prized and most strategic Western controlled asset in the entire Middle East – in the name of Arab nationalism. He nationalised it to finance some of his most ambitious developmental projects, and at least equally important, to demonstrate his defiance of Western power in the region. That defiance resonated with a widespread desire for freedom from western influence, and at a deeper level, with what seemed to be a call emanating from history to resuscitate Arab dignity after centuries of Ottoman and then Western domination of the Mashreq. And since Nasser was a secularist who had already been on a clashing course with the Islamists of Egypt, and since he had personally fought Israeli forces in Palestine in 1948, secular Arabness almost naturally became the hue surrounding his glow. Arab nationalism acquired its hero.

As I have argued in my book “Egypt on the Brink”, the real power of Nasser’s project was its emotional charge in Egypt and beyond, in the Arab world, and across large parts of what is today called “the global South”. What made Nasser a global leader, on par with the likes of India’s Nehru and Yugoslavia’s Tito, was not merely his popularity in the Arab world and his strategic defeat of Britain and France in the Suez Crisis of 1956; it was his emergence as a reflection of a desire not only to destruct the colonial political order that had ruled the world before the Second World War, but to replace it with the most potent form of Arab nationalism the Arab world has ever witnessed. Tens of millions of Arabs saw in Nasser a symbol of their far bygone glorious past, and the potential that his project, his representation of a collective dignity, could reincarnate that past into their immediate future.

That did not happen. Arab nationalism, whether of the Nasserite or of later variants, failed to materialise the potential of the future, and with the passing of decades, squandered all opportunities to make itself a catalyst to resuscitate the glorious past. The regimes that espoused Arab nationalism in the second half of the twentieth century became synonymous with oppression, military defeats, institutional decay, one-man rule, and political vacuousness. The gap between the grandeur of the rhetoric that had surrounded Arab nationalism and the travesty of the reality of its implementation drowned the political project into flights to fancy by many of its believers or abject hatred by scores of its opponents.

This is a loss to modern Arab history. Because of its rich experience, twentieth century Arab Nationalism deserves a proper closure with and within the collective Arab psyche.