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The Arab World Needs a Brexit Debate

The Arab world has witnessed at least one big Brexit-like event every decade since 1948 – and these political, economic, and social ruptures never seem to heal. The impact of these self-inflicted disasters is now painfully evident, and ongoing street protests in several countries suggest that a moment of reckoning may have arrived.

BARCELONA – For the last three years, a bewildered world has watched the countdown to the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union, better known as Brexit. Leaving the EU will likely affect the British economy severely. Yet, from an Arab perspective, the UK’s prolonged Brexit debate is not a sign of political breakdown. On the contrary, only a country with the UK’s deeply embedded political maturity could even hope to withstand such a vast rupture in legal, commercial, and even social relationships that have been built up over the last half-century.

The Arab world, by contrast, has witnessed at least one big Brexit-like event every decade since 1948 – and these political, economic, and social ruptures never seem to heal. The first such episode was the establishment of Israel and the resulting Palestinian “Brexit” from the territory that became the Jewish State. Much of historic Palestine was abandoned, and its people were destined to live in refugee camps for decades to come. An entire Arab economy disappeared, and Israel was boycotted by its Arab neighbors.

Then, from 1952 until 1970, Egypt under President Gamal Abdel Nasser embarked on an economic nationalization experiment that championed import substitution and greatly weakened the country’s commercial ties to the rest of the region. And when Nasser’s successor Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, Arab countries punished Egypt with an economic and political boycott.

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