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.