This period in our region’s history will have a long-term effect, not only on the relationship between people and society, but also society and the state, and among the regional states as well. Major global incidents have always had an impact on the Middle East more so than any other region in the world. To save our future we must look to the past, and fix our present.
If we take the World War I as a starting point, that is where history says the region’s political borders and social structure were made. All of the events of the time—the Sykes-Picot agreement, the Balfour declaration, the Arab revolt against the Ottoman empire, the San Remo conference in 1920—all of these things reshaped the region and divided Arabs between the British and the French. Our borders were drawn not by us, but by foreign powers that had no interest in the ambitions of the people they divided. Indeed, the Arab reality which was created by Europe was in service of European desires and ambitions.
Even as the multipolar global power structure was eroded after World War II, to be replaced by a bipolar global power structure in the Cold War, the region remained a focal point of conflict for competing powers. These conflicts in essence guaranteed that the region would not be shaped by the people living in it, but rather from the outside.
When we entered the era of independence after World War II, for all the bellicose rhetoric of Pan-Arabism and our nationalist projects, we were unable to transform the region and change the borders we inherited from our colonisers. During the two wars our states were fluid, subject to change at the behest of those that did not understand us, but as we entered the era of Arab independence and our states coalesced and took shape we failed ourselves and kept our region divided and deformed. We left the Kurds torn between five neighbouring countries, and we did much the same to the Druze, the Berbers and numerous other peoples and tribes. We have allowed many of our own people to be geographically and politically divided.
Revolutions, by definition, end in one of three ways; individuals can be replaced with other individuals, such as what has happened in Yemen, a regime could be replaced by another regime, like what has happened in Egypt, and the entire structure of the state can be replaced with another one, such as the case in Sudan and South Sudan. The danger our societies face is that even the smallest changes brought about by revolution can have a deep impact on the structure of the state and society. Iraq will not be free and united against its enemies in the foreseeable future, and many Arab armies have devolved into roving bands of warring militias.
To complicate matters further, the societal elites of the post-Arab spring have become divided. Prior to 2011 these elites agreed on many issues and values, among them the suppression of separatist movements and their opposition to religiously conservative forces. With the onset of the Arab spring, however, the solidity of the state, with all its rigidity and inflexibility, crumbled into dust. This does not mean, however, that what comes next will be better, unless we actively work towards changing the reality on the ground. In this I believe we have three important things we must do.
Firstly, the process or rebuilding post-Arab spring countries must, on a fundamental level, be carried out on an earnest platform of national reconciliation that recognises the different degrees and types of corruption. Second, the countries affected by the Arab Spring must refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of countries that were not affected. This is because we do not necessarily represent good models of governance for other countries to imitate, but also because people in undemocratic countries in the region must first create the conditions by which they are able to demand their rights and freedoms before it is imposed upon them by another. Third, Arab countries with an economic surplus must help those that are suffering economically so that people’s suffering does not mutate into radicalism and violence.
Robert Pape’s book Dying to Win draws an important causal links between economic suffering and extremism and violence. Revolutions, like all collective human actions, have both intended and unintended consequences. As humans we must do our best to limit the unintended consequences. The most dangerous challenge facing our region is that those in power have relied on the army to sustain their tyranny. Revolting against authority often means revolting against the army.
The army is not just a collection of soldiers with weapons. At its core the army creates a sense of group cohesion, which creates a sense of loyalty to the country, rather than tribe, race, or religion. The breaking apart of some of the region’s armies into warring militias, the weakness of the army’s internal cohesion, and the squandering of their reputation as a national institution among the citizenry results in the solidity of the institution and the state becoming questionable.
I posit that our region is living in a period in time similar to that of Europe in post-revolutionary France. I hope that we will be able to learn from history, but when I look at our cultural and political elites in Egypt, I see they suffer from knowledge narcissism. They refuse to learn from the experiences of others.
Arabs have been divided into three types of states. There are the politically and economically stable states surrounded by possible threats, such as the Gulf countries, Jordan, Algeria, and Morocco. Then, there are countries that have undergone radical changes but remain relatively stable, such as Egypt and Tunisia. And lastly there are failed states in which security has all but collapsed such as Syria, Yemen, Libya, Sudan, Somalia, and Lebanon.
The financially stable countries must do what they can to help the countries that have undergone radical change to ensure they remain stable. Reinforcing our borders does little to stop the deterioration of our neighbours. In essence what we need is an Arab Marshall Plan in order to reform the region, defeat terrorism, and build strong and healthy relations between the citizen and the state. Restoring Egypt to its position as a strong regional player would go a long way to stabilising the region.