The State of the Arab State

By Elliot Jager
Tuesday, July 26, 2011

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).

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.


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