MADRID – The revolutions that swept the Arab world during the last two years have exposed the extraordinary fragility of key Arab states. With the exception of historical countries such as Egypt or Morocco, most Arab states are artificial constructs of European colonialism, which combined disparate tribes and ethnicities into unitary states that could be held together only by authoritarian rule and a common enemy – Zionism and its Western patrons.
Today’s turmoil, however, is no longer driven by anger at foreign forces; instead, it marks a second phase of the de-colonization process: the assertion of the right of self-determination by peoples and tribes united only by a dictator’s yoke. Indeed, it is not entirely farfetched to anticipate the emergence of new Arab states from the debris of the old, artificial ones. The American invasion of Iraq set the pattern, for it broke the central government’s power and empowered ethnic and religious enclaves.
What happened in Yugoslavia, an ill-conceived product of Wilsonian diplomacy, could happen in the more cynical imperial creations in the Middle East. What Sigmund Freud defined as “the narcissism of minor differences” caused Yugoslavia to split into seven small states (including Kosovo), following the bloodiest fighting in Europe since World War II. Can the Arab states avoid a similar fate?
Democratization in the Arab world is not only about toppling dictators; it is also about redressing the politico-ethnic map of the region, which has kept too many minority groups dissatisfied. Consider the Kurds, who were split among Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran.
But the Kurds are hardly alone. Libya was created out of three former Italian colonies, Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan, each essentially comprising different tribal confederations (the Sa’adi in Cyrenaica, the Saff al-Bahar in Tripolitania, and the Tuareg in Fezzan). The fall of Muammar el-Qaddafi opened a Pandora’s box of old rivalries, with Cyrenaica developing into a semi-autonomous region known as Barqa.
Likewise, long-standing tensions between Bahrain’s ruling Sunni minority and Shia majority have worsened since the country’s Shia-led pro-democracy movement was crushed in 2011. As for Jordan, the precarious balance between the Palestinian majority and the Bedouin minority was difficult enough to maintain in stable times; it is a far more precarious undertaking now.
Other states in the region have been teetering on the brink of failure from the outset. Yemen emerged in 1990 from the reunification of South Yemen and North Yemen, which fought bitter wars in 1972 and 1979. But its leaders have never been able to integrate the tribes, the primary units of Yemen’s social structure, into the political system in a manner that generates their unequivocal acceptance of the sovereign state.
Syria powerfully demonstrates how a fight against a dictator can soon turn into a sectarian struggle for survival or mastery. Notwithstanding the worldwide legitimacy now enjoyed by the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, a disorderly collapse of the regime might yet lead to the country’s division into autonomous ethnic enclaves. The rebels, mostly Sunnis assisted by jihadi groups such as the Nusra Front, an offshoot of Al Qaeda in Iraq, have never truly attempted to reach out to the country’s minorities – Christians, Shia, Druze, and Kurds – which have repudiated the National Coalition as being “obedient to Turkey and Qatar.”
The Kurds, under the yoke of Arabs, Turks, and Iranians, saw in the demise of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq – and now see in the dismemberment of other Arab autocracies – an opportunity to join the new Great Middle Eastern Game. That means realizing the dream of uniting their dispersed nation in an independent Kurdish state.
The Kurdish militias in northern Syria, which sought to stay out of the civil war while preparing their own autonomous enclave should Bashar al-Assad’s regime be toppled, are now being drawn into the fighting; the Iraqi Kurds, who have been training their Syrian kin, may well follow. Turkey inevitably views Kurdish activism in northern Syria – led by the Democratic Union party, an offshoot of the insurgent Kurdistan Workers Party in Turkey – as a direct threat to its stability, and will do its utmost to prevent it from sparking rebellion among Turkey’s own restive Kurdish minority.
Lebanon is yet another ethnic tapestry that cannot be immune to events in Syria. Already, signs of spillover effects can be seen in clashes between Sunni and Alawite militias. However hegemonic Hezbollah may now seem, its power in Lebanon depends heavily on the support of the Assad regime. Should Assad fall, and the Sunni-led opposition rise to power, the ensuing balance of power in Syria is bound to reshape the balance of power in Lebanon.
Might South Sudan, the mostly Christian state that seceded in 2011 from the Muslim Arab North after a long civil war, become the new paradigm for non-historical Arab states riven by ethnic and tribal rivalries? As former Prime Minister of China Zhou Enlai supposedly said of the impact of the French Revolution, “It is too early to tell.” But there can be no doubt that the post-colonial status quo in the Middle East is crumbling. A multifaceted region has yet to crystallize into more definitive political constructions.