Saturday,21 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1278, (14 - 20 January 2016)
Saturday,21 July, 2018
Issue 1278, (14 - 20 January 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The future of the region

As major Arab states that remain militarily and politically coherent, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Algeria have a special responsibility to forge a united vision on regional crisis resolution, writes Hassan Nafaa

Al-Ahram Weekly

Some people apply the term “Arab nation” to the collection of Arabic-speaking countries in the Middle East as a way to affirm the common denominators among the peoples of this region. Others prefer the term “Arab world” in order to affirm their differences.

From the factual, rather ideological, perspective it is obvious that this region is not a single political, ethnic, religious or sociological entity. Politically it is divided into 22 independent states, each with its own political system. Some have no political parties or movements whatsoever that are entitled to engage in political activities.

True, all of these states are members of a single regional organisation called the Arab League. But this “league” is little more than a skeletal umbrella for separate entities as it lacks genuine independent will or supranational powers and jurisdiction.

The region is ethnically diverse. In addition to the Arabs who form the overwhelming majority of the populace, millions belong to other ethnicities: Kurds, Turkmen, Circassians, Armenians, Amazigh, Africans and others. It is religiously diverse. In addition to the Muslims who make up the overwhelming majority, Christians account for a significant portion of the population in some countries that also have other religious minorities.

The region teems with different sects and denominations of the major faiths. Muslims are divided into Sunnis, Shias, Druze, Alawis and others. Christians are divided into Orthodox, Catholics, Protestants, Copts, Maronites, etc.

The region is also hardly sociologically homogenous. Its inhabitants range from Bedouins to urbanites, farmers and pastoralists, while the level of industrialisation remains very limited. Although tribalism prevails in some countries, Arab tribes are often interwoven and frequently span across political, religious and sectarian boundaries. In a single tribe, you might find Sunnis, Shias and even Muslims and Christians.

Perhaps this great diversity helps explain some of the dimensions of the severe conflicts that are raging in this region. At present, the conflicts have assumed outward ethnic, religious, sectarian or tribal forms, although they are quintessentially political conflicts. In virtually every Arab country there are conflicts between the various ethnic, sectarian or religious components of the population: Arabs versus non-Arabs in some countries, Muslims versus non-Muslims in others.

There are also confrontations between Arab countries and between Arab countries and their non-Arab neighbours. These conflicts have grown more acute recently and begun to take the form of destructive civil, regional and international wars that are exacting huge humanitarian and material costs. Some are of the opinion that the Arab region will never see stability and tranquillity again unless its maps or borders are redrawn according to considerations that are totally different from those that shaped the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1917, when European colonial powers were divvying up the spoils from the crumbling Ottoman Empire.

Granting that the borders drawn in that agreement took only the interests of the colonial powers into account, albeit with an element of care to satisfy certain Arab dynasties or tribes that had cooperated with Britain during the war, the crucial question that automatically begs itself here is: what are the criteria that should serve as the basis to ensure that the new borders will restore security, stability and tranquillity to the region?

To answer this question, let us first consider the significance of what happened to the region following the creation of the old borders and then let us attempt to peer into a future where attempts to redraw the regional map are put into effect. The Sykes-Picot agreement produced nation-states, sometimes called country-states. The borders it drew were described as “artificial” and were vehemently criticised by both the pan-Arab nationalist and the pan-Islamist movements.

To the Arab nationalists, who at the time longed to create a unified Arab state or at least the kernel of such a state in the Levant, the new borders entrenched partition and hampered the Arab people’s drive to establish a unified state like other peoples. The Arab Islamists, who never despaired of the possibility of resurrecting the caliphate, if in its Arab (Umayyad and Abbasid) version, also saw the artificial borders as an obstacle to the ability of the Muslims (who from the perspective of the Islamists formed a single people on the basis of religious creed as opposed to ethnicity) to from a single state.

As a result, from its birth in the post-World War I era through the post-national independence era, the “nation-state” in the Arab world has been caught between the Arab nationalist hammer and the Islamist anvil until it was reduced to its current state of frailty and brought to the brink of disintegration and collapse.

Still, to be fair we must also admit that the failure of the nation state in the Arab world was not only the result of attempts on the part of Arab nationalists and Islamists to transcend it and, hence, destroy it in order to attain their respective ideological ends. It was also due, and above all, to the inability of the ruling elites in most Arab states to establish systems of government open to all ideological and political trends and capable of guaranteeing the rights of citizenship for all segments of the population, especially minorities.

Accordingly, ethnic, religious and sectarian minorities may have also played a more instrumental role in undermining the foundations of the nation state in the Arab world, particularly in those cases in which minorities masked their sectarian affiliations behind broader pan-nationalist or Islamist ideologies. Perhaps it would be no exaggeration to say that most of the hot spots in the Arab world today are more manifestations of “minority uprisings” than of popular revolutions.

But will redrawing of the borders of the Arab world on the basis of sectarian or ethnic affiliation really work to restore security and stability to this region as a whole or even to the insurgent sects or factions some of which, we have to admit, have been the victims of considerable injustice? I doubt very much that redrawing the regional map would have the desired result. In fact, I believe that the opposite would be the case.

Creating new states in the Arab world with Shia, Alawi, Druze, Christian or Kurdish majorities will not solve any problem. It will only replace one ruling majority with another that could even be more domineering or inclined to persecute minorities that fall under its control. As for the notion of creating a petty state for each sect and/or ethnicity free of any minorities whatsoever, the corollary is obvious: endless processes of mutual ethnic cleansing.

The ravages of civil warfare and strife would intensify, spread geographically and extend indefinitely chronologically. If the current conditions persist, the region will inevitably slip into that fate.

What, then, is the solution? The only rational solution, I believe, is to take an initiative consisting of a series of actions and measures that can be summed up as follows:

- Convene an urgent summit meeting of the leaders of the major Arab states that are still militarily and politically coherent, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Algeria. Participants in that summit would strive to forge unified Arab positions on the crises raging in the Arab world and particularly those in Syria, Yemen and Libya. They would then propose these positions as a basis for settling these crises and help implement relevant UN Security Council resolutions.

-  Create institutions to promote effective cooperation between these four countries in all political, military and economic spheres. This would serve as a small-scale model for the institutions that would be envisioned for the new Arab order. Eventually, the kernel would be expanded to include new states in accordance with the vision and conditions of the founding countries.

-  The kernel group would engage, as a single bloc, in a dialogue with Iran and Turkey in order, first, to contain Sunni-Shia sectarian strife and, second, to transform neighbouring Islamic nations into a strategic depth and vital sphere for Arab states. The bloc should also engage in dialogue with Palestinian factions to resolve their disputes, preparatory to paving the way for an acceptable peaceful settlement to the conflict with Israel.

This type of thinking may seem an exercise in pure fantasy, given the escalation in the crisis between Saudi Arabia and Iran and the recent rupture of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Nevertheless, I believe that this is precisely the right time to think “outside the box.” I urge President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to take immediate action to contain the crisis, even if this requires a visit to Iran.

The writer is a professor of political science, Cairo University.

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