By Steve Tamari  

The single most important development in the Arab world during the 20th century is the emergence of Arab nationalism. As with the development of nationalisms in Europe, the first expressions of Arab nationalism were literary. Among Arabs, the late 19th century is known as the period of the Arab Renaissance, al-nahda, when experiments with modern literary forms, the spread of print journalism, and the first stirrings of secret nationalist organizations developed. Arab nationalism went on to dominate the politics of the region from the First World War to the Arab defeat at the hands of Israel in 1967. Arab nationalism took many forms but reached the climax of its psychological and political power during the 1950s and early 1960s under the sway of Egyptian President Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser. Nasser defied the West and Egypt's former colonial ruler, Britain, by nationalizing the Suez Canal in 1956.

The 1967 defeat was, however, a catastrophic defeat for Nasser, Arab nationalism, and secularism. From that point on, particularist nationalisms—such as Egyptian nationalism, Syrian nationalism, or Palestinian nationalism—and Islamism have come to the fore. Particularism culminated in the 1991 Gulf War, which was started by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and resulted in dividing the states and peoples of the Arab world. Since the victory of the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, Islamist political movements in the Arab world have become increasingly popular and powerful, but even they operate largely within the context of the domestic challenges faced by particular nations.


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