When Egyptian football star Mohamed Salah was injured during the Champions League final in which Salah’s Liverpool lost to Real Madrid, a collective sigh throughout the Arab world and beyond was palpable, not least because many believe that the injurious blow from Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos was intentional. While Salah intends to be back in action when he will lead Egypt in the forthcoming World Cup in Russia, there is a political subtext to Salah’s legions of loyal fans that is being woefully ignored.
Of all the political movements to sweep the Arab world in the 20th century, the most potent was Arab Nationalism in all its related guises. The Arab Nationalist ideal strives for a united Arab world based on progressive secular values that respect the varying religious traditions of a part of the world that is predominantly Muslim but with an ancient Christian minority. It was Arab Nationalism that helped Egypt cast off the chains of imperial servitude to becoming the leading nation of the Arab world under President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Recent decades have seen Arab Nationalist governments violently toppled by the same imperial powers that once suppressed Arab Nationalism in the early 20th century. Today, only Syria and to a large extent Algeria can call themselves traditional Arab Nationalist states as even Egypt’s contemporary leadership has done the unthinkable in turning its back on Palestine in a desperate hour of need.
Contrary to many liberal experts and apologists for extremism, Arab Nationalism did not die a natural death but was strangled while still a young movement, due to a combination of neo-imperialist wars, the western arming and financing of the Zionist regime and western, Gulfi and Zionist funded proxy wars that pitted heavily financed Takfiri terrorist groups against economically sanctioned Arab Nationalist governments.
In spite of this, many still claim that Arab Nationalism is a dream that could never be as “Arabs are incapable of unity”. If Arabs are incapable of unity, then why is Mohamed Salah being cheered by both Sunni and Shi’a? Why is he being cheered by Orthodox and Catholic? Why is he being cheered not only in his native Egypt but in Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, UAE, Syria, Iraq and beyond? The answer is because like all of the great Arab Nationalist leaders, Mohamed Salah has made the Arab world feel a sense of collective pride. It is a pride based not on conflict but on progress and excellence, in Salah’s case, excellence on the football pitch.
The Arab world is desperately in need of a political figure who can accomplish in terms of collective security, trade, geopolitical unity and economic empowerment what Salah has been able to accomplish through sport.
The Arab world has twice been unified, once under a succession of Arab Caliphates and then under the rule of the Ottoman Turks who ironically ruled more of the Arab world than the Turkic world in terms of overall geographical space. Arab Nationalism represents a modern means of unifying the Arabs based on a shared historical experience in a contiguous geographical space. Genuine Arab Nationalism makes no allowances for discrimination on a religious basis and is fully inclusive of ethnic minorities within the Arab world who have long lived at peace with the Arabs. Contrary to the narrative from Tel Aviv, this includes not only Armenians, Assyrians, Kurds, Berbers, Circassians and Druz but also the indigenous Jews of the wider Arab world.
South east Asia has managed to unite in a desire for peace through prosperity that is rapidly being delivered in the form of ASEAN. This has been accomplished despite post-colonial struggle, mid-century conflicts between Singapore and Malaysia, Indonesia and Malaysia and imperialist wars against Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The multi-ethnic/multi-confessional Russian Federation is not only united but is once again a geopolitical superpower and the European Union for all its real and perceived faults is a single political space where people with over 24 languages, a multitude of religious sects and competing histories are now living and trading together in a more peaceful way than at any time in modern European history.
In the Arab world, a single shared history, a single lingua franca, fewer competing religious sects than in Europe or south east Asia and a far more unified climate than in Europe, represents a geographical space that if united would be among the wealthiest and largest nations/federations in the world. Indeed with over 407 million people, a United Arab Federation would be the third largest country in the world, behind China and India and ahead of the United States of America.
For all of the pessimism focusing on the kinds of sectarianism promoted by the enemies of Arab unity, the Arab world is in reality, a far better candidate for possible unity than regions of the globe that have successfully united, either on an economic, political or mixed basis.
When the Arab world is divided, it can be all the more easily exploited as the last 30 years if not more of Arab history have proved all too well. While football might be ‘less serious’ than politics, there are clear parallels between the two. A football team cannot function if the players aren’t on the same page nor can if function if the players undermine one another. A football team also cannot function if the owner undermines the manager. Likewise, a football team cannot achieve much if its fan base is demoralised and fragmented. The same essence is at the heart of functional government in respect of government’s ability to achieve victories for its people and the ability of a common peoples to unite with common purpose behind a patriotic government.
At a time when the geopolitical enemies of the Arab world are busily conspiring against Arab unity, a 25 year old man called Mohamed Salah has proved that it is possible to achieve unity even in today’s tragically fragmented Arab world. The spirit of optimism that Mohamed Salah has engendered among his fans is proof positive that a people destined for unity can only be exploited for so long.