State of the Arab world
The centralised state of the past may be gone, but that doesn't mean that chaos should take over, writes Abdel-Moneim Said
When King Abdullah Bin Abdel Aziz of Saudi Arabia and Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi vowed to work together to achieve stability in the region, effectively they sought to inject new vigour into the old Egyptian-Saudi strategic alliance that has long needed some revamping of its aims and means. True, many major needs and demands have remained unchanged because the facts of history, geography and demography do not change so easily. However, the events of the past year and a half have made it necessary to adopt a new perspective on the question of stability in a region that is teeming with dozens of "revolutionary" factors that give stability a range of different shades of meaning.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia are ideal candidates for making stability a pillar of their domestic and foreign policies. The first has a huge population that cannot sustain turbulence for long periods of time and the second has oil wealth and the holy sites that need a stable environment to enable their use and preservation. Yet for some time the situation on the ground in Egypt has worked on the basis of a different logic. Revolution still proclaims itself in various ways in the Tahrir Squares of Egypt and the passions it stirs continue to blaze through the Arab and international media. Moreover, a climate thick with tension and anxiety still hovers over the constitution and elections, and over whether normal life will resume in the home, workers will return to their factories, and the state will refasten itself to its moorings. Still, in spite of all, the Egyptian state with its military, judicial and bureaucratic establishments seems to have weathered the storm, especially since the presidential elections heralded the safe return to its berth. True, the Egyptian state is not the same as it was or as its neighbours, allies and even enemies were accustomed to. But the change, as significant and profound as it was, did not overshadow the geopolitical and geo-strategic parameters in which the Egyptian political entity operates.
Because of Egypt's pivotal importance, the foregoing is an important indicator of the state of the region, as is the fact that it is now working with the other chief Arab power. Elements of necessity and choice are involved in this process as they feel their way forward, but both powers are aware that as noble and inspiring as the slogans that waft through the Arab Spring have been, the Arab Spring essentially means instability. This instability manifests itself on many levels and it requires strategic understandings to handle the fallout.
For example, both Egypt and Saudi Arabia support the Syrian revolution. Both probably do not entertain the shadow of a doubt that the fall of the Bashar Al-Assad regime is a matter of time, the length and pain of which they want to minimise as much as possible. However, Syria is just one exponent of the change that is sweeping the region. This is not just a matter of eliminating the last vestige of the 1960s following the collapse of the Nasserist experience in Egypt, the Baathist system in Iraq, the Gaddafi order in Libya and their counterpart in Yemen, which lacks a similarly convenient label. It is also a matter of some difficult questions regarding the Arab state in general, regardless of its ideology.
Like it or not, Arab countries must realise that the highly centralised state, which existed since independence and which took the assimilation of minorities to the degree of regarding every form of independent cultural and political expression as a subversive drive to undermine and fragment it, is a thing of the past. The change began in Somalia, Iraq and Lebanon, even before the outbreak of the Arab Spring, and it manifested itself very tangibly in the partition of Sudan after the Arab Spring as the consequence of an agreement concluded years earlier. But signs of the change have also emerged in Libya, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain following the Arab Spring. What this change means is that the Arab region must acknowledge the need to provide for the "composite state," whether or not it is forced upon it by the democratic winds of the Arab Spring. Perhaps in this regard Morocco is unique for having been well ahead of the curve, not just because of the constitutional changes that reduced the powers of the king, but also by giving the Amazigh people a broader space for political expression. But then the Moroccan political arena had always been more flexible and less centralised. Now it is more so.
Unfortunately, we have yet to see this example echoed in many other Arab countries where the reformist trend calling for a fairer distribution of public space is the object of profound doubt and suspicion. But this is not our subject today, apart from to stress that one of its consequences will be to protract the threat of instability for a considerable time to come, perhaps to the end of the decade. Moreover, the threat, this time, is of a new order because it not only touches upon the heart of the state but also extends beyond its borders. When Kurdish and Turkmen minorities in Iraq demand recognition for their national identity because their Sunni identity, in itself, is not sufficient, it is impossible to ignore their ethnic extensions in Iran and Turkey. Clearly, therefore, the equations of stability must be handled in a different way than earlier. New cultural, political and administrative outlooks and means must be brought to bear at a time when it is no longer possible to ignore the need to institute the "composite state" and when there is no longer cause for shame or embarrassment in considering different solutions emanating from the notion of decentralisation, such as local government, autonomous government and even a federal system.
To put the matter another way, putting an end to the tyrant -- the Bashar Al-Assads, the Saddam Husseins, or the Baath parties -- does not necessarily put an end to tyranny. Tyranny can just as easily come from a rigid ideology or from a major sect or faction that believes its majority gives it the right to exclusive control. I have raised this caution on numerous other occasions when discussing the phenomena of the "pharaoh" and "pharaonism" in the Egyptian case. Today, Egypt is facing this problem more acutely than ever as it stands on the brink of a new age of instability that, without a doubt, will be exploited by outside forces. While President Morsi was meeting with the Saudi monarch, Prime Minister Recep Erdoðan in Ankara was issuing judgments on the Egyptian situation and the rulings of the Supreme Constitutional Court. Only a few months ago, that same man appealed to the Muslim Brothers in Egypt to rule in the context of a secular state. The point here is not the appropriateness or inappropriateness to Egypt of the so-called "Turkish model," but rather the fact that Ankara -- not just the Justice and Development Party or the Turkish prime minister -- has assumed the right to steer Egypt in what it believes is the right direction. Erdoðan's pronouncements came at a time when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Cairo, offering her advice on democracy and how Egyptian political forces should proceed with it. The statements coming out of Tehran at this time require no elucidation. Whether emanating from Iran, the US or Turkey, these pronouncements are much more than just statements. They are political actions and, sometimes, even economic and military ones. All these moves interact with the realities of the Arab revolutions and affect whether the countries of the Arab Spring see the birth of the "composite state" or the "failed state".
There are no easy solutions for handling the problem of stability in the Arab region, in both its internal and external dimensions. Nevertheless, I still maintain that internal reform must always be a step ahead and more extensive than the curve of change, and I still subscribe to the belief that the major facts of geography, history and demography should not become lost amidst the new dynamics the importance of which should not be understated. It is possible to acclimatise to new realities without surrendering to them entirely.