Jewish Ideas Daily has been succeeded and re-launched as Mosaic. Read more...

The State of the Arab State

Postage stamps (Egypt, 1958).

From the Mashriq to the Maghreb, one end of the Arab world to the other, people are contemplating where the six-month-long upheavals that began with the Arab Spring are fated to deliver them.  Those with longer memories may recall the dramatic summer fifty years ago when an earlier experiment at reshaping the political contours of Arab governance came unraveled: the 1961 breakup of the United Arab Republic (UAR).

Relevant Links
The Rise and Fall of the UAR  Elie Podeh, Sussex Press. The failure of pan-Arabism set the stage for the territorial Arab state to renew its claims for political legitimacy.
Islamist Endgame  Hassan Mneimneh, American Enterprise Institute. A pillar of Islamist political discourse is the replacement of the nation-state with a worldwide Caliphate.
Real Arab Democracy  David Govrin, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Given Arab political culture, it won’t be easy to foster constitutional liberalism.
No Political Legitimacy  Haytham al-Tabaei, Asharq Alawsat. A Syrian dissident argues that Bashar Assad did not lose the right to rule: he never had it.

Declared in February 1958, the UAR was the union of Syria and Egypt. It was created in response to Syrian lobbying of Egypt's Gamal Nasser for an alliance and was popularly backed in both countries. The ideal of pan-Arab unity was all the rage and the hope was that other states, beginning with Iraq, would join.

Pan-Arabism was seen as a workaround for the lack of legitimacy of most Arab leaders as well as the political systems they oversaw. Nasser, by dint of his charismatic personality, had enjoyed an almost mystical sense of baraka, or God-given grace.  But the rulers of Saudi Arabia and Jordan perceived the pan-Arab model as a threat to their own religious-based claims for legitimacy, and even a new Iraqi government, purportedly favorable to pan-Arabism, found reasons not to join.

In short order, the experiment came undone.  In Nasser's vision of unity, he would be the political and economic overlord of the UAR. Promises to protect private property fell by the wayside, as did pledges of bread and liberty. Syrian landowners resented Cairo's land reform policies, as Syrian military officers bristled at taking orders from Egyptians.  The business class took umbrage at nationalization schemes, and the inherent inefficiencies of Nasser-style central economic planning soon came to light.    

The Syrians broke away. Nasser prudently decided not to force the issue ("Arabs should not shed the blood of Arabs"), and by August-September 1961 the union had been junked.  A magnanimous Nasser allowed the Cairo-based Arab League to readmit Syria as an independent member. Still, the idea of pan-Arabism survived for decades. In 1958, the monarchies of Jordan and Iraq attempted federation.  Later Egypt and Syria tried again, once with Libya and another time with Iraq.  North Yemen twice sought to federate with Egypt (in 1958 and 1963).  In 1961, Iraq sought to "merge" with Kuwait, claiming the sheikdom as a province of its own.  There was talk of merging Libya and Egypt (1973); Tunisia and Libya (1974); and a confederation of the West Bank and Jordan.

After all this, the quandary of political legitimacy remains unresolved. Some thinkers, including those at the Economist, are sanguine that the Arab Spring will ultimately deliver democratization. Yet in order for that to happen, today's messy popular struggle for liberty will somehow need to transform itself into a concerted effort for genuine modernization.  This means that regimes capable of supporting representative government and providing institutional protections for minority viewpoints must emerge.

But from our current vantage point, fifty years since the breakdown of the UAR and its promise of legitimacy through pan-Arabism, prospects for democratization seem improbable.  This is compounded by the failure of Arab nationalist movements, such as the Ba'ath, and the current ascendency of national-based Islamist parties.  In light of all this, there seems to be a distinct possibility that the Arabs might abandon entirely the Western nation-state model, and opt instead for the pan-Islamist alternative. 

Certainly, the state of the Arab state is hardly encouraging. Despite the Arab League's brave front (inviting South Sudan to join after it broke away from Khartoum, for instance), Arab countries are foundering. To cite only the most obvious examples: Lebanon is a failed state under Hizballah domination; the current chaos has exposed the intrinsic political weakness of Libya and Yemen (not to mention Bahrain); Jordan's monarch is facing unprecedented challenges; and the Syrian regime may be in its death throes.  In Egypt and Tunisia, elections have had to be postponed due to (entirely reasonable) concerns that not postponing them would result in a "democratic" victory for Islamist forces out to reshape the national character.  The Arab League has demanded the UN grant "Palestine" full membership even as the two contending Palestinian Arab regimes remain incapable of even the pretense of unity.

In Trial of a Thousand Years, Charles Hill writes that if the nation-state paradigm in the Arab world were to be supplanted by the pan-Islamist alternative, the challenge to the international order would be immense.  Not only do Islamists reject the state system embodied in the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia (which resolved that religious differences ought no longer to justify international wars), they reject wholesale the boundaries, responsibilities, and indeed the very premises on which international order is based.    

If the thesis is correct that the state model in the Arab world is today facing its most critical test, then Western policymakers can have no higher interest than to ensure that the Arab Spring does lead to democratic reformation, that the Arabs become convinced that the state is compatible with Islam, and that Islam joins other religions in what Hill calls the "debate over how far religion should go beyond private practice to display itself in the public square."

Failure on any one of these fronts would have consequences too devastating to contemplate—not only for the Arab world, but for Western civilization as well.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,


Cynic on July 26, 2011 at 8:35 am (Reply)
" The Syrians broke away. Nasser prudently decided not to force the issue ("Arabs should not shed the blood of Arabs"), "

after gassing thousands of people in Yemen in the 50s?
Jeff Gilbert on July 26, 2011 at 10:27 am (Reply)
A very well written and informative article - up to Elliot Jager's usual high standard !!
p, geller on July 26, 2011 at 10:37 am (Reply)
"prospects for democratization seem improbable" more so for the Arab world than the ZOA? Where Mort Klein and his iron-fisted rule reign supreme. Who, since he first took office (via stuffing the ballot box),
has run roughshod over that venerable organization's charter two-term limit for president, by proclaiming himself "revered" ZOA national president for life!
Hillel on July 26, 2011 at 11:17 am (Reply)
Nice piece, perhaps some hyperbole (e.g., Western civilization), but overall I found this much more balanced than many JID essays that touch upon Arabs or Islam in some way.
Ellen on July 26, 2011 at 12:24 pm (Reply)
Mentioning the wishful thinkers over at The Economist is one thing. How about Roger Cohen at the NYT, who has retreated into an embarrassed silence, since his Tahrir Square moments, overflowing with enthusiasm about the overthrow of the Mubarak regime. Yes, Mubarak was long overdue to be overthrown, but people like Cohen may not like the results they see taking the place of Mubarak's stagnation and rigor-mortis-like approach to political life.

Even the intolerable Thomas Friedman stumbled inadvertently onto the truth about the Arab states in one of his more realistic essays. He asked the simple question: was Saddam Hussein the way he was because Iraq is the way it is, or is Iraq the way it is because Saddam was the way he was. In other words, which horrible entity caused the other entity to become equally horrible? The answer, as we all know, is that the two are mutually reinforcing. A society with a cruel and intolerant culture is going to produce a leadership cadre of cruel, intolerant people and the opposite.

There might be some percentage of younger Arabs who are more tolerant and less sectarian than their parents and grandparents. But they are unlikely to have much influence on the political outcomes of these societies. Consider the absolute impotence of moderate and tolerant Arabs (and Iranians) in the political life of the Islamic Middle East over the last 60 years. They tend to get assassinated or flee into a luxurious exile in London or Paris.

Most likely, the outcome of the Arab Spring in most countries will be more of the same, with a different facade. Tunisia and Morocco are among the few Arab states with a culture of even modest tolerance toward political and religious differences. The other states will lapse back into tribalism, dictatorship, or simply chaos.
David Peters on July 26, 2011 at 12:44 pm (Reply)
Mr. Hill is almost on point. The Arab world has tried both, but, because Islam is an all-encompassing ideology, any unity will fracture.

In Islam, who rules? He who can take power.

The UAR collapsed, but the reasons are deeply rooted in Islam. Nasser claimed the authority to rule; Assad's predecessor demurred (and the debacle provided the impetus for Assad's revolt).

The universalist political ideology of Islam (albeit presented to the world with a religious facade) was preached for an immediate situation. The Prophet made no provision for Islam being dominant, only for Islam to gain dominance. The assumption was that once dominant, all these pesky problems would go away. (Bear in mind the parallel, that the state 'would wither away' once Communism was fully attained).
Jerry Blaz on July 27, 2011 at 4:12 am (Reply)
While I felt that this article was liberally seasoned with Schadenfreude, it was mainly accurate. The debilitating effects of being provincial parts of what was called "the sick man of Europe" for hundreds of years did nothing to permit the populations to advance. While the nation-states created by the western colonial powers did not correspond to the ethnicities of the Middle East, so that Kurdistan is spread among at least four different states, and Shi'ah populations have largely been dominated by Sunni ruling powers (with the recent exception of Iraq, which is still a cake being baked), what is happening particularly in Egypt and the Mughrab is inspired by democratic hopes and aspirations, and while we don't know what the outcome will be, we should be on the side of the democrats among the Arabs.

Syria and Lebanon are inevitably multi-ethnic and the tribal traces run stronger here because of it, their future is for various reasons still in greater doubt than Egypt and the Mughrab. Tribalism is a greater threat to democracy than many other problems facing the Arabs at this unsettled time in their history.
Shlomo on July 27, 2011 at 9:47 am (Reply)
The state system in the Arab world was imposed by Europeans with their Westphalian model in mind. Several Arab states encompass incompatible religious sects and ethnic groups. Not only are they threatened from below, the current Islamic revival threatens their legitimacy from above.

There is some current parallel in Europe today. Today's historic national states are being challenged by pressures from the EU above and the historically submerged ethnic regions below.

Comments are closed for this article.

Like us on Facebook! Follow us on Twitter! Pin us on Pintrest!

Jewish Review of Books

Inheriting Abraham