Behind the Headlines New Wrinkle in Arab Politics
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Behind the Headlines New Wrinkle in Arab Politics

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Close to the first anniversary of the Yom Kippur War a new pattern of politics is gradually emerging in the Arab world. Past terminology, adequate for the two decades of the Nasserist epoch, is no longer relevant. New alliances, new terms of reference, even new slogans, are now coming to the fore.

As usual, however, most Middle East observers have been slow in grasping the true scope of this change. The problems now are different, the balance of power among Arab League states has been transformed and, therefore, the whole political system has undergone a process of change. Some of the most outstanding aspects of this change bear examination.

The death of old slogans: Ten years ago the most powerful combination of slogans was the one adopted by the Syrian Baath Party–“Unity, freedom, socialism.” Nowadays “unity” among Arab nations is no longer an important driving force. It has even lost its position as a traditional ritualistic definition of target. Nobody has expressly buried the “unity” idea in politics, of course–that would be too radical for any Arab statesman, but “unity” is clearly out of context today and many speechmakers forbear to pay even minimal lip service to it.

The same goes for “socialism,” a slogan being downgraded to mean only social equality, and “freedom” has lost its original connotation of anti-imperialist struggle.


Revolutionaries vis-a-vis reactionaries: This division of the Arab scene no longer reflects present alliances. “Reactionary” Saudi Arabia is Egypt’s closest ally. The same applies to Kuwait with respect to Syria. The trademark “revolutionary” is still highly popular but it does not carry much relevance to actual political conduct. “Revolutionaries” like Anwar Sadat share identical solution and common aims with an arch-reactionary as King Faisal.

The new controversies: In place of the previous confrontations on the issues of nationalism, the sharpest points of conflict today are over what to do with the enormous amounts of money flowing to the oil-rich states. Where to invest? In which projects? What price to charge for the oil: Whether to opt for an economic-political bloc with a new Gaullist-like Europe or prefer cooperation with the Americans? And of course, how to tackle the Israelis –through political settlement or by continued warfare?

New balance of power: Whereas Egypt enjoyed a leading position earlier, it now faces serious rivals. On the one hand its ally, Saudi Arabia. is becoming a financial superpower. On the other hand, Syria, is developing a military power which may soon surpass that of Egypt. Furthermore, both Iraq and Algeria show signs of becoming within a few short years possible contenders for the hegemony. In other words, Egypt is apparently losing its central, vital role, although it will take some time before its new status will be clearly visible.


Relations with the West: The anti-western spirit of early Arab nationalism is clearly reversing. Hatred of the Americans, for example, is no longer regarded as an integral part of Arab national renaissance. The wide-spread desire to leap straight into a second industrial revolution made the West an indispensable partner. The main effort is still directed to military and political mobilization against Israel. But rapid economic development now acquires parallel importance. There is much more talk of factories, production and public services than at any time in the past decades.

Social struggle: Ever since 1949 the officer class was the leading force in local politics. Lately, however, one cannot ignore the appearance of another, more dynamic force in society, the civil service-management class. Most Arab states underwent a peculiar type of managerial revolution, and now “technocrats” managers, civilian government officials have reached dominant positions, taking a considerable slice of social authority from the officer cadre. The growth of the public sector and the emphasis on Internal development contributes both dynamism and strength to this group. The officer corps is becoming a part only of this wider ruling class.

These changes and developments are, of course, very general. But they tend to indicate the kind of changes that must be considered in addition to the ongoing military and war preparedness developments. The latter, however, cannot be properly assessed without regard for the context within which they are developing. Israel must be aware of the scope of changes and their consequences in the year to come.

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