Relics of Ideology

Naman Habtom


Ideologies do not exist in perpetuity. Rather, they’re usually subject to either mutation or abandonment. The failure to achieve their goals results in the discrediting of both the ideologies and their proponents. An embodiment of this is the ascendancy and eventual discontinuation of Pan-Arabism in the early eighties, with the final remnants renounced by the end of the century. The popular acclamation of Pan-Arab ideals and its decline can most clearly be analysed by examining the use of Pan-Arab iconography and symbolism in political discourse.

A clear example of the fusion of the symbolic and the political is in the use of flags. As a result of the Arab Revolts that took place during the First World War against Ottoman rule, four colours became particularly prominent amongst the Arabs: red, white, black, and green.i The significance of these colours comes from two historical periods, namely the near-past and the historic-past. That is to say, they were significant both because of their use in the Arab Revolts themselves but also because they alluded to previous eras, namely to the Great Caliphates, with white representing the Umayyad Caliphate, and green representing the Fatimid Caliphate. In the post-war years, these colours reasserted themselves in the political sphere. This is seen particularly in the tri-colour horizontally striped red, white, black flag (sometimes referred to as the Arab Liberation Flag) that is still in use in as the basic template in five countries (Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Sudan). Their near contemporaneous adoption is evidence to the vibrancy of the ideology in the 1950s and 1960s.ii

While the use of flags is proof of the ideology’s role post-war, their development and transformations since is evidence of their status as a political relic. An example of this is the history of the current Iraqi flag. The Iraqi flag can find its roots (albeit in a slightly modified version) in the early sixties, when the tricolour was adopted with the added feature of three green stars in anticipation of a political union with neighbouring Syria as well as Egypt, with those two nations (then known as the United Arab Republic) possessing the same tricolour flag but with two green stars. The flag of Iraq, however, has since experienced three revisions, each indicative of the declining role of Pan-Arabism. The first change consisted of the adding of the takbir (the Islamic phrase Allahu akbar) in Saddam Hussein’s own handwriting, demonstrating a break with the secular tradition of the Pan-Arab movement in general, and the Ba’ath Party in particular, in favour of Islamic influences.iii The second alteration, in the aftermath of the US invasion of 2003, is the change in script to the traditional Kufic script, which has its origins in Iraq itself, further confirming the gradual abandonment of the Pan-Arab ideology.iv The third modification is perhaps the most symbolic. It’s the elimination of the three green stars, which initially represented the main supporters of Pan-Arabism: Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. This successive repeal of ideology from the preeminent emblem of a nation demonstrates that the ideological core has since become nothing more than a relic.

This gradual retreat from pan-Arabism has taken numerous forms, ranging from the political to the cultural. Historical figures tended to gradually become more nationalist and increasingly dissociated from a shared Arab history. For example, during Gaddafi’s 2008 Italian visit, the Libyan leader wore a picture of the Libyan anti-colonial mujahideen Omar Mukhtar in chains being arrested by Italian colonial officials.v This is a clear example of an Arab nation focusing on a national, rather than a shared, historical narrative. The figure of Saladin demonstrates this point even more clearly. While the historical Saladin was in fact ethnically Kurdish, not Arabic, he was appropriated first as an Arab hero and subsequently as a national hero.vi The latter, a post-Pan-Arab approach, is manifested in the form of the Egyptian flag as well as an Iraqi administrative unit. The Egyptian flag differentiates itself from other users of the Arab Liberation Flag by its inclusion of the Eagle of Saladin, a stylised crest. The basis for this use is due to Saladin’s role in the late Fatimid period, which was geographically based in Egypt. The Iraqi claim to Saladin (with a governorate named after him), however, derives from his birth in what is today Iraq. This act was carried out in conjunction with the reaffirmation of Iraqi history prior to the Arab period, by invoking figures like the Babylonian ruler Nebuchadnezzar II. This manifested itself in the Iraqi attempt to replicate Soviet T-72 tanks as part of a project called Asad Babil (‘Lion of Babylon’) as well as the issuance of government medals.viiviii

The political disintegration of Pan-Arabism can be traced through time, with the gradual evolution of Sudan from 1969 to 1983 as perhaps the clearest example. The leader of Sudan, Gaafar Nimeiry, had attained power through a military coup modelled on the successful coups of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Muammar Gaddafi in Egypt and Libya, respectively, (even going so far as to imitate the other two coups by referring to his fellow putschists and himself as members of the ‘Free Officers Movement’) coupled with the establishment of a party named the Sudanese Socialist Union (à la Nasser’s Arab Socialist Union).ix Despite the early ideological fervour, the inability to maintain a firm political standing without allying himself with religious ideologues, resulted in the Islamisation of Sudanese politics that culminated with the imposition of sharia law in 1983. This precipitated the Second Sudanese Civil War, which in turn finalised the status of Pan-Arabism in Sudan as that of an ideological relic. While the decrepit status of the ideology in Sudan was primarily internally caused, that was not the case for neighbouring Libya. Though Gaddafi’s break with Pan-Arabism was never as sudden and dramatic as that of Nimeiry’s, it was nonetheless marginalised as a consequence of the rejection of the ideology by his neighbours (namely Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Tunisia’s Habib Bourguiba) and ultimately replaced by Pan-Africanism (going so far as to call himself ‘King of Kings’ of Africax). Though throughout most of Gaddafi’s rule the official name of the country remained the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Republic and the anthem continued to be an Egyptian battle song from the Suez Crisis that was recontextualised in a wider Arabic understanding, both of these were mere relics by the time of Colonel Gaddafi’s death.xi

The Arab world remains in the midst of the convulsions that have engulfed many of its nations, with the last country still officially led by an Arab nationalist government struggling to maintain its territorial integrity (i.e. the Syrian Arab Republic, with a Russian proposed draft constitution even suggesting renaming the nation the Syrian Republicxii). The region has shifted from one governed by a secular, progressive, socialist Pan-Arab ideology to one where chaos and theocracy are increasingly prevalent, leaving us to reflect on the future impact of this transition from a vibrant ideology to a political relic. What began as a revolutionary movement is now largely dead with the majority of the Arab population having been born in a post-Pan-Arab world.

Naman Habtom is a second-year historian at Homerton College. Born and raised in Sweden, Naman lived in California before coming to study in Cambridge. His academic interests include military history as well as 20th century European history.