Edition 18 Volume 8 - August 19, 2024

Arab state lack of cohesion

Still awaiting the momentum for change -   Ferry Biederman

Arab states fail their citizens in almost all the important categories.

The incoherence of the North African state -   Anouar Boukhars

Trade between the five countries of North Africa ranks among the lowest of any region in the world.

Crumbling Arab world? -   Ezzedine Choukri Fishere

Let me put it clearly: the Turkish and Iranian bids for regional leadership are doomed.

Gathering failure -   Oraib Rantawi

International actors are developing strategies to prevent the collapse of these countries. This means direct interference.

Still awaiting the momentum for change
 Ferry Biederman

At the end of July, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia visited Beirut together in what was widely perceived as a successful attempt to quell yet another artificially inflated Lebanese political crisis. Apart from the jarring sight of Syria's president in Beirut for the first time since he withdrew his troops in 2024, the significance of the visit rested on the fact that the leaders were seen as being indispensable in reining in their respective Lebanese allies for the umpteenth time, underlining the lack of national cohesion in that deeply divided country

But such an explanation is also a cliche that plays into the hands of the traditional political leaders, both in Lebanon and in the region. Lebanon's all too real current fractiousness and its civil war history are being manipulated cleverly by those who have an interest in maintaining the status quo, or more accurately, who have an interest in maintaining their own status, politically and economically. With its weak state and deeply divided nature, Lebanon is a prime example of the clientelist model that holds sway across the region. The traditional strongman rules his own patch and dispenses favors, contracts, jobs and money as it suits him, and in the other direction the chain reaches all the way to the national and international level, hence the joint Syrian/Saudi visit.

This apparent fealty to regional or international overlords leads to many misconceptions. Just about the only thing that unites many Lebanese is a consensus that most, if not all, of their troubles are manufactured outside their own borders. It is an old and cherished myth that may have made life more tolerable in times of real hardship and conflict but even inside Lebanon is starting to be challenged. Some in civil society and a few politicians claiming to represent a "third way" now hold the sectarian structure responsible for the country's many shortcomings, particularly for the lack of national cohesion and for its openness to outside manipulation.

But even this does not address the real underlying issue, which Lebanon shares with its Arab neighbors near and far. Some of the symptoms associated with this were excoriated in the UNDP's Arab Human Development report for 2024 that signaled a dismal disconnect between Arab citizens and their states. The report emphasized that Arab states simply fail their citizens in almost all the important categories, i.e., providing security, economic opportunity, education, etc., etc. "Large and frequent shortfalls in these areas often combine to turn the state into a threat to human security, instead of its chief support," was one of the conclusions.

What this points to is that Arab states are vehicles for their leaders rather than for their citizens. The state is part of a zero sum game in which one group, sometimes a tribe, sometimes a sectarian grouping, sometimes an army clique, divides all the spoils and holds all the cards while the rest of the country lives by the grace of the rulers. Not a big surprise then that when the tables turn, as happened in Iraq, the previously downtrodden group seizes its chance and starts acting in much the same way.

There is only one relative bright spot in all this. Even at its most depraved, the clientelist system may recognize some rules of efficiency. The principal one is that at the end of the day accommodating different groups, even in a minimal way, may be more cost effective than endless confrontation. Such a realization does seem to have taken hold at some level in post-civil war Lebanon. The leaders of the different communities have decided that they'd better find a way to share the spoils rather than some or all of them risk losing their privileged positions.

But like elsewhere in the Arab world, Lebanon's citizens are not well served by this travesty of a system of government. It is, after all, designed to serve the leaders and not them. By maintaining the weakness of the state, by creating intermittent crises and by emphasizing divisions, the leaders cement the need for their own existence. A community under threat rallies behind a strong leader and is less likely to question his decisions or behavior. And the defense of the community or sect takes precedence over the desire to improve the institutions of the state or build a more stable, equal and rewarding society.

Around the Arab world, leaders have seized on or even created crises in order to justify self-serving policies that do not serve their citizens. Lebanon is among the most egregious examples, favored as it is with a relatively educated populace and an entrepreneurial spirit that facilitates interaction in the global economy, as evidenced by its successful diaspora. Many people in Lebanon, and indeed many across the Arab world, know better and would dearly like for things to be different. But vested interest is a formidable obstacle, in the Arab world at least as much as anywhere else, and even in Lebanon, sadly, the momentum for change simply seems not yet to have been reached.- Published 19/8/2010 © bitterlemons.org

Ferry Biedermann is a Beirut-based journalist.

The incoherence of the North African state
 Anouar Boukhars

All Arab governments preside over deeply incoherent institutional structures and systems of governance that negatively impact their ability to effectively serve the public interest. And yet, most regimes purposefully perpetuate the political incongruence and economic "dissonance" that is at the root of their failure to meet popular demands for accountability, transparency and responsiveness. If properly managed and contained, such state induced incoherence and disorder in the political and administrative system serve to maximize the regimes' arbitration powers and thus their preeminence. Coercion comes second and is only utilized when deemed absolutely necessary.

The behavior of the state and of its political-administrative apparatus is, therefore, not driven by societal needs but by those of the regimes in place and their powerful economic allies. Decision-making procedures, for example, are usually riddled with inconsistencies, ambiguities and contradictions. The reason is that Arab regimes do not base their economic, political and social policies on rigorous criteria designed to produce effective and coherent outcomes. Rather, most strategic decisions are measured according to their impact on regimes' hold on power.

The same degree of incoherence and contradictions can be observed in the foreign policy realm. Most Arab regimes are content to operate within a system of manageable instability where internal upheavals do not spread beyond the national areas of confrontation and interstate disputes do not escalate into all-out wars. The leadership to steer the Arab world toward regional cooperation and human development has been sorely lacking for several decades. Personal differences and intense state-to state rivalries have derailed much-needed regional economic and political integration.

In North Africa, for example, trade between all five countries ranks among the lowest of any region in the world. The establishment of the Arab Maghreb Union in 1989 was supposed to jumpstart a promising regional partnership, but the lack of leadership and deep-seated animosity between Morocco and Algeria deprived the region of an estimated three billion dollars in foreign investment and instead caused a loss estimated at two percent of average annual GDP for each country.

The states' conduct of foreign policy has also been impacted by conflicting actors and divergent currents. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in the Algerian position on the Western Sahara dispute. Since 1976, Algeria's policy has been stuck in perpetual tension between the military and the civilian branches of the government, with the civilian being, for the most part, supportive of a rapprochement with Morocco. Even the current president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, was more inclined to find a compromise over the Western Sahara during the first three years of his presidency. But after strong objections from the military, Bouteflika switched positions and has since adopted a hard-line approach to the conflict. The irony is that since Bouteflika had his change of heart, some in the military started clamoring for a political solution to the conflict.

Morocco's handling of the conflict has also been marred by years of inaction, stalling and pure diplomatic incompetence. In my recent stay in the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, several of my interviewees were supportive of Morocco's historical ties to the territory but faulted the government's muddled policy. One historical figure in the region, who strongly supports the "Moroccaness" of Western Sahara, bluntly criticized what he termed the government's "mischievous policy" in negotiating with the Polisario while (successfully) luring several of its leaders into prestigious government positions. Such actions, he said, only heighten mistrust of Morocco's intentions and, unfortunately, undermine its credible autonomy proposal.

Everybody is in agreement that a resolution of the Western Sahara dispute would untangle the main existing deadlocks and impediments toward regional reconciliation, interregional economic integration and coordination in the fight against violent extremism, drug trafficking and smuggling. The contours of such a solution are also well known: widespread autonomy that safeguards the identity of the Sahrawi people and their right to the establishment of local institutions, and territorial management of the Western Sahara within the framework of Moroccan sovereignty. Such a proposal already enjoys wide support in the US Congress and has the backing of the last three UN secretaries general and of France, Spain and other American allies. A growing number of top Polisario officials also endorse the plan.

"In the past, we had two conflicting options: either to integrate into Morocco or become independent. Today we have a third option that helps us achieve our main objective, which is the Sahrawi distinction," the top police official in Polisario-controlled Tindouf stated recently.- Published 19/8/2010 © bitterlemons.org

Dr. Anouar Boukhars is assistant professor of political science and international studies at McDaniel College. He is also a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.

Crumbling Arab world?
 Ezzedine Choukri Fishere

Seen from outside, the Arab world looks like it is about to crumble. Four Arab states-- Iraq, Sudan, Yemen and Somalia--are facing the threat of territorial disintegration. One country, Lebanon, has settled for losing its independence; another, Palestine, is losing hope to win it. The Arab League is unable to react effectively to any of these challenges, even when decision-making powers are transferred to it by the interested parties as the Palestinian president did recently.

Non-Arab states and non-state actors in the Middle East are becoming main players. In contrast, traditional powers like Egypt and Saudi Arabia seem unable to project their influence in the region effectively, and content themselves often with defensive postures or the role of spoiler. In addition, most Arab states are faced with domestic challenges for which they seem ill-equipped. All this begs the question about the sustainability of the current Arab state system.

Grand, sweeping narratives describing the rise and fall of regional powers have a certain attraction, but they are rarely accurate. In a mosaic region like the Middle East, nuance and attention to detail are often useful. A closer look at the Arab state system shows that while some of these developments are new, most are new reflections of old dynamics.

Right in the heart of the latter category is the question of leadership. There has never been, in the modern history of the Arab world, a single hegemonic power. Leadership has been, and will remain in the foreseeable future, contested. When Gamal Abdel Nasser's Egypt made a bid for regional hegemony, other key states coalesced to undermine it. When Syria, Iraq or Saudi Arabia tried their hands at it, coalitions changed to oppose the new contender. Arab powers, traditional and less traditional, were never able to project their regional influence in a way that resolved regional problems. They were more successful when they built coalitions, exercised restraint and respected the political realities of a crowded and tough region.

With leadership essentially contested among Arab states, it is hard to see how non-Arab states could hope to lead. Let me put it clearly: the Turkish and Iranian bids for regional leadership are doomed. Sooner or later, their hyperactivity will calm down and they will learn the virtues of restraint. When and how this happens depends on how fast they learn.

The question of non-state players falls in the same category. In this region, non-state entities are proxies, not players. They are sponsored, financed, armed, trained and used or tolerated by states. They do express genuine political grievances and respond to real political constituencies. But they are neither players nor non-state: they are proxies and they aspire to become states. As such they are not a precursor of a new form of political organization in the region (see: PLO in the late 1960s and in the 1980s).

The Arab League is as effective today as it has been since its creation 65 years ago. Regardless of what its charter says, the League has served three practical functions: a lightning rod for Arab nationalism, a forum for Arab leaders to meet and greet, and cover for its member states' inaction. It has served all these goals with relative success. However, given the increase in regional threats and the inability of states to address them unilaterally, the Arab League is likely to be called upon more often to legitimize collective action under its auspices.

What could bring fundamental change to the Arab state system is the way it deals with two types of domestic challenges. The first is the status of minorities, which threatens the integrity of an increasing number of Arab states. Whether the minorities are confessional, racial, religious or geographic, Arab regimes have yet to find an effective approach to their claims and grievances. Blaming these on greedy minority leaders and/or foreign interventions is unhelpful, even if it were true. The situation in Yemen is a reminder that the Iraqi, Lebanese and Sudanese civil wars were not exceptional cases. The situation in the latter two is a sad reminder that Arab states can live with civil strife for a long time.

The second challenge is generational: under the garb of Arab officialdom, a whole new generation is about to emerge. By this I am not referring only to the generational change in the political leadership, but more importantly to that in Arab societies. According to United Nations' statistics, more than 50 percent of the 350 million Arabs are now under 24, i.e., they were born after 1985. Within a few years, most leaders of Arab states and societies will be from a generation whose active life started in the 1980s. The way they view their countries, region and the world is quite different from that of the generation now in power. This could bring about surprising results.

While these social changes are likely to put considerable pressure on the Arab state system, the latter has proven resilient to comparable changes in the past. For more than half a century the structures of this system, with its balances, rivalries and hatreds, have remained fundamentally unchanged. This is a sign of rigidity, but it also reflects the strength of underlying political realities.- Published 19/8/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org

Ezzedine Choukri Fishere is an Egyptian writer and academic. He now teaches political science at the American University in Cairo.

Gathering failure
 Oraib Rantawi

Five Arab countries--Somalia, Sudan, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon--are among the 37 failed states that Foreign Policy magazine and the Fund for Peace singled out recently in their Failed States Index 2024. These five are unable to control their territories, rendering them havens for crime, drugs, piracy and terrorism. Their territorial integrity is jeopardized, they are unable to make decisions that influence the lives of their citizens and they fail to provide essential services for them. Worse, they tend toward violence, corruption and tyranny.

Even more worrisome, however, no fewer than 11 Arab countries are classified as being on the verge of failure. At this rate, most Arab countries will soon be listed as failed states. Indeed, most of them suffer from poor state performance, deterioration of government legitimacy and the emergence and growth of "pre-state" structures, relations and institutions: ethnic, patriarchal, religious, sectarian, regional or tribal entities. The perception of Arab countries as failed states will accelerate if international centers of influence lose interest in the region, since the current viability of some Arab countries is due to the support they receive, whatever the reasons, from the United States and the European Union.

Only four Arab countries, all in the Gulf, are classified as moderately competent. The overall list, incidentally, omits two Arab countries--Palestine, because it is not yet a state, and the Comoros, perhaps due to its marginal importance. If these two were included in the study, the number of completely or nearly failed Arab states would increase.

In examining the reasons for the failure of contemporary Arab countries in the aftermath of colonization and national independence, one cannot accept the interpretations provided by the governing elites, families and dynasties. Sometimes, indeed, these elites blame "international colonization". Or they blame "Arab particularity", wherein Arab historic, religious, cultural and social heritage are said to contradict modernity and not harmonize with the discipline of freedom, human rights, democracy and pluralism. That "discipline", it is argued, is the byproduct of western culture and is not a natural outcome of Arab Islamic civilization.

It goes without saying that all of these "interpretations" are but pretexts and arguments that are most often used to justify the inertia and passiveness that characterize political reform, democratization and integrated socio-economic development processes in Arab countries and communities. Nor is this passiveness limited any longer to Arab monarchies. Rather, to a large extent, it has become the status of republican systems that, with the passage of time, are becoming "monarchic republics".

Most Arab intellectuals and reformists argue that the main reason for Arab state failure is governing patterns that spread in the post-independence era and that are known for their totalitarian and dominant nature and their dependence on extensive military and security forces to grasp and maintain power. These forms of governance have marginalized political parties and civil society organizations, impeded the judiciary and denied it independence, controlled the press and media, eliminated the principle of the separation of powers and concentrated all constitutional authority in the hands of a single person, family or group of individuals who are beyond accountability.

In order to perpetuate their dominance and build up a social base for their government, most of these systems have been implementing the policy of divide and rule. They have impeded both the rule of law and the principle of citizenry as a basis for rights and duties and a regulator of relations between the individual and the state. They have relied on tribes and sects; they are a minority ruling the majority. They have excluded entire social groups or marginalized their political and economic presence. They have based the security, military and civil institutions of the state on the principle of political loyalty--of family, sect and tribe. They have deprived large groups of their citizens of their basic rights.

As the Arab state has lost many of its monopoly power factors, minor and secondary identities have grown, sectarian and tribal structures and linkages have been revived and the role of non-state actors has been exacerbated. The liberalization of trade and the economy has weakened the role of the proprietary state, ended its status as largest employer and enhanced the private sector. The communication, media and internet revolution has, in parallel, deprived the state of monopoly control over the media and sources of news. In some Arab countries, the proliferation of light weapons has resulted in the state losing its monopoly over the use of force.

If Somalia is an example of the worst sort of state failure in terms of internal collapse and projection of threats to regional and international security and stability, Sudan is likely to have a similar destiny if peace and self-determination do not arrive to Darfur and the South in fulfillment of the requirements of conciliation and coexistence. Yemen, which used to be part of "Arabia Felix", is sliding toward Somalia's status in projecting threats of terrorism, piracy, weapons and drug trafficking and civil war.

The roots of failure and sources of threat in these countries can extend and spread. Schism in Yemen will not stop at the country's northern and southern borders. The Houthi belligerence is echoing in the eastern region of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a country where nearly a century of family rule has failed to handle the challenges of equal citizenry and regional unity. Moreover, the Houthi movement in the Saada Mountains is largely welcomed in Bahrain, a country of "moderate competence" that faces a major challenge resulting from the imbalanced relationship between a ruling Sunni minority and a Shi'ite majority complaining about discrimination. Indeed, repercussions of events taking place in the Saada mountains are reaching southern Iraq, Kuwait and Jabal Amel in southern Lebanon.

The international actors now looking at failed Arab states and concerned over the challenge to international security, peace and stability are currently developing strategies to prevent the collapse of these countries. In some cases, this means direct interference in their internal affairs, including even security and military activities on their territory--with or without coordination with their governments. The most important issue here is that the citizens of these countries are the major victims of this failure.- Published 19/8/2010 © bitterlemons.org

Oraib Rantawi, a writer and political analyst, is director of Al-Quds Center for Political Studies in Amman.

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