In the half century before the fall of their empire at the end of World War I, the Ottomans had tried to merge the old with the new. They tried to sustain the political legitimacy of the Sultan as a religious authority and of the empire as a cultural frame of reference for the societies in the empire’s Arab and Eastern domains. At the same time, cognisant of the empire being “the sick man of Europe”, the Ottomans tried to introduce reforms in their governing structure so that the peoples in these domains do not abandon the Ottoman idea and imagine replacements for it.

The Ottomans failed. But so did all the replacements that had sought to fuel the imagination of the peoples of the Levant and North Africa.

Three factors proved fatal.

One — Rejection of the past was hardly a recipe for the future. The political projects that appeared in the 1920s and 1930s were driven by their founders’ abhorrence of their societies’ experiences under four centuries of Ottoman rule, and what that rule entailed in terms of oppression, cultural condescension especially towards the Arabs, and closure to the waves of modernity that Europe had triggered in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The founders of these rejectionist projects defined their ideals in contrast to Ottomanism, but hardly as stand-alone socio-political conceptions with real foundations.

This is one reason why projects such as Greater Syria and the modern state of Lebanon (presented earlier in this series) were highly inspiring for scores of people in the three decades after the fall of the Ottomans, but later appeared full of contradictions and simplistic idealism.

The second fatal factor was a failure of serious self-assessment. The euphoria – and for some, shock – of emerging from four centuries of Ottoman rule and having for the first time in many generations the freedom to think of new political frameworks, new social contracts, and new futures, sent many minds into circles of delirium. The writings of many Levantine, Egyptian, and North African writers of the 1920s and 1930s, were full of grand aspirations that few decades later proved to be flights to fantasy.

There was a lack of serious reflection on the heritage of four centuries of Ottoman – and Mameluke - rule in the societies of the Levant and North Africa, in terms of the role of religion in society, the entrenched feelings that had shaped the relationship between state and society, often the lack of trust between different social groups, and the general societal attitudes towards power. For most political thinkers and leaders in the first half of the twentieth century, their people only needed to throw off the cloak of Ottomanism, and of course to rid themselves of European colonialism, to advance, catch up with the West, and resuscitate the glories of ages past. But when the shackles of Ottoman imperialism and European colonialism were destroyed, there remained the enduring impacts their rule and legacy had imprinted on the psyches of the peoples of the Levant and North Africa.

Three — the total belief in political saviours proved ruinous. Arab nationalism (another political project discussed in this series) was the most, though hardly the only project, afflicted by this. Arab and Middle Eastern history are full of examples of epochs and political projects that were built round one man, whose ideas, actions, and later interpretations of these ideas and actions, became the pillars and guides of scores of people. Almost all of these epochs and projects ended in failures, if not disasters for their societies.

Gamal Abdel Nasser’s experience is the most obvious example that comes to mind, because unlike the experiences of all other leaders who anchored their legitimacy on Arab nationalism, Gamal Abdel Nasser had gained and sustained the trust of massive sections of Arabs. That he had shrunk from deploying the immense love and trust people had for him to build serious institutions protected by genuine representation and rule of law, acutely diluted the Arab nationalist project as a whole, and created spaces in the Arab political scene for much lesser men than him to claim the mantle of that once-inspiring political project.

Anchoring the aspirations of tens of millions of people on the notion of the hero who emerges from the recesses of history, resonates with his peoples’ griefs and dreams, and who represents, with his presence and thought and actions, the will of those people, was a return to the most regressive thought-patterns in Arab history, and a major detachment from the ideas of true modernity and cultural advancement that Arab and Levantine and Egyptian thinkers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had advocated. This utter belief in heroes proved to be an illness that has devastated Arab societies in the century since the fall of the Ottomans.

Today the Arab world remains in the throes of many of the failures of the different political projects of the past century. Societies take long times to heal the scars in their collective psyches. And if the wounds that had caused these scars were deep, the healing process takes even longer and exacts a high toll, even if the pains have long ceased to be obvious and felt by the patient.