Thursday,15 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1338, (30 March - 5 April 2017)
Thursday,15 November, 2018
Issue 1338, (30 March - 5 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The Arab disorder

Legitimacy crises at home and shifting and conflicting regional and international alliances make the construction of a new Arab order, for the time being, a distant prospect

The Middle East is seen from a distance as the most dangerous region in the world; as the main source of terrorism and illegal immigration in the 21st century. It is no secret that the dispute over EU immigration policy was one of the reasons behind the UK leaving the EU (Brexit). Terrorism and immigration are also reasons behind the rise of ultra-right politicians in Europe. In the Middle East itself, ageing regimes, political decay and social inequality have resulted in low levels of constructive engagement, lower than average economic growth and higher than average unemployment rates.

The region, which is dominantly Arab, suffers mostly from problems related to Arab states’ politics, internal and external, including relations between Arab and non-Arab countries. Unfortunately, politicians, experts and academics from within the Arab world think that regional problems can have quick fixes. It seems that they have a “tool box” that is always ready to use. Despite the fact that the old Arab order is dead, they are trying to pretend it is alive. Perhaps they need to understand that dead bodies don’t respond.

Since the beginning of their modern history, Arabs suffered a clash of identity between Arabism and Islamism. Even when “Arabism” prevailed with the establishment of the League of Arab States, the conflict between Arabism and Islamism continued throughout 1950s and 1960s. The Yemeni War (1962-1967) was the peak of that conflict. The old Arab order collapsed when it failed to create a framework for peaceful coexistence between its members, and with its neighbours. When it failed to forestall aggression between its members (as happened when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990) it resorted to outside powers to come to the rescue, and when it failed to coexist peacefully with its neighbours it also called on outside powers to provide protection. The fall of the pan-Arabist political regimes in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen marked the political end of the so-called pan-Arabist order.

Now, as Arabs suffer the consequences of the collapse of that order, they need to look carefully at the roots and sources of this collapse. Quick fixes will not work. In order to be able to engage collectively with the rest of the world, including their neighbours, Arabs should have clear, long-term and sustainable answers to many questions that are complicating their lives. Arabs need to answers questions of a Westphalian nature about the relations between Arab states, Arabs and non-Arabs, Muslims and non-Muslims, and between Sunnis and Shias. Once the basis of answers to these questions has been established, Arab states will become able to engage peacefully and constructively with each other, with their neighbours and with the rest of the world.

Most Middle East conflicts are seen by opposing sides as existential — life or death. The political danger with such cognition is that it leads to zero-sum games, or winner takes all, so blood-letting, destruction and chaos become final aims. Peaceful coexistence doesn’t have a place there. War would become not a means to achieve peace, but a way of life, and it has already become the new normal in Somalia, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya. Look at the Islamic State (IS) for example. War has become its stock in trade; its members know nothing else. And once they are forced out of one place, they move to another, like angry wasps, preparing for the next fight. It is not only outlawed terrorist organisations that are involved in the zero-sum game, or seen as party to it. Other political conflicts in the region are seen as “existential”, including the Israeli-Palestinian, the sectarian Shia-Sunni, political Islam vis-à-vis liberal democracy, Arab nationalism versus Zionism, non-Arab minorities against Arabs, Muslims against Christians, and so on.

FUTURE UNCERTAINTY: Some well-respected international academics and thinkers believe that there are many similarities between the present day Middle East and the old Europe of the 17th and 19th centuries. Henry Kissinger, in his masterpiece World Order (2014), illustrated the similarities between the two during the struggle for the Westphalian order in Europe during and beyond the 30-Year War (1618-1648), while Francis Fukuyama in his Political Order and Political Decay (2015) found many similarities between Arab Spring politics and European revolutions for democracy in 1848.

Though each of them, Kissinger and Fukuyama, looked at the today’s Middle East from a different historic distance and angle, they almost reached the same conclusion about the potential outcome of present day conflicts in the Middle East. Kissinger said: “the region will remain pulled alternately towards joining the world community and struggling against it... before it arrives [if it ever does] at a settled concept of international order.” Fukuyama, too, is not optimistic. He said: “We can only hope that such a transition [to liberal democracy], if it eventually occurs, will not take anywhere as long as it did in Europe.”

In today’s Middle East, the regional shift in the balance of power in favour of Iran and Israel, and the crisis of legitimacy in Arab states, are denying Arab nationalists the stature they enjoyed since the end of World War II. These also feed into other destabilising factors, including complicated ones such as religion, and sectarian and ethnic conflicts. It seems as if the region went into “sleep” or “pause” mode during last decades of the 20th century and woke up suddenly to find that it had lost any sense of common identity. As a result, the region is experiencing an “identity crisis” that may take a long time to be settled.

MAPPING THE SOURCES OF LEGITIMACY: The legitimacy of a regime or a political order is its reason to exist and it should be based on justice not justifications. If legitimacy is questioned or challenged by reason of the existence of another group (social segment), regime or order, the result would be conflict. But such a conflict can be resolved either by a redefinition of legitimacy or by a change in the balance of power. Throughout the period between the 1950s and 1990s, when the legitimacy of many Arab regimes was based on “Arab nationalism”, non-Arab citizens in many Arab countries felt excluded, and they raised either their voices or their arms, and in some cases they raised both (in South Sudan, Iraqi Kurdistan and Western Sahara). The result, after decades of struggle, was the partition of the Sudan, autonomy for the Kurds in Iraq (leading now to near independence), ongoing war in the Sahara, and more recognition of the cultural and political rights of minorities in other Arab countries.

Ongoing conflicts in the region reflect the clash of different sources of legitimacy. We can identify these sources as follows: ideology-based legitimacy that has produced the Palestinian- Israeli conflict (Arab nationalism versus Zionism), the Iraq-Iran War in the 1980s (Arab nationalism versus Iran’s political Islam), the Yemeni War 1961-1967 (a war by proxy between Arab nationalism led by Egypt versus Arab monarchies and regressive regimes led by Saudi Arabia), and liberal values vis-à-vis totalitarianism (the Arab Spring). The second form of legitimacy is sectarian-based, and has many faces and different versions. The region accommodates the Iranian or “Shia” version of political Islam, the “Wahhabi” version of Sunni political Islam, the Muslim Brotherhood version of political Islam and the most devastating extreme version of political Islam manufactured by IS and Al-Qaeda. The third form of legitimacy is the based on “ethnicity”: Kurds against Arabs, Turkomans against Kurds, Sudanese Africans versus Arabs, Nubian tribes against Arab ones (in the Sudan and Egypt), Twareq and Amazighen, Barber tribes in North Africa versus Arab tribes.

MINI-POLITICAL ORDERS: Those three forms of legitimacy — ideology-based, sectarian-based and ethnicity-based — have erupted in conflict altogether, all at once when the region’s balance of power was lost, and the outside powers who worked together as guarantors of the regional order let loose regional conflicts to develop in some cases into open armed confrontations. A few years after the USSR lost the Cold War, the US embarked on the strategy of “regime change” in the Middle East and Washington seemed — both Republicans and Democrats — very determined and at one on that strategy. Internal politics and the very weak nature of nationalist regimes in the region contributed to their fall in 2011. The Iranians were quick to take the chance; they advanced into Iraq in 2003, and then started to expand their influence from there. Non-governmental organisations, armed and non-armed, took to the streets when they became sure of the success of people’s uprising in Tahrir Squares in Arab countries, from the shores of the Atlantic Ocean to the Arabian desert.

The fact that the people during the 2011 uprisings were strongly united on what they were against, not on what they wanted to achieve, helped organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Syria to exploit the situation in their favour, and they rose to power. However, the total political failure of the Muslim Brotherhood contributed to the return of military to rule in Egypt and to the rise in Syria, Yemen and Libya of terrorism. It may be seen from this political angle that Arab militaries are destined to save the region from disorder and fragmentation. Whether the military will maintain power and contribute to the return of Arab nationalism is yet contested. The 2011 revolutions have not fulfilled their destiny yet, and the people of the region will not rest until they achieve freedom, justice and equality — a set of values that will not cease to inspire everyone dreaming of a better future.

None of the stakeholders in the Middle East has come to realise that “peaceful and creative coexistence” is the way out of the legitimacy crisis. Conflicting powers are busy building capacities to enable themselves to change the balance of power in their favour. At country and regional levels, all political adversaries are jockeying for position. To add oil to the fire, even outside powers, regional and international, are taking sides. Conflicts in the region are bound to continue. On the ground we have more than one political order trying to conform to new realities and achieve victory. We have the “Iranian order” or axis, that includes Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa. We also have the “Arab Sunni order” that includes Riyadh, Cairo, Amman, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi and Manama. The one that may become a third order includes Doha, Ankara, Khartoum and Mogadishu. The Arab Maghreb countries have in general reduced their interactions with political developments.

In addition, Egypt is trying to build a united front with Eastern Libya. Oman has its own political orientation and sectarian identity (Muslim Abadhi) and is not taking sides. The question is: Can all these orders converge and help establish a new Middle East political order? This is a very difficult question to answer. But it is less likely that, based on given facts and realities, a new order can evolve from political fragmentation.

Regional alliances in the Middle East are not limited to state actors. Non-state actors, especially armed organisations, are also building their own axis of power. Jihadi organisations in Egypt are sending fighters to stand with Al-Nusra in Syria; Hamas in Gaza is helping to train and equip the Egyptian jihadis, Al-Qaeda and Islamic State in Yemen are coordinating activities in South Yemen and Islamic extremist groups in Libya are helping their colleagues in Tunisia. There are many signs that the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda in parts of Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Somalia and Yemen are actively building a new satanic alliance in the Middle East.

STATE AND NON-STATE ALLIANCES: Political alliances in the region are not exclusive to state-to-state practice; they have become open to alliances between states and non-state actors. Political alliances have also been open to crossing between Arab and non-Arab, Middle Eastern and non-Middle Eastern, in the region. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are allies to Jebhat Ahrar Al-Sham fighting Bashar Al-Assad in Syria and the Syrian Arab Army is in official alliance with the Iranian Al-Quds Corps. In Libya, Egypt has embraced General Khalifa Haftar who refuses to recognise the international-backed Libyan government in Tripoli. In Iraq and Syria, Kurds have forged strong alliances with both the Americans and the Russians. In Somalia, anyone can go with or against the others, depending on who is paying and how much. Some of these alliances are built on strong political bases and interests (the Lebanese Hizbullah and Iran), but some others are fragile (the Saudi alliance for Yemen).

PROLIFERATION OF TERRORISM: Legitimacy crises may exacerbate amid the ongoing localisation of Islamic extremist groups. Signs of such are visible in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya. Somali terrorist groups from the early start adopted a localised attitude, even when they attacked ships at sea or troops on land. The establishment of Islamist territories under the control of organisations such as IS, Al-Qaeda, Ansar Allah, and Ansar Al-Sunna will bring more complications to the political scene in the Middle East.

The one country that may become the most exposed is Egypt as an eruption of multi-ethnic conflicts in Sudan, the continuation of chaos in stateless Libya, and the threat of the so-called Wilayet Sinai together pose a tremendous challenge to the Egyptian army. Egypt, regardless of pitfalls or defects, is still the most integrated power in a region that is dominantly Arab, and it is qualified to play, once again, a historic role in shaping up the future of this region. The military should be well prepared for a post-Mosul (and perhaps post-Raqqa) proliferation of terrorism in the region. Egypt will have its share, or perhaps most of it.

Those who think that a regional Arab order can be established seem completely out of touch. Creating a new regional order requires either changing the balance of power, or redefining legitimacy in the Middle East. Most probably we need to do both. The region still has a long way to go before it rises from conflict to peace.


The writer is former senior political affairs officer at the UNDPA.

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