Tribes With Flags

How the Arab Spring has exposed the myth of Arab statehood.

By , a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Ed Giles/Getty Images
Ed Giles/Getty Images
Ed Giles/Getty Images

In 1978, Fouad Ajami wrote a seminal article in Foreign Affairs titled "The End of Pan Arabism." Its conceit was that the particular interests and actions of key Arab states had long ago trumped the idealized rhetoric and aspirations of Arab unity.

In 1978, Fouad Ajami wrote a seminal article in Foreign Affairs titled "The End of Pan Arabism." Its conceit was that the particular interests and actions of key Arab states had long ago trumped the idealized rhetoric and aspirations of Arab unity.

Forty years on, it may be time to ponder another proposition: In the wake of the Arab Spring, we’re witnessing the beginning of the end of another Arab illusion — the functional and coherent Arab state.

Forget democracies. What’s at stake here is basic coherence and governance.

Three powerful states once competed for power and influence in the Arab world, not to mention America’s attention. Egypt held the key to peace or war with Israel, Iraq determined the power balance in the Gulf, and Syria shaped security and stability in the Levant.

In the wake of the Arab Spring, all three have essentially gone off line, their regional reach much diminished. Egypt, which comes closest to being a coherent polity, is bogged down in interminable political and economic problems; Syria is fighting a bloody civil war; and Iraq is preoccupied with internal security challenges and well on the way to permanent ethnic and sectarian feuding.

As is nature’s way, non-Arab powers have risen to fill this vacuum.

By any standard, Israel, Iran, and Turkey are now the three most consequential powers in the Middle East. To be sure, each faces major constraints in throwing its weight around in the Arab world. But by comparison, they are pretty stable polities with human, technological, and economic resources — not to mention military power — that enable them to project influence outside their borders, in ways the traditional regional powerhouses cannot.

The Arab monarchies, which appear to have overcome the wave of instability that threatened them in 2011 and 2012, are also holding their own. In the lands of the Arab kings, oil revenue, Islam, and royal legitimacy — combined with fear of violence and disorder — have preempted much of the turbulence of the Arab Spring. Though as Jordan and Bahrain can attest, revolt lies under the surface in these places too, and is only kept under control through repression, cooptation and fear of an even worse future.

But what of the other Arabs? In much of the Middle East, the situation looks far worse today than a year ago. The question facing these troubled countries right now is not whether they can become democracies or resolve fundamental identity questions. It is much more basic: Can they produce a minimum of competent governance and order, so that they can begin to deal with the galactic political and economic challenges they face?

It’s tempting to suggest that time will be required to sort all this out. After all, it took a century and a half for the United States — a country that possessed the physical security, natural abundance, and enlightened leaders the Arabs now lack — to deal with the issue of racial equality and minority rights. Indeed, as late as the 1950s, America was still very much a preferential democracy.

I understand all of this. And I understand too that colonial powers, followed by cruel and greedy leaders, prevented participatory government, civic responsibility, and a free press — along with the other elements required for good governance. 

But I also understand that however empathetic we may want to be, it shouldn’t willfully blind us to certain realities either. And perhaps one of the most disturbing is the accelerating trend — long present in the Arab world — toward decentralization and weak state control. The political turbulence of the past few years has only deepened this lack of coherence. And it raises serious questions about whether even basic governance is possible.

It has been said about the Arab states that, with the exception of Egypt, the rest are all essentially tribes with flags. One might put it more delicately today, but the idea that sectarian and ethnic identity, rather than national affiliation, is the driving organizing principle in much of Arab politics is an undeniable reality. This is not to suggest that national identity has been absent in Arab lands — the question is whether it will ever come first over these other loyalties.

When these societies undergo stress — particularly in a place like Syria, where Assad is purposefully exploiting sectarian divides — it’s loyalty to the tribe, family, sect, and religious group that provides the primary source of identity and organization. We’ve seen this in Iraq, where Shias displaced Sunnis as the dominant power, and we’re seeing it again in Syria, where Sunnis look to get even with Alawites. Meanwhile, the Kurds in both Syria and Iraq are quite naturally looking to their own interests — not to those of the so-called nation.

And even in ethnically homogenous Egypt, religious identity defines the fault lines of the country’s turbulent political life. President Mohamed Morsy’s first allegiance isn’t to the notion of an inclusive nation, but to the Muslim Brotherhood’s conception of Islamist governance. And let’s be clear, membership in the Brotherhood isn’t like joining a health club: It requires years to gain entry, and it’s a way of life that demands a comprehensive worldview. Like the Eagles’ Hotel California, you can check out but you can never leave.

For the past 40 years, the Arab world’s religious and sectarian tensions were masked by authoritarian leaders — some of whom were hostile to American interests (Saddam Hussein, Hafez and Bashar al-Assad, Muammar al-Qaddafi), and some of whom were U.S. allies (Zinedine Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak, Ali Abdullah Saleh). These autocrats imposed order by repressing their citizens, rewarding privileged elites, and playing on the nationalist pride of their countrymen — even while they bled the country through their own corruption.

The presidents of the Arab world, however, ruled over republics-in-name-only. When their regimes collapsed, so did the pretentions that the state could provide the foundation for better governance.

In certain cases, the process of incoherence and decentralization pre-dated the Arab Spring. Lebanon has been a non-state for years, and will remain that way so long as its many sects — Christians, Sunnis, Druze, and Shia — refuse to enter into a national compact in which they agree to surrender power to the government.

The state of Palestine is split between Hamas and Fatah, creating a kind of Noah’s Ark with two of everything — security services, constitutions, prime ministers, and visions of where and what Palestine is. And Iraq, far from being the coherent whole the Americans dreamed of is a mishmash of Shia authoritarianism, Sunni grievances, and Kurdish autonomy.

In other countries, the arrival of the Arab Spring accelerated the process of decentralization. In Libya, tribal and provincial rivalries are now preventing any meaningful centralized authority. In Yemen, it has probably been tribal coherence, oddly enough, that has provided services and settled disputes, keeping this perpetually failing state from failing altogether. In Syria, decentralization threatens to turn into fragmentation. Whatever emerges at the end of Syria’s current dark tunnel, it’s unlikely to be a strong, unified state.

Let’s be clear about something: The Arab state system isn’t going to completely implode. Since the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, respect for borders in this part of the world has proven pretty resilient. Syria’s intervention in Lebanon, Egypt’s in Yemen, and Saddam’s in Kuwait were exceptions — and all proved temporary.

But just because something calls itself a state doesn’t mean it is. If the locals want to delude themselves, that’s one thing — but we can’t. A state can have a flag, a parliament, and even recognized borders and not have a central government that’s effective and sovereign, let alone possessing the capacity to protect the wellbeing of all of its citizens.

To move beyond the challenges they now face, Arab states need three things they seem unable to produce.

First, they will need leaders willing and able to think and act in truly national terms, transcending their narrow sectarian, corporatist, family, and religious affiliations. Name one leader in any Arab country that fits that description.

Second, Arab states need inclusive and legitimate institutions that aren’t hostage to political intrigue or playthings of the elites that compete for power. Their primary objective should be representing the nation’s citizens — not the perpetuation of their own perquisites and those of the ruling elite.

And third, the Arab world needs a mechanism for negotiating differences and accommodating polarization without it spilling into the streets. As the recent riots in Egypt and the killing of Tunisian opposition leader Chokri Belaid show, the alternative to this is violence and murder.

Forget the "it will take time" argument. It’s right, of course — but it’s also the answer for just about everything in the Middle East these days.

What I don’t see anywhere are the trend lines heading in a positive direction. And forget about the establishment of democracies, or liberal, secular societies. Right now, we’re going back to basics: What the Arab world needs most of all right now are stable polities that can provide basic security and some material improvement in the lives of their people. Oh, and basic security for foreigners who happen to be working or travelling there too. Indeed, the issue isn’t transformation at all, but basic transaction — how to run a railroad.

As for the United States, we’re stuck in the middle of this mess. And we’re not helping much. Our policies on Israel, democratic reform, and counterterrorism are perceived at times as contradictory and hypocritical, and they’re not going to change all that much — guaranteeing that we will remain unpopular with millions of Arab and Muslims.

We can still do business in the Middle East, though, because Arab elites still require things we have. The kings and emirs need our security guarantee against Iran, the Yemenis need our economic aid and counterterrorism assistance, the Egyptians need our military aid and support with the IMF, the Jordanians need our political backing, and the Palestinians still need the hope — however misplaced — that we can deliver a state for them.

America’s room for maneuver in the Middle East is shrinking. The authoritarians have gone — and good riddance. The democrats haven’t yet arrived — and won’t for a good while. And with the end of that old order and the beginning of the new, perhaps we can finally cast off the illusion that the United States can somehow fix all of this. We cannot and will not save the Arabs from us or themselves.

But that’s not new. Here’s what is: As the Arab state grows ever more dysfunctional, it may just be that the Arabs can’t save themselves either, nor transform the world in which they live.

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former U.S. State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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