DENVER – In a region where crises seem to be the norm, the Middle East’s latest cycle of violence suggests that something bigger is afoot: the beginning of the dissolution of the Arab nation-state, reflected in the growing fragmentation of Sunni Arabia.
States in the Middle East are becoming weaker than ever, as traditional authorities, whether aging monarchs or secular authoritarians, seem increasingly incapable of taking care of their restive publics. As state authority weakens, tribal and sectarian allegiances strengthen.
What does it mean today to be Iraqi, Syrian, Yemeni, or Lebanese? Any meaningful identification seems to require a compound name – Sunni Iraqi, Alawite Syrian, and so forth. As such examples suggest, political identity has shifted to something less civil and more primordial.
With Iraq in flames, the United States-led invasion and occupation is widely blamed for unwittingly introducing a sectarian concept of identity in the country. In fact, sectarianism was always alive and well in Iraq, but it has now become the driving force and organizing principle of the country’s politics.
When sectarian or ethnic minorities have ruled countries – for example, the Sunnis of Iraq – they typically have a strong interest in downplaying sectarianism or ethnicity. They often become the chief proponents of a broader, civic concept of national belonging, in theory embracing all peoples. In Iraq, that concept was Ba’athism. And while it was more identified with the Sunni minority than with the Shia majority, it endured for decades as a vehicle for national unity, albeit a cruel and cynical one.
When the Ba’ath party – along with its civic ideology – was destroyed by the US occupation, no new civic concept replaced it. In the ensuing political vacuum, sectarianism was the only viable alternative principle of organization.
Sectarianism thus came to frame Iraqi politics, making it impossible to organize non-sectarian parties on the basis of, say, shared socioeconomic interests. In Iraqi politics today (leaving aside the Kurds), seldom does a Sunni Arab vote for a Shia Arab, or a Shia for a Sunni. There is competition among Shia parties and among Sunni parties; but few voters cross the sectarian line – a grim reality that is unlikely to change for years to come.
Pointing the finger at the US for the state of affairs in Iraq may have some validity (although the alternative of leaving in place a Ba’athist state under Saddam Hussein was not particularly appealing, either). The same could be said of Libya (though the US did not lead that intervention). But the US did not invade any of the other countries in the Middle East – for example, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen – where the state’s survival is also in doubt.
There are many reasons for the weakening of Arab nation-states, the most proximate of which is the legacy of the Arab Spring. At its outset in 2011, Arab publics took to the streets seeking to oust authoritarian or monarchical regimes widely perceived to have lost their energy and direction. But those initial demonstrations, often lacking identifiable leaders and programs, soon gave way to old habits.
Thus, for all of the initial promise of the political transition in Egypt that followed the demise of Hosni Mubarak’s military-backed regime, the result was the creation of a Muslim Brotherhood government whose exclusionary ideology made it an unlikely candidate for long-term success. From the start, most observers believed that its days were numbered.
When the military ousted the Muslim Brotherhood from power a year later, many of the Egyptians who had been inspired by the Arab Spring democracy movement approved. Egypt retains the strongest sense of nation-statehood in the region; nonetheless, it has become a shattered and divided society, and it will take many years to recover.
Other states are even less fortunate. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s evil buffoonery in Libya has given way to Bedouin tribalism that will be hard to meld into a functioning nation-state, if Libya ever was such an entity. Yemen, too, is beset by tribal feuding and a sectarian divide that pose challenges to statehood. And Syria, a fragile amalgam of Sunni, Alawite, Kurdish, Christian, and other sects, is unlikely ever to be reconstructed as the state it once was.
These processes demand a broader, far more comprehensive policy approach from Western countries. The approach must take into account the region’s synergies and not pretend that the changes that are weakening these states are somehow unrelated.
The US, in particular, should examine how it has handled the breakdown of Syria and Iraq, and stop treating each case as if there were no connection between them. America called for regime change in the former while seeking regime stabilization in the latter; instead, it got the Islamic State in both.
Christopher R. Hill, former US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, is Dean of the Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver.