At a panel discussion I participated in earlier this week on the Arab uprisings, a key point of debate was whether the Arab world was experiencing a crisis of regimes or of states.
Looking around the region today, with unsettled conditions in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Libya in particular, it seems obvious that the answer is “both.” One of the eventualities that some Arab countries must come to grips with, but that remains largely unspoken, is that some countries may not survive in their present configurations, and may undergo modifications of borders, populations and national identity – as happened to much acclaim in places after the collapse of the former Soviet Union.
The Arab world has suffered the humiliation of authoritarian or dictatorial regimes in the past half-century because of reasons related to the nature of states and regimes. Artificial states that were created by the retreating Europeans early last century often could be held together only by a strong central government headed by strongmen of the ilk of Saddam Hussein or Hafez Assad. The antidote to state artificiality was authoritarianism. In other cases like Egypt, where the state was never vulnerable because of its artificiality, the state succumbed to dictatorial rule for other reasons – military assertion, the repercussions of the Cold War, and the conflict with Israel.
As Arab peoples agitate for their freedom and rights, they reveal the weaknesses of both autocratic regimes and vulnerable states. Changing a dictatorial regime for a more democratic one is the easier transition that some countries will make, as we can witness most clearly in Tunisia. The country does not face a major challenge to the nature of its statehood, but rather to the nature of its power structure and governance system. The same applies to Egypt, where the removal of the former regime has not yet led to a smooth transition to civilian democracy in the face of a stubborn incumbent military.
The more difficult challenge ahead for some Arab countries is to overcome the inherent constraints and distortions caused by wildly artificial statehood, as we witness in countries like Iraq, Libya and others, where an authoritarian central government emerged to maintain state coherence. Lebanon is perhaps the most glaring example of European-crafted Arab statehood that reflects no natural tendency to sovereign statehood, but the Lebanese resolved their dilemma by diffusing power and preventing a strong central government from oppressing citizens. With the departure of the dictators, we witness now the underlying weaknesses of states like Iraq and Libya. Similar situations of brittle statehood might also emerge in countries like Yemen or Syria.
In Sudan the artificiality of the modern state was already shattered earlier this year with the peaceful secession of South Sudan. Some other Arab countries similarly suffer structural weaknesses, and it would be neither surprising nor regrettable if some of them reconfigured themselves on the basis of the democratic will of their people, as happened with the break-up of the former Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, for example. Yemen, with its North-South divisions in the past, and Jordan and the West Bank, are other examples where borders have been changed now and then, sometimes reflecting popular will, but mostly reflecting the decisions of autocrats.
There is nothing sacred about current Arab borders and sovereignties, because these, like the ruling political autocracies, never fully reflected the will of the people or the consent of the governed. If free, democratic, pluralistic and peaceful Arab citizens decide to restructure their states, that should be welcomed. Such a process would affirm the principle of national self-determination – a vital principle that foreign-imposed statehood and indigenous autocracies have long denied ordinary men and women in the Arab world.
It is rather disconcerting to witness the three leading ideological, military or national powers of the Arab world – Iraq, Syria, and Egypt – all simultaneously experiencing serious challenges to their regimes. The fourth potential Arab power – Saudi Arabia – shows its own sense of vulnerability and unease by almost flailing for some new national configuration, either by expanding the Gulf Cooperation Council to include Jordan and Morocco, or by suggesting that it takes the next step to formal union among its members.
The Arab revolutions and uprisings are slowly revealing their true significance as far more than rejections of former dictators and their corrupt and ineffective family rule-for-life systems. They are also attempts to totally reconfigure the national power structure and affirm the rights of citizens, which in some cases might require readjusting the nature of statehood. This is all the more reason to stop using the soft and silly term “Arab Spring” to describe what is happening in our region, which is more akin to a Big Bang in the birth and life of states, nations and citizenries.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.