The Arab Spring: The Decline of the Arab Nation-State?

By Danny B.

The “Arab Spring,” simplistically coined as a regional freedom and democracy movement, is leading to protracted periods of sectarian fighting and an accelerated breakdown of the Arab states.

The genesis of Arab states is in mandates maintained by European powers, Britain and France, following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War One. The Sykes-Picot Agreement, with reluctant consent from Moscow, carved up zones of influence for the two colonial powers in the Middle East. As a result, newly independent Arab states were hastily crafted without much consideration for outstanding sectarian conflicts. Generally speaking, concepts of nation-states are rather foreign to the region, thus a lack of unifying narratives, combined with outstanding internal sectarian conflicts, and destined these Arab states to be plagued with a myriad of seemingly irreversible problems.

An Egyptian holds a sign in support of an An-Nour party member in Cairo (New York Times)

For decades, Arab states have attempted to establish a variety of political platforms to ensure economic growth, security, and increase sovereign power. Excluding the oil-rich GCC monarchs, the political concepts of Arab socialism (Baathism), pan-Arabism, and secular-nationalism have failed. Then the collective Arab defeat in the Six Day War against Israel, compelled many in the Muslim world to seek a new sociopolitical answer to the Jewish State and the West. Their defeat, in addition to other factors, was one catalyst for the Islamic awakening in those nations. That said, moderate political Islamic movements, like the Muslim Brotherhood, endured decades of modest, yet solid beginnings as a result of suppressive secular dictatorships. But with the weakening or ousting of these leaders, the political Islamists have seized the initiative, thus set to rule many Arab states. Most surprising however, are the unprecedented gains by more radical Salafist sects throughout the region – at the expense of inept liberal parties – which has propelled them to lead the new opposition against their new rivals, the Muslim Brotherhood. It is important to note that Salafist Islam comes in various degrees, but the their burgeoning influence results from the work of the most radical Salafists. Their surge has become one of the most important consequences of the “Arab Spring.” For these reasons, this Salafist stream now appears to be the primary obstacle for more moderate political Islam, embodied in parties such as the Freedom and Justice in Egypt, or the Ennahda Party in Tunisia.

The narrative of the “Arab Spring” as a regional movement, led by young, educated, and moderate revolutionaries seeking greater “human rights,” has captured the world’s attention.   While true in some instances, especially in Egypt and Tunisia, the aforementioned have little influence, and are becoming increasingly divided, or have yet to present agendas capable of ascending them to power.  Their political and fundamental Islamist opponents, on the other hand, are ascending throughout the region; hence the ideological battles between Islamists will likely determine the region’s sociopolitical future.

For example, the nations who spawned the “Arab Spring,” Tunisia and Egypt, have witnessed landslide victories by Islamists. In Egypt – the heart of the Arab world- the Muslim Brotherhood won 40% of the votes, while the radical Salafist Al-Nour Party secured some 25% of the vote for Parliament. For the most part, unlike the more pragmatic Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafist surge is a direct threat to Arab nation-states given their outright contempt for concepts such as democracy, nationalism, or sovereignty.  Rather, they prioritize the betterment of the umma and establishment of a caliphate. Consequently, the rise of radical Salafism, coupled with, and often fueled by violent sectarianism, are fracturing Arab nation-states and destining them for years of violent conflicts.

With that in mind, sectarianism is part of the Middle East and North African reality.  Under ruthless dictators it often lay dormant or was harnessed for political advantage.  But the gradual weakening of authoritarians has unleashed deadly sectarianism throughout the region, which is likely to foment prolonged intrastate and interstate sectarian conflicts in the Arab world. For instance, while many cheered Libya’s rebel army as it pushed towards Tripoli to oust Gaddafi, the tribalism of the rebel forces and the lack of a national narrative in Libya were overlooked.  Then with their common enemy of Gaddafi gone, most of Libya’s some 140 tribes focused their attention on capitalizing upon their successes, thereby refusing to abandon their weapons, withdraw from captured territories, or support the Western backed central government.  Consequently, Libya’s central government is left largely incapable of reigning in its tribal militias, which could result in the “Balkanization” of Libya if this situation persists.

For the most part, similar sectarian unrest is occurring in other Arab states. In Bahrain, the majority Shiites continue their push to oust the ruling Sunni monarchy.  Yemen is likely on its way to becoming a failed state, with a Shiite Houthis rebellion in the northwest, an al-Qaeda insurgency in the south, and a reform movement in between. Sudan split into two-states, but with a myriad of outstanding disputes, war with the nascent South Sudan seems inevitable. Jordan, concerned over Muslim Brotherhood gains in Syria, continues to see the rise of its very own opposition Brotherhood branch. Meanwhile, the Palestinian-Bedouin divide remains a direct threat to Hashemite rule. Continued war in Syria could lead to the creation of warring autonomous regions, new entities, or the ethnic cleansing of certain minorities altogether. To the southeast, Iraq’s government is finding it increasingly hard, if not impossible to reestablish direct control over its ethnic provinces.  This inability is leading to a geopolitical conundrum, with a Kurdish entity in the north, the Shiite government drawing strength from Baghdad to Basra in the south, and a Sunni-Arab population scrambling to pick up the pieces in between. The former jewel of the Middle East, Lebanon, has already lost its sovereignty as a consequence of the Iranian-Shiite proxy, Hezbollah’s domination. Meanwhile, if violence in Syria persists, fighting between Lebanon’s numerous sects becomes ever more likely.

To summarize, the “Arab Spring” is fomenting a breakdown of Arab states through the forces of sectarianism and radical Islam. The liberal activists who ignited the current tumult in the region are failing to advance their agendas onto the “Arab street.” On the other hand, political and radical Islamists are on the rise with little standing in their way. In the end, it is sectarianism and the ideological battles between political and radical Islamists that will spearhead the future Arab world, rather than “freedom and democracy.

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