Thursday, October 23, 2014
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The Collapsing Arab State

BOSTON – The so-called Arab Spring generated a wave of hope among those fighting or advocating for democratization of the Arab world’s authoritarian regimes. Now, following leadership changes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, and with a brutal civil war raging in Syria and increasingly fraught conditions in Bahrain, Sudan, Jordan, and Iraq, there is much talk of a major shift – and hope for improvement – in the nature and prospects of the Arab state.

But hope – “the thing with feathers,” as the American poet Emily Dickinson put it – often bears little resemblance to realities on the ground. Indeed, looking earthward, the beauty of the Arab Spring seems to have given way to an almost unbearable winter.

For all the optimism ushered in two years ago, ominous political realities may be rendering the nation-state system incompatible with the emerging new Arab world. As a result, how the region can maintain stability without stable nation-states is becoming a burning question.

Admittedly, Arab countries’ problems vary by degree and type. Some countries, such as Egypt and Tunisia, have historically entrenched institutions to help steer the post-conflict institution-building process and prevent a complete collapse of the state. Others, like Bahrain and Jordan, appear to be relatively stable. But most are experiencing disastrous output contractions amid severe fiscal constraints and nearly collapsed monetary systems, thus undermining two integral components of a successful nation-state: economic independence and self-sustaining growth.

Moreover, each country has elected leaders (or widely supported rebels) with ties to the pan-Arab revolutionary Islamist movement the Muslim Brotherhood (or, in the case of Bahrain, to Iran’s revolutionary Islamist objectives). They are thus subject to a religious ideology that transcends the nation-state, rather than to organizations with viable plans for social stability, economic prosperity, and political security within national borders.

The vulnerability that this implies already has resulted in Sudan’s recent disintegration into two states. Sudan’s authoritarian rule and social division along religious lines, together with economic difficulties and political ineptitude, precipitated the collapse of the central government’s authority in the country’s Christian-majority south.

The same process appears to be playing out, albeit at a slower pace, in Iraq, amid an ongoing struggle to unite two ethnicities, Arabs and Kurds, as well as adherents of Sunni and Shia Islam, into a single nation-state. Central authority is gradually eroding as the country continues to splinter into ethnic and sectarian regions, with a de facto Kurdish sovereign state already well established in the north.

Meanwhile, in Yemen, the possibility of adequate central authority is slipping away as the country confronts several seemingly intractable problems – from internal divisions and separatist movements to Al Qaeda’s franchise in the Arabian Peninsula and a failing economy. The south (Aden) and east (Hadramaut) are both on a trajectory toward independence, dragging Yemen toward another secession struggle nearly 25 years after the country’s fragile unification.

In Libya, the collapse of Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi’s regime has thrown the country into chaos and decimated central-government authority. The south remains lawless, while the east is ruled by the Benghazi regional council; only the west remains subject to the poorly consolidated government in Tripoli.

The situation is even worse in Syria, where the bloodiest of the Arab revolutions has already claimed more than 75,000 lives, owing mainly to the behavior of President Bashar al-Assad’s tyrannical regime. As the Syrian state melts away, the regime’s inevitable collapse will lead to the country’s permanent dismemberment, bringing a de facto Kurdish state in the northeast, an eastern autonomous enclave for the surviving Alawites, and a southern entity for the Druze.

While the Bahraini and Jordanian states have proven much more stable in relative terms, they are not immune to volatility. Certainly, the Shia revolt in Bahrain, hijacked by an opportunistic Iranian revanchist faction, has failed to foment the collapse of the Khalifa monarchy. And, in Jordan, the religious legitimacy of the Hashemite monarchy has sustained the state in the face of the growing challenge posed by the Muslim Brotherhood, while the fear of regional violence spilling over into the Kingdom has temporarily curbed the Jordanian public’s appetite for rebellion.

But both states lack the domestic revenues needed to sustain their institutions. If they wish to survive well into the next century, they will probably need to be subsumed under a union supported by a larger, more powerful, and more established nation-state.

Furthermore, the disintegration that the region has already witnessed – and will undoubtedly continue to witness – will reverberate beyond the Arab map with the creation of a sovereign Kurdish state. Such a state, whether exisiting de facto or with widespread formal recognition, will have an ever-lasting effect on the boundaries of the Arab world (Syria and Iraq) and of the wider Middle East (Turkey and Iran).

The Arab Spring has toppled some regimes, though not others. But, more important, everywhere in the Arab world – and beyond – it has called into question the viability of the nation-state. The days of revolts may have passed; the days of reckoning lie ahead.

This article is adapted from a longer report, “The Long Hot Arab Summer,” published by the Belfer Center.

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  1. CommentedPatrick Lietz

    All of these states share an impressive youth bulge, a shrinking resource base and an elite with a dwindling justification for their claim to power.

    It is a pity that population growth is so underestimated in its influence on the conflicts the Arab state is experiencing now. All of these countries populations have at least tripled, while others more than quintupled (e.g. Jordan) in the last 50 years.

    Regardless of your riches, there is no way that you can create enough economic growth to deal with the resulting problems.

  2. CommentedPaul A. Myers

    The next phase in the history of the Middle East does indeed seem to be the splintering of artificially created nation states, relics of the imperial and colonial past, into smaller discrete substates defined by ethnicity and religion. One could hope that this would lead to cultural and ethnic equilibrium and a great diminution of violence. The phase after this might be economic cooperation and loose economic confederation.

    One remains very skeptical that the American foreign policy establishment is accepting of this paradigm. On the other hand, it is probably powerless to stop it since it is unlikely to intervene with enough military and economic resources to bend the outcome to its outmoded way of thinking.

  3. CommentedKen Presting

    Colonialism and its legacy is a much bigger problem for sub-Saharan Africa than for the Islamic world. The author neglects to mention Turkey, since his focus is the Arab states. But Turkey is stepping into a role as regional leader, and will be a major positive force.

    Egypt and Syria are the pivotal states now. If either of those collapses, the potential for chaos will increase terribly. On the other hand, if they can be held together there is, I would, grounds for continuing optimism.

    Take Iran. Far all that there is to fear, we must not forget that peaceful change of administrations has been working for a generation. Iran has both the population and the resource base to emulate Turkey's integration into the world culture, if not their secularism.

    And don't forget Pakistan. Again, for all there is to fear, they have at least restrained themselves from engaging in nuclear war. If Pakistan can join Iran in allowing a peaceful regime change in upcoming elections, the region will have another huge step forward.

    Thus I see a time when (1) energetic diplomacy between states can pay large dividends, and (2) humanitarian aid and investment could make all the difference in more chaotic areas.

    Prof. Obaid's thesis that the nation-state itself may not serve the Arab world is stimulating, and I will certainly seek out his book. But I disagree with any focus on Arabs as such. So much more seems to hang on common Islamic issues, as well as regional geography

  4. CommentedCarol Maczinsky

    The anticolonialist movement has failed, so has the democratisation but a multipolar world creates a lot of opportunities.

  5. CommentedPaul Mathew Mathew

    This article is absolutely pathetic.

    Why do you think there are radical opposition movements in the Middle East that are enormously supported?

    It is because the US has installed puppet regimes across the region that are corrupt and selling out the people.

    The poor are very much aware of this and they are angry and they are rising up.

    Unfortunately the US and it's corporations will not give up without a fight - and the place will be 'burned to the ground' because the poor have nothing left to live for.

    Years of being ruled by pro-US monsters has left these countries a mess - and the worsening global crisis is compounding the misery.

    When the global economy collapses - and it is going to collapse - the Middle East is going to erupt in a fire storm of hate. This is going to make the French Revolution look tame by comparison

      CommentedKen Presting

      The most common of mistakes Americans make, in reasoning about foreign events, is to neglect the intensity of local partisan struggles. Our own wiser politicians try to make us recall that "all politics is local" but we tend to forget it even faster when we can't pronounce the names.

      Especially when their national politics is disorderly, local radical elements have much greater motivation to seek relative advantage vis-a-vis their rivals, than to pursue the larger welfare of their country.

      Their demagogues are just as hungry for time on the 6 o'clock news as ours are. The riots they inflame say much more about the frustration of the public than about rational plans for the future.

  6. CommentedFrank O'Callaghan

    So much is a consequence of a colonial past. There is still a possibility of a solution for, of and by the Arabs. A 'UAR' may yet emerge in spite of external opposition.

      CommentedGary Tucker

      I would think that not only is there a chance for a new United Arab Republic, it is one of the best opportunities for a great leap forward in the region.
      I do, however, think that such a united group of states is not the only single answer however.
      I would think that Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, with a capital in Bayda Libya would be a perfect example of what a UAR could become. And if given half a chance at success then Sudan might consider joining in a few years.
      In Arabia I would think it would be more successful if there were a Hashemite Kingdom of Syriaq, with the capital in Amman, that included Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and the Palestinian Terr. I would also include the Sinai in this area. The three areas that may opt out are Lebanon, Shia Iraq, and Gaza. I do, however think Kurdish Autonomous Region would join if given continued autonomy and it was allowed to expand into both Iraqi and Syrian areas not included now.
      I do not think Islamic fundamentalists have sole ownership of Pan Arab initiatives for solutions. I think that vast majority of those not in the old power structure might find regional Pan Arab solutions to be in their long term best interest as well.
      It would, however, require all those neighboring countries not joining to support such efforts to bring peace and economic progress to the region. It would be in everyone's best interest to see such unification's happen.

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