The Mirage of Sovereignty and the Bluff of National Unity
09 July 2016
By Eyad Abu Shakra
Both Iraq and Lebanon are currently living two big 'lies': sovereignty and
national unity, and as the days go by, not only are the politicians in the two
countries proving their ability to bluff their people, but also their ability
to bluff themselves.
1920 was a significant landmark in the history of the two countries as the
'New World Order' drew their maps that included several constituents. Some of
these constituents willingly accepted the new 'national' borders, others
accepted them as a fait accompli, and they felt that the very existence of
'national borders' dividing and separating what were Arab majority or
character Ottoman provinces and 'Mutassarifliks' (i.e. 'autonomous districts')
was tantamount to a fatal blow to the dream of 'Arab Unity'.
It is worth remembering here, and always, that the 'borders' of the Near
East's entities were not drawn and adopted by their peoples, who are the
peoples directly involved, but rather by the imperialist Western powers that
won the WW1. It is well known that these powers agreed among themselves to
divide and apportion the former Ottoman territories through a set of deals and
The question of 'minorities' – be they ethnic, linguistic, religious or
sectarian – was always a sensitive issue at the time of drawing the maps of
the British and French mandates. As artificial – even revised, as is the case
of Western Iraq/Eastern Syria – borders were being drawn, they separated
homogeneous groups while bringing together groups that had almost nothing in
The new post-Ottoman 'Caliphate' geo-political realities were taking shape
against a background of a tough struggle between the 'religious / sectarian'
and 'nationalist' identities as European- inspired 'nationalism', as well as
rapid urbanization at the expense of rural and nomadic patterns of settlement
with all the interaction, friction, interest-linked loyalties, concepts and
Iraq, Lebanon and Syria have lived through all the above. However, while a
royalist regime was established in Iraq based on a melange of rural, tribal
and city elites from Baghdad, Mosul and Basra, and supported by the ex-'Sherifian'
officers and other Faisal ibn Al-Hussein (King Faisal I) loyalists, a
consensus republican system was installed in 'Greater Lebanon' headed by a
Neither the Kurds nor the Turkmen had a say in deciding the shape of the new
Iraq, nor were the Shi'a active participants in the building process of the
new entity. Still, Faisal I succeeded with the help of wise and efficient
advisers – many of whom were non-Iraqi – in creating an 'Iraqi' identity. By
the mid-1930s, the 'state of Iraq' became a secure and thriving reality
bolstered by oil wealth, despite internal and regional tensions, including
those caused by Nazi Germany's activities which thrived for a few years in
Baghdad against the British, affecting both the Iraqi parties and the national
In Lebanon, urban and rural elites adapted to the new system as well. Common
interests, traditional and ideological cross-factional political alliances
emerged, although the disagreements remained between the 'Lebanonists', 'pan-Syrianists'
In both Iraq and Lebanon the 'political conscience' of Arab Sunni Muslims was
boiling with deep frustration with the 'reality of partition'. They felt that
the new entities created by Great Britain and France came at the expense of
the destroyed dream of 'The Greater Arab Homeland' extending from the Atlantic
to the Arab Gulf. This romantic dream, in fact, could have faded away,
perhaps, had it not been for the loss of Palestine in 1948.
Indeed, Iraq's Shi'a Arabs were never 'less Arabist' than their Sunni folks,
and neither the Christians nor the Jews, Yezidis and other minorities were
less proud of being 'Iraqi' than the Muslims. Even Kurds and Turkmen came
together and co-existed with the other constituents, producing many leading
statesmen, senior officers, intellectuals and poets. Arabic names were widely
used then with no association with fear or need for flattery.
In Lebanon, also, despite the fact the majority among the 'Labanonists' was
Christian, and the majority within the 'pan-Syrianists and 'pan-Arabists' was
Muslim, these two majorities were not large as many leading 'pan-Syrianists'
and 'pan-Arabists' were Christian, and many Muslim leaders were more 'Lebanonists'
than their Christian compatriots.
The Palestine 'nakbah' (i.e. disaster) which shocked the Arab world and
damaged the credibility of Arab political elites left the stage waiting for a
''hero''. Soon enough the ''hero'' emerged from army barracks. The Arab
military took over and became involved in 'the Cold War' politics and the game
of 'power for power's sake'. The military that originally took over power
under the banner of 'filling the vacuum' and 'liberating Palestine' became
drawn to the international rivalry between the 'socialist' east and the
'capitalist' west, and failed to deal with party politics.
Contrary to the 1948 'nakbah', the 1967 'naksah' (i.e. defeat) uncovered to
the Arabs that the real solution may not be through the military after all.
Then, the 'Camp David Accords' between Israel and Egypt managed to divide the
Arabs, thus, weakening the 'Arabist' choice which was further weakened by
Saddam Hussein's occupation of Kuwait. Later on, the fall of the USSR ushered
in the Arab world the collapse of the 'Leftist' alternative that included
among others the slogans of the 'war of popular liberation'. Even the
Palestinian resistance movement fell victim to its involvement in inter-Arab
rivalries and animosities and lost a lot of credibility.
Four decades of accumulating mistakes, stagnation and tendency for 'inherited'
succession, combined to bring about the popular uprisings now known as the
'Arab Spring'. These uprisings showed the disparity in the presence of the
'deep state', or rather 'entrenched state', in various Arab countries; and if
Tunisia and Egypt managed their way through the 'Arab Spring' with a minimum
of losses, the tragedies of Syria, Yemen and Libya proved beyond doubt their
fragile structure and citizenship.
Iraq and Lebanon, while not experiencing the 'Arab Spring', have also been
seen as fragile and devoid of proper citizenship against the background of the
Syrian crisis made worse by Iran's drive for sectarian and territorial
hegemony; a drive that has been fueling Sunni-Sh'i tension throughout the
region since 1979.
The present and lengthy political crisis in both Iraq and Lebanon is the
clearest indication of the mirage of sovereignty and the bluff of national
unity. To turn this sad reality into a full blown tragedy, it only needed
Russia's return to its imperialist dreams, and Barack Obama's American
volte-face against its Middle Eastern 'friends', caring less about the fate of
the region's people, strategic balance, and old alliances.
Eyad Abu Shakra is the managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat. He has been with
the newspaper since 1978.