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Arab States of Uncertainty

MADRID – The revolutions that swept the Arab world during the last two years have exposed the extraordinary fragility of key Arab states. With the exception of historical countries such as Egypt or Morocco, most Arab states are artificial constructs of European colonialism, which combined disparate tribes and ethnicities into unitary states that could be held together only by authoritarian rule and a common enemy – Zionism and its Western patrons.

Today’s turmoil, however, is no longer driven by anger at foreign forces; instead, it marks a second phase of the de-colonization process: the assertion of the right of self-determination by peoples and tribes united only by a dictator’s yoke. Indeed, it is not entirely farfetched to anticipate the emergence of new Arab states from the debris of the old, artificial ones. The American invasion of Iraq set the pattern, for it broke the central government’s power and empowered ethnic and religious enclaves.

What happened in Yugoslavia, an ill-conceived product of Wilsonian diplomacy, could happen in the more cynical imperial creations in the Middle East. What Sigmund Freud defined as “the narcissism of minor differences” caused Yugoslavia to split into seven small states (including Kosovo), following the bloodiest fighting in Europe since World War II. Can the Arab states avoid a similar fate?

Democratization in the Arab world is not only about toppling dictators; it is also about redressing the politico-ethnic map of the region, which has kept too many minority groups dissatisfied. Consider the Kurds, who were split among Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran.