The End of the Era of Arab States?

May 10, 2013

The End of the Era of Arab States?

Update from AIJAC

May 10, 2013
Number 05/13 #03

This Update deals with a worrying trend some distinguished scholars are beginning to to identify in the aftermath of the so-called “Arab Spring” – the decline of unified Arab nation-states in the Middle East.

Firstly, Harvard scholar Nawaf Obaid examines what he calls the “almost unbearable winter” that has been the outcome of all the hopes the Middle Eastern demonstrations and revolutions of the last two and a half years initially engendered. He points to states falling apart – Sudan already formally divided, the de facto separation of the Kurdish region of Iraq and the Sunni-Shi’ite division there, the effective end of central authority in Libya and Yemen, and of course, Syria. He concludes that, despite the unevenness of the effects of the revolutions, it looks like ” the viability of the nation-state” is being called into question across the region. For his argument in full, CLICK HERE.

Next is a more detailed exploration of the same theme from the pen of Robert D. Kaplan, the renowned foreign correspondent and author. Grounding his explanation in a typically erudite discussion of political authority during the Ottoman Empire’s long rule over the Middle East, and the theory of history put forward by Ibn Khaldun, the 14th century Tunisian philosopher and historian, he argues that it looks like the region is moving toward a “new medievalism” in which eventually it may be the case that “the only states left that wield real sovereignty between the eastern edge of the Mediterranean and the Iranian plateau could be Israel and Iran.” He goes on to discuss why he believes the political traditions of the region make it unlikely that democracy can be etablished  any time soon in place of the authoritarian regimes being toppled. For the rest of Kaplan’s original and very well-informed discussion,  CLICK HERE.

Finally, illustrating the trend that both Obaid and Kaplan highlight, is an insider’s account of the way things are going in the Arab country which has always been the strongest and most coherent nation-state, Egypt. Mahmoud Salem, Egyptian blogger and columnist, lists a variety of reasons he believes Egypt may be becoming a failed state. He offers some policy advice against giving in to the argument that the Egyptian government must be bailed out by the IMF, arguing such assistance cannot succeed in stabilising Egypt without internal policy changes first to stop the slide toward failed state status. For Salem’s insider’s description of the troubling overall situation in Egypt, CLICK HERE. More on Egypt’s plight here and here.

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The Collapsing Arab State

Project Syndicate, Apr. 25, 2013

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.

Nawaf Obaid is a visiting fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. This article is adapted from a longer report, “The Long Hot Arab Summer,” published by the Belfer Center.

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The Middle East’s New Map

By Robert Kaplan

The most appropriate image of the present-day Middle East is the medieval map, which, in the words of the late historian Albert Hourani, depicts an age when “frontiers were not clearly and precisely delimited” and the influence of a regime was not uniform “within a fixed and generally recognized area,” but, rather, grew weaker with distance as it radiated outward from an urban core. Legal borders, where the power of one state suddenly ended and that of another suddenly began, were rare. And thus, Hourani was not the only scholar to point this out.

We are back to a world of vague and overlapping shadows of influence. Shia and Sunnis in northern Lebanon cross the border into Syria and kill each other, then retreat back into Lebanon. Indeed, the military situations in Lebanon and Syria are quickly fusing. The al Assad regime in Damascus projects power not unto the legal borders of Syria but mainly along parts of the Sunni-dominated Homs-Hama corridor and also on the Mediterranean coast between Latakia and Tartus, where the regime’s Alawite compatriots are concentrated. Beyond that there are literally hundreds of small rebel groupings and half-dozen major ones, divided by their own philosophical and Islamist orientations and those of their foreign patrons. Then there are the half-dozen or so Kurdish factions controlling parts of northern and northeastern Syria. As for the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, there are two main Kurdish groups that are basically sovereign in different sectors. Significant Sunni areas of Iraq, particularly in sprawling Anbar between the Euphrates River and the Syrian border, are in varying degrees independently governed or not governed at all. Even Shiite central and southern Iraq is not completely controlled by the Shia-dominated Baghdad regime, owing to a half-dozen parties that in some cases exercise a degree of sovereignty.

Rather than a temporary situation, this is one that can last for many years. For example, Bashar al Assad’s regime need not necessarily crumble immediately but may survive indefinitely as a frail statelet, supported as it is by Russian arms arriving via the Mediterranean and from Iran across the weakly governed Iraqi desert.

Gone is the world of the Ottoman Empire, in which there were relatively few battles for territory among the various tribes and ethnic and sectarian groups, because the Sultan in Istanbul exercised overarching (albeit variable) sovereignty between the mountains of Lebanon and the plateau of Iran. Gone is the colonial era when the British and French exercised sovereignty from the capital cities unto the fixed legal borders of newly constituted mandated states and territories. Gone is the post-colonial era when tyrants like Hafez al Assad in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq ran police states within the same fixed borders erected by the British and French. Further down the road, the only states left that wield real sovereignty between the eastern edge of the Mediterranean and Iranian plateau could be Israel and Iran.

In a cartographic sense then, we are back to medievalism, but without the storied cultural and intellectual benefits that the Middle Ages conferred upon the Arab world. A thousand years ago, what is now known as Iraq was for significant periods under the sway of Iran; but more to the point, Baghdad and Damascus constituted different dynastic poles of pulsating influence that did not always configure with specific frontiers and were contested by Abbasids, Seljuks, Safavids and Ottomans. Of course, the heartlands of Syria and Iraq did, in fact, constitute different agricultural and henceforth different political regions, even as the line between them could be extremely fluid — as were the distinctions between Turkey and Iran. Places in what is today northern Iraq were linked by caravan routes to Syria, even as places in northern Syria were linked by caravan routes to Iraq. As it concerns the map, subtlety ruled in a positive sense, as it does in a negative sense today.


The key to the maintenance of political stability for much of the Middle East’s history was the concept (associated with Ibn Khaldun) of the asabiyah, or solidarity group, often though not exclusively based on blood relations such as clans and tribes. The stability of regimes, whether relatively enlightened ones like in the golden age of Abbasid Baghdad under Harun al-Rashid or suffocating and tyrannical ones like Saddam’s in the same city 1,200 years later, was based on an asabiyah — local emirs and Persians in the former case and Sunni tribes in the north-central town of Tikrit in the latter. The asabiyah had its interests tied up with the ruler and therefore was willing to defend such rule against all comers. It was not strictly democratic, but it did often signify broad-based support, and even when it did not it nevertheless offered the benefit of stability. And one of the ways it did that was to limit the number of people in the state or empire concerned with politics: Outside of the asabiyah, people often lowered their heads and did not question the regime.

Khaldun, the 14th century Tunisian philosopher and historian, wrote about how one asabiyah was periodically replaced by another, leading to a new regime or dynasty. His point was that dynasties were founded by desert nomads who established settlements, which, as these settlements became secure, led to luxurious living, in turn leading to challenges from new groups of outsiders who would eventually topple the elite and establish a new dynasty. Thus, did Middle Eastern history progress.

Throughout the post-colonial age, periodic coups in Syria and Iraq signaled the replacement of one asabiyah with another, even if Khaldun’s formulation of the infusion of nomads no longer applied. What kept regime’s like Hafez al Assad’s and Saddam Hussein’s in power for so long was, in part, security technology — methods of torture and electronic surveillance — brought by the East Germans during the Cold War. Nowadays, a new evolution of technology — the Internet, cellphones and social media — has complicated the very concept of the asabiyah by creating mass public opinion. The asabiyah suggests exclusivity: a group more important than others, or more important than the society at large. But the mass society enabled and empowered by technology supersedes this.

Or does it? Democracy requires, after a fashion, its own asabiyahs or interest groups, which form the building blocks of political parties that, in turn, govern. But in an empowered mass society, with millions of sovereign voices, this requires a new and more sophisticated category of organization which traditional cultures have been largely unfamiliar with. Remember, it took Europeans hundreds of years to evolve the social, economic and cultural underpinnings necessary for stable democracy. To an extent, the Arab world, by doing away with asabiyahs that operated best inside the context of authoritarian societies, is starting history all over again.

Democracy only in a narrow sense means toppling dictators and holding elections. What it really means is a level of development that allows for asabiyahs to compete on the basis of non-lethal categories: this economic tendency versus that one, rather than this ethnic or sectarian group — or this clan or tribe — versus that one. For the moment, it is the latter, more lethal categories that determine politics across much of the Levant: so that the combination of blood, belief and technology have given us a neo-medieval map that, rather than one of flourishing civilizations, is — in the cases of Syria and Iraq — one of clans, gangs and chaos.

Freedom in the modern age, without “social knowledge and discipline,” is a “dance of death,” according to University of Toronto historian Modris Eksteins. The result tempts anarchy. As the 11th-12th century Muslim jurist and theologian Al-Ghazali said, “the tyranny of a sultan for a hundred years causes less damage than one year’s tyranny exercised by the subjects against one another.”

Robert D. Kaplan is Chief Geopolitical Analyst at Stratfor, a geopolitical analysis firm, and author of the bestselling new book The Revenge of Geography. Reprinted with permission.

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A View from Cairo: Egypt Is Too Big to Save

Mahmoud Salem

PolicyWatch 2065, April 12, 2013 

Prematurely granting an IMF loan without pressuring the Muslim Brotherhood government to reform and compromise would only accelerate Egypt’s descent into failure.

Two years after the popular revolt that toppled Hosni Mubarak, Egypt appears headed toward a “failed state” scenario. While Cairo has not yet defaulted on its debts — an economic hallmark of nearly all erstwhile states — it already meets many of the other political conditions associated with comprehensive failure. In Washington, the discussion is narrowly focused on the implications of the rapidly deteriorating economic situation, with little appreciation that the financial morass is inextricably linked to the government’s increasingly authoritarian politics. If the ruling Islamist party does not change its approach, the economy will not improve, and the state will move closer to collapse.


Since the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) came to power, governance in Egypt has exhibited several classic characteristics of failed states:

  • Inconsistent and selective application of law. On March 27, an Egyptian court overturned President Muhammad Morsi’s November 2012 decision to replace the sitting prosecutor-general with Talaat Abdullah, a crony who has since focused investigations solely on the MB’s political opponents. The ruling renders all of Abdullah’s investigations illegal. By ignoring the verdict and going after activists even more aggressively, the state — personified in the president, his government, and the prosecutor-general — has shown its willingness to undermine rule of law.
  • Deterioration of services. Basic public services such as electricity and gas are falling apart, with most Egyptians experiencing daily power cuts.
  • Unaccountable security apparatus. The interior minister, a Brotherhood loyalist, deploys the police to clash with opposition protesters while protecting the MB thugs who beat and torture demonstrators.
  • Delegitimization of the state. Due to a legally faulty election law issued by the Morsi-appointed upper house of parliament, the legislative elections originally slated for this month have been delayed until November. Meanwhile, the opposition is now refusing to participate in elections because Egyptian institutions cannot guarantee the fairness of the process. When Secretary of State John Kerry tried to mediate last month, the MB undercut his efforts by publicly calling for elections without any of the promised changes to the electoral law, which were the basis of his mediation. The situation is pushing Egypt toward failure, and the MB government shows no sign of seeking a solution.


The political crisis has contributed to the country’s rapid economic deterioration. Unemployment has risen sharply, and tourism — which traditionally comprised around 20 percent of gross domestic product — is virtually nonexistent, with hotels experiencing occupancy rates of 10 percent on average. The dearth of dollars from tourism and foreign investment has left foreign reserves at a record low. Foreign currency is scarce, forcing many to turn to the black market at exorbitant exchange rates. Devaluation of the Egyptian pound has exacerbated the rising price of goods, and inflation is expected to worsen once the government implements the austerity measures mandated by the International Monetary Fund.

To be sure, an IMF deal could help jumpstart the moribund economy. Politics have stymied any such agreement since 2011, however. Last December, the government declared that it would move forward with austerity measures, but when backlash from the announcement threatened passage of the constitutional referendum a few days later — a vote essential to the MB’s power-consolidation agenda — Cairo hedged on its commitment. In response, the IMF made its loan contingent on approval by the future parliament, a condition the government agreed to because it believed a new legislature would be in place by June.

To reach that target date, the MB attempted to force through an electoral law, but the Supreme Constitutional Court deemed it legally inconsistent and noncompliant with the new constitution in a February 18 ruling. The government ignored that finding and continued with plans to call for elections, only to have the law struck down by the Supreme Administrative Court two days later.

Given the time required to redraft and pass the law, as well as the intervening month of Ramadan, parliamentary elections seemingly cannot be held before October. As a result, Egypt will be unable to secure the IMF loan until year’s end at the earliest — six full months after the promised austerity measures are slated to kick in, the effects of which the loan money was supposed to alleviate.

With the loan that far off, the economy will face grave challenges this summer. The government will struggle to cover pensions, salaries, and remaining subsidies, and any number of nightmares could materialize: prices of consumer goods succumbing to hyperinflation; the U.S. dollar vanishing from banks and exchange offices; bank runs leading to bankruptcy; unprecedented losses on the stock exchange; lack of liquidity for new or existing projects; a lower credit rating that further drives away foreign investors; a drastic increase in petty crime; increasing layoffs; and the ever-looming prospect of a hunger revolution. Indeed, at the rate Egypt’s economy is deteriorating, the much-debated IMF loan would likely keep the country afloat for only a few more months at most — it is by no means clear that the money would catalyze much greater foreign assistance as Cairo expects.

This heightened potential for failure has not led the Brotherhood to the logical solution of finding political compromise or implementing much-needed economic and security reforms. In fact, the Morsi government shows no sign of changing the very methods that fueled the crisis, and its negotiating pitch has effectively been reduced to a threat: “Egypt is too big and too important for the United States to allow it to fail. Enough talk of reforms — give us the money now without preconditions or risk the country failing on your watch.” In short, the MB is holding Egypt for ransom, leaving Washington with a handful of dangerous options.


Current U.S. support for Cairo is tied to America’s three main interests in Egypt: the Suez Canal, military cooperation, and the peace treaty with Israel. Given that each of those interests is secured by the independent Egyptian military, backing the Morsi government holds little advantage for Washington. If anything, it opens the Obama administration to unnecessary criticism on the domestic and foreign fronts.

If Washington pushes the IMF to expedite the loan under the current economic and political conditions, it will not succeed in stabilizing the country or restoring investor confidence. Rule of law is key — a loan without necessary reforms would be money wasted on propping up a failing government for a few more months, further entangling Washington with the Morsi administration at a time when the latter’s long-term survival is increasingly costly and doubtful.

A more effective option is to support the IMF’s demands and make clear that Egypt’s welfare depends on Morsi’s ability to compromise with the opposition. Without such measures, Egypt is simply too big for outside actors to save. The funds required to jumpstart the economy as is would be similar to those needed for the reconstruction of Iraq, which neither the United States nor the EU can afford at the moment. If Morsi’s government survives the summer, and if the eventual elected parliament approves the IMF austerity measures, Cairo could then receive its all-important loan. In the meantime, Washington can rest assured that its strategic interests are being secured by the Egyptian military.

Mahmoud Salem, a.k.a. @Sandmonkey, is a blogger and columnist for Daily News Egypt. In 2011, he was a candidate for parliament with the Free Egyptians Party.

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