On the brink of implosion
What became of the Arab state? In one way or another, argues Khalil El-Anani*
, it has managed not just to fail, but to fail miserably
It is mistaken to imagine the file on change and reform in the Arab world was closed the moment Bush and the neoconservatives left the White House. Structural change is not produced by perennial pressures that ease the moment they accomplish their objective or when their proponents depart. Rather, it is a reaction to situations that have become so ossified as to build up an explosive force beneath the surface. Arab regimes fear the type of change that could topple them or reduce their power. But to allow the current stagnation and rot to continue courts the type of change that could throw the whole of society into turmoil, as is currently happening in a number of Arab countries. The rise in violent socio-religious movements is one of the signs of the disintegration of Arab societies. It mirrors the failure of the state to contain and assimilate the diverse forces of society. Organisations such as Al-Qaeda could not have proliferated were it not for the glaring failure of the Arab state to perform its primary functions. Even though such movements stand on the ideological fringes of society, they thrive and breed in the fertile soil provided by political bankruptcy, economic need and social oppression.
It is against such a backdrop that one must read the train of crises that have eroded the authority of the state and lent enormous impetus to secessionist movements in the Arab world. The origin of the Houthi problem in Yemen cannot be chalked up to an extremist ideology and its secessionist leanings. Rather, it is the manifestation of a sociological structural crisis that stems from the failure of the post-independent Yemeni state to ensure a minimal level of functional sufficiency and psychological satisfaction to one of its social constituents. The Houthi problem in the north is a replica of Yemen's southern problem, which has also worsened in recent months, reflecting the dismal failure of the Yemeni regime to follow through on the two decade old north-south unification in a manner that generates solid socio-political unity. It will not do to point fingers at foreign meddling. The origin of the Yemeni crisis is inside Yemen and will only be remedied through an examination of the foundations of the state and its ability to redefine the way it works and how it relates to its citizens. Only such an introspective process will produce solutions capable of guaranteeing the survival of the state's legitimacy. No state that has two-thirds of its people living below the poverty line, a 40 per cent illiteracy rate and a weak central government, is safe from social upheavals. Yemen's dilemma is that the state lacks teeth. The government's energies and effective powers have been sapped in the course of continuous confrontations between the north and the south. As a consequence, Yemeni society has become a breeding ground for every brand of extremist movement or group that seeks a foothold for political and religious projects intended to supersede the nation state. It would be a disaster for Yemen and its neighbours if the three major forces opposed to the regime (the Houthis, the southern secessionists and Al-Qaeda) made common cause and overthrew the regime in Sanaa.
What threatens Yemen has already erupted in other countries, notably Sudan, where calls for secession have been sounded from the south and east, and may soon emerge from the west. Events in Yemen today are almost a repeat of developments in Sudan over the past two decades. In both the central government lost its ability to assert its authority over all the country's territory and it failed to market a vision for an overarching national project as an alternative to local allegiances and secessionist trends.
In Palestine, hopes for the creation of a Palestinian state, even one lacking full sovereign rights, have faded. The reason for this is not to be found so much in political divisions as in the spread of extremism and the increasing insistence by different groups that they alone represent the national cause. In other countries, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco among them, a similar peril menaces, as yet from a relatively safe distance. In Egypt, where discontent seethes below the surface, the government retains the power to contain and deter. Yet only a few years ago, the social and religious tension that has been manifesting itself as such an alarming rate was inconceivable and it was impossible to conceive of a force that could rival the power and prestige of the state. Egypt is far from becoming a failed state, in the sense of the collapse of central government and the disintegration of the political system. This does not, however, obviate against the erosion of the status of the state and its moral capital, a result of its poor economic performance, increasingly glaring social disparities and its failure to assimilate important segments of society. In such a climate the question of the handover of power could well become the straw that breaks the back of Egypt's delicate social cohesion, all the more so if the hereditary succession scenario is pushed through regardless of the risks.
The danger looming over the Arab world resides not so much in the spectre of the collapse of this regime or that but in the ability of its social structures to withstand the consequences of deferring promises for more than half a century. Nothing is inconceivable in the region. Who would ever have imagined that the Islamic revolutionary regime in Iran could teeter as it did recently, or that state and society in Yemen would stand on the brink of collapse? Who would have imagined that the economic and social situation in an ancient country such as Egypt could have reached its current degree of festering tensions?
Three factors are the primary cause of potential unrest. The first is the declining credibility of the Arab nation state due to political incompetence, economic corruption, social injustice, the failure to achieve domestic cohesion and to embrace religious and sectarian minorities, and the inability to meet the growing demands and aspirations of certain segments of society, notably young people. The second is the growing tendency on the part of the Arab state towards exclusiveness and an ever tighter monopoly on power, expressed daily in the form of police repression and tighter social surveillance and the natural reaction to which is social and sectarian discontent and rebelliousness. It is sufficient in this regard to note the current state of the relationship between some Arab governments and moderate Islamist movements. The mutual suspicion and hostility that characterises this relationship could cause many members of these movements to revise their regard for the value of peaceful political action and also drive others into the embrace of radical Islamist groups, as occurred recently in Gaza. The third factor is outside forces eager to exploit internal tensions to strengthen their influence in Arab society and whose success in such designs is contingent upon the existence of the foregoing conditions.
These factors combine to create the four types of Arab states we see at present in this region. The first are those that enjoy a degree of economic competence and social legitimacy but that are unable to tolerate serious opposition, which encourages radical opposition, especially of the militant Islamist sort. Many of the Gulf countries fall into this category.
The second type is to be found in those states that live on past laurels but are incapable of regenerating their political legitimacy due to their weak economic performance and consequent social tensions. In this category we find Egypt, Algeria and Morocco, countries in which the conditions are rife for civil strife and immanent upheaval.
At a third level there are those states that survive on a minimum degree of legitimacy and have no tolerance whatsoever for opposition both at home and abroad. Libya, Tunisia and Syria are models of this type of state, each the potential prey to an implosion of tremendous force should the appropriate conditions ripen.
At the lowest level we find those states that have lost the ability to survive in one piece as society around them crumbles and disintegrates with the help of outside agencies. In this category are Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq and Lebanon.
Perhaps US pressures for reform offered the last opportunity for many Arab regimes to take a closer look at their situations and revise their calculations. Unfortunately, it appears that the desire to monopolise power prevailed, with the result that the Arab state today stands teetering between precarious stability and full-scale implosion.
* The writer is a political analyst with Al-Siyasa Al-Dawliya magazine published by Al-Ahram.