The Arab Big Bang

Rami G. Khouri

BEIRUT -- 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 a century for reasons related to the nature of both 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 that was headed by strongmen of the ilk of Saddam Hussein or Hafez Assad. The antidote to state artificiality was authoritarianism. In other cases, like Egypt, the natural state was never vulnerable because of its artificiality, but succumbed nevertheless to dictatorial rule for other reasons, including military assertion, and the repercussions of the Cold War and the conflict with Israel.
As Arab people 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 witness most clearly in Tunisia, which does not face a major challenge to the nature of its statehood, but rather only 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 Euro-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, for example, with the break-up of the former nations of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia.
North/South Yemen and Jordan and the West Bank are other examples of countries that have changed their borders 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, such a process should be welcomed as a constructive development. It would affirm the principle of national self-determination -- a vital principle that foreign-imposed statehood and long-running indigenous autocracies have long denier 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 experience serious challenges to their regimes or their state structures (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 (GCC) to include Jordan and Morocco or by suggesting that the GCC take the next step to formal union among its members.)
The Arab revolutions and uprisings are slowly revealing their true depth and significance as far more than rejections of former dictators and their corrupt and ineffective family rule-for-life systems, but rather as 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 more akin to a Big Bang in the birth and life of states, nations and citizenries. Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. Copyright © 2011 Rami G. Khouri -- distributed by Agence Global