Friday,24 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1368, (9 - 15 November 2017)
Friday,24 November, 2017
Issue 1368, (9 - 15 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Integration to disintegration

For all its power to draw the world together, globalisation comes with a tug-of-war between the world and the individual, the group and the tribe, writes Abdel-Moneim Said 


اقرأ باللغة العربية


The 1990s was the golden age of “globalisation”. The world was a “small village”. History had come to an end in the absence of a new dialectic following the defeat of Soviet socialism by Western capitalist democratic liberalism. We now had a worldwide open market to ideas, goods and people. Although the Soviet Union split up into 15 states, Germany united, because democratic states don’t disintegrate, they assimilate; in this case into a huge federation consisting of 27 countries aiming towards a single currency (the Euro), a single security belt (Schengen) and a common market. For a while, it seemed that Brussels might become the capital of Europe. At the same time, Yugoslavia split into seven countries and Czechoslovakia into two, as did Ethiopia, while East Timor broke away from Indonesia. Political scientist James Rosenau formulated a theory that held that one of the laws that governed international relations was the pull between assimilation or unification and disintegration or fragmentation. 

We see these dynamics in the laws of nature. Human cells and genes, atoms and nuclei, split and reunite. Last year it was reported that one of Einstein’s predictions about the fusion of stars and black holes is observable through the light emissions that reach us thousands of light years later. What applies to nature applies to nations. Social entities do not operate remotely from the basic laws of the universe. This is observable in history with no need for a telescope. Nevertheless, the study of the dynamics of societies lags behind the advances physics and biology have made in the observation of the dynamics of fusion and fission. We know that balances of powers, political systems and individuals play a part, but it is never easy to understand what mankind wants.

The British exit from the EU — “Brexit” — was a mad idea. Nobody of any political or social standing in the UK wanted it. Yet it took everyone by surprise. In spite of the protests and secession threats on the part of Scotland, North Ireland and Gibraltar, the political establishment conceded to it. The people had had their say. For Germany, this presented a unique opportunity to realise its historic dream of leading the European continent. 

In the Arab region, the nation state had never been as glorified as it was after the two world wars. Today, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Libya are confronted with tough questions and impossible tests. 

The Kurds had imagined that their participation in the war against the Islamic State group in Mosul and Raqqa would pave the way to the establishment of an independent Kurdish state plus the acquisition of Kirkuk. Kurdistan had tried to bite off more than it can chew and too much for the Iraqi body to bear. Masoud Barzani’s decision to hold the independence referendum in spite of all warnings was a poorly calculated misadventure. The short-lived secession ended in divisions between the Patriotic Union and the Kurdistan Democratic Party and between Irbil and Sulaymaniyah and with Baghdad’s decision to march on Kirkuk with Iranian, Turkish, Arab, US and Russian support. 

That might have seemed like a freak of nature if it had happened in Iraq alone. But it became a law of nature when it happened in Catalonia as well. Catalonian/Spanish history has many memories of conflict. Civil war erupted between Barcelona, bastion of the republicans of communist, socialist and anarchist hues, and Madrid, bastion of the fascists and royalists. The gruelling three-year war (1936-1939) was a natural prelude to World War II in which the whole of Europe was split along similar divides. Today, in 2017, Catalonia is not the citadel of the proletariat and the hammer and sickle. It was an aspiring state that longed to control its wealth independently from the larger and less wealthy Spanish kingdom. It was enough that it could boast the Barcelona Club and the amazing Messi. In a way, Catalonia wanted to do a “Brexit”: an independence referendum followed by a decision from the provincial parliament after which all would meet together in the EU. But Madrid did not take this easily, even if it can boast Real Madrid and Ronaldo. It dismissed the government of Catalonia and marched into Barcelona. In a democratic state, partition in this manner is not a possibility. Still, a century and a half ago in the US, the secession of the south from the union cost millions of dead and wounded. Today, with Catalonia, the cost did not exceed more than the exile of Puigdemont to Brussels. 

The laws of nature are generally stable. After we learn them they do not change their mind. The human being is a natural entity, or so we presume. But such stability does not apply, unless we take the long view over the ages, all of which speak of a universal movement between disintegration and merger or division and unification. We do not need a “global conspiracy” to explain this. There are many instances in which great powers thought it better all-around to end the pains of remaining together. Palestine was not the only country to be divided, in its case in accordance with the UN partition resolution. At the same time, Germany, India, Korea and Vietnam were also partitioned. Partition solved many problems even if it gave rise to greater and more potentially dangerous problems. Today, whether we speak of Irbil versus Baghdad, or Barcelona versus Madrid, the interplays within political geography and human geography resolved the crises, at least for the time being. In both Iraq and Spain, the majority succeeded in furnishing the regional and international climate conducive to the continuation of the unified state. Perhaps this will serve as a model for what will happen in Syria, Yemen, Libya and other countries. Each case has its particular circumstances and each is playing out with intense speed and violence. There are accelerating elements, such as the world’s technologies which render globalisation fast and inexorable. But globalisation comes with a tug-of-war between the world and the individual, the group and the tribe. It is a unity of the disparate who find themselves at odds with the modern state, be it nationalistic or democratic. In all events, it is an ongoing story.


The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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