Egyptian Peninsula 5 Letters
Egyptian Peninsula 5 Letters – TO WALK through Tahrir Square TODAY, the heart of Egypt’s 2011 revolution, is to walk through an empty, haunted house. During those 18 days of unrest, the atmosphere alternated between festive and terrifying. Young people sang, plotted and talked freely about politics. Thugs on camels rode past the Egyptian museum and charged headlong into the crowd. For years after the departure of Hosni Mubarak, the square had a magnetic appeal. “Back to Tahrir” became a mantra for activists whenever Egypt’s democratic transition looked troubled.
The army paid for it all in 2013 and now the square reminds of the military idea of public space. It’s tidy, with fresh paint on the buildings, well-manicured grass and a central roundabout anchored by an obelisk — and cleared of people, too. The guards chase away anyone who lingers too long.
Egyptian Peninsula 5 Letters
South of the square is Mugama, a bureaucratic building where countless Egyptians have wasted countless hours and paid countless bribes for official paperwork. He moves to a grandiose new capital in the desert. Sever is a neoclassical museum, a building that has enchanted generations of tourists. Its treasures are also being transferred to a new billion-dollar museum on the Giza plateau. Although still full of traffic, Tahrir feels lifeless, as if Egypt’s rulers were hoping for a physical break with the chaos of a decade ago.
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It is therefore fitting that the square houses the Arab League, an institution founded in 1945 that now feels like a monument to an earlier era. Built on the site of an old British barracks, the league was a nod to the mid-century Arab nationalist wave and Egypt’s role in it. However, some 75 years after its founding, it has fallen far short of what the Arabs had hoped for. The nationalist wave subsided, as did Egypt’s place in the region. Walking past the building, into the eerie emptiness of Tahrir, begs the question: when even national identities in the Middle East are in doubt, what is the Arab world?
Before the advent of Islam, Arabs were simply Arabic-speaking nomads of the Arabian Peninsula and the Mesopotamian desert. The conquests of the Islamic caliphates then spread their language and religion even to today’s Spain and Pakistan. But the last caliphate fell to the Ottomans in the 16th century, beginning a 400-year period when mostly Arabs were ruled by foreigners.
By the 1800s, Ottoman power began to grow. Arab intellectuals looked with frustration at Europe’s technological and political progress, progress that seemed to be built on top of the work of older Arab thinkers. The Ottoman Empire felt stagnant and increasingly difficult. What emerged from this frustration was Arab nationalism, an ideology that posited a historic Arab nation, bound by the bonds of language and culture, ready for renewal if only it could throw off the Turkish yoke.
It would take another century to put this into practice. As the Ottoman Empire declined, European powers carved up Arab territories. Britain and France drew arbitrary borders that continue to this day and broke repeated promises to withdraw and give the Arabs independence. However, in the decade after World War II, the Arabs finally took control of their nation-states. Some borders may have been haphazard, but they were sovereign, for the first time in centuries, and their citizens were eager for growth and development – and representative government.
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What followed was a decades-long effort to create an expansive, transnational Arab identity. Arab nationalism would become the uplifting ideology of the region. Its main competitor, Islamism, found its pan-Arab manifestation in the Muslim Brotherhood. The Arab League was supposed to integrate the region and protect the independence of the states. The conflict with Israel has become a cornerstone: a joint military struggle for some, an ideological cause for all.
Away from politics, the mass media helped create a common culture. Egyptian film became universally popular. The haunting voice of Fairouz, Lebanon’s most famous diva, sang from cafes and car radios from Tunis to Baghdad. There was a pan-Arab newspaper and Sawt al-Arab (“Voice of the Arabs”), a Cairo radio station that could be heard throughout the Arabic-speaking world.
The Arab Spring that began in 2010 was also a pan-Arab effort. The self-immolation of a street vendor in Tunisia sparked protests across much of the region, fueled by Al-Jazeera, the Qatari-funded satellite news channel that peaked in popularity as the unrest spread. Slogans and tactics migrated from one place to another. Protesters in one country chanted in solidarity with their relatives in another.
Yet it also revealed how hollow the pillars of Arabism are. The Arab League played little role, apart from joking on social media. Arab nationalism, long associated with ruthless dictators and ill-conceived socialist policies, was already discredited; it was not a unifying ideology. The Islamists seized some brief opportunities to rule, but their divide and rule has left their reputation in ruins. And the battle with Israel lost some of its resonance as the Arabs turned their anger on their own rulers, who killed far more people in a decade than Israel ever did.
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This special report discusses the regional order that has emerged over the past decade. It has three distinct characteristics. First is the external weakness of many Arab states: all the most powerful countries in the Middle East are non-Arab. The second is their internal fragility. Large young populations and unproductive economies are existential threats that often require harsh repression. Apart from the Gulf countries, the Arab world is a series of failed and failing states.
In addition to these crises of legitimacy and governance, there is a third: the crisis of identity. Without ideologies or institutions to bind the region together, many states reverted to narrow, self-serving nationalism. Ask young Arabs what it means to be Arab and many struggle to find an answer. “Sitting in fuel lines,” jokes a journalist in Beirut. “The desire to emigrate,” says the Egyptian businessman. “It’s homesickness,” offers one Bahraini academic. Two centuries after Arab intellectuals dreamed of a prosperous, sovereign and united region, the main thread that connects people from Marrakesh to Muscat is often a shared sense of unhappiness.
The post-war era was hardly a peaceful time in the Middle East. But then the Arabs took center stage in their conflicts. Today, the region is divided into three camps, each led by a powerful non-Arab state. Iran calls itself the “axis of resistance”. It considers the Syrian regime an ally, along with powerful Shia militias in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. Next is a Turkish-backed group rooted in Sunni Islam. Qatar is its closest Arab partner; it also has influence in Libya, northern Syria and among the diaspora. Opposite both are the Gulf monarchies. Rich and stable, but nervous about their own security, they threw themselves into their fate with a third non-Arab state: Israel, the strongest state in the region.
There were no winners in this competition. Years of civil war have left Libya, Syria and Yemen unrecognizable as sovereign states. Iraq’s government, which was ousted by an American-led invasion in 2003, has stood by as Iran-backed militias loot the treasury and kill critics. Lebanon fell into a depression that ranks as one of the worst in history. The Arab world accounts for 5% of the world’s population, but almost 50% of its refugees and 25% of the internally displaced.
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Most Arab countries suffer from severe poverty, unemployment and poor basic services. Egyptians overthrew one dictator only to welcome another. The Tunisians built the Arab world’s only true democracy, and even that is now under threat. Both countries had higher unemployment in 2020 than in 2010, higher poverty rates, and higher debt-to-GDP ratios. Even the Gulf states, relative oases of stability, are worried about the end of their rentier economic models. With the possible exception of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), no one has worked out how to build a prosperous Arab economy for a post-oil future.
, a word often translated as “homeland” in English. Arab nationalism of the 20th century aspired to be the first, even if the reality was less than this. The “Arab World” is a vast region of up to 22 countries and more than 400 million people, with more scattered in the far-flung diaspora. However, factionalism in the region was not inevitable. Foreign powers deserve some blame. Both America and the Soviet Union supported bad Arab regimes during the Cold War. Since 2003, US politics has been inconsistent, but almost always terrible. A straight line connects the invasion of Iraq with the rise of the Islamic State a decade later.
For Arab rulers, aspirational talk of unity was often an excuse for larger states to interfere in the affairs of smaller ones. Corruption and incompetence have brought even energy-rich countries into a state of decline. Autocrats failed to invest in education, suppressed civil society and fueled internal divisions, all but ensuring that attempts to establish democracies failed. What exists today is increasingly just another kind of nationalism. The Arab League is stalling, but it has not built up