The Crisis of the Arab Nation-State

From Yezid Sayigh:

….the convergence of multiple factors over the past two decades or more has strained the ability of many Arab states to accommodate growing pressures within longstanding power balances, making the current phase of transition inherently far more dangerous for them. Most threatening have been the explosion of populations—generating a massive youth bulge, coupled with dwindling employment opportunities, productivity, and skills, ever-widening income disparities driven by crony economic liberalization and predatory privatization, and the erosion or dissolution of social pacts under the cumulative impact. The decline in disposable surplus wealth—especially net income from oil production, but also other forms of rent—has been so sharp, indeed, that even formerly privileged patronage networks and social constituencies have suffered.

…..incumbent rulers treat constitutional frameworks as entirely malleable, capable of being moulded and remoulded endlessly to meet the obvious purpose of maintaining and legitimizing their political power. But…. this approach no longer works. In this context, contests over access to social resources and economic opportunity have become increasingly bitter in a growing number of Arab states, reflected in the intensification of communal politics—sectarian, ethnic, regional, and tribal. It is proving impossible to restore even the kind of imposed false “social peace” that held Arab states and their societies together previously, even when significant numbers of people are ready to accept the old mix of coercion and co-optation again in order to regain a semblance of normalcy and stability.

Indeed, although the previous governing order has ceased to function or is on its way out in these states, replacing them with a new set of mini-states based on partition or cantons along communal lines may not offer a real solution. Sadly the initially hopeful experiences of Iraqi Kurdistan or South Sudan, for example, merely replicated the patterns they sought to break away from. This underlines that Arab states can no longer be reconstructed according to past blueprints, even when powerful external actors attempt to restore them. A world war turned the Ottoman Arab provinces into modern nation-states a century ago, but today they are being unravelled by many, highly localized wars that have yet to run their course. Their causes long predate the Arab Spring, which has been unfairly accused by some of bringing about this grim prospect, and will result in protracted conflict, instability, and a fundamental inability to reach a new socio-political equilibrium within many Arab societies for years to come.

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Source: The Crisis of the Arab Nation-State-Carnegie Middle East Center – Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

3 Replies to “The Crisis of the Arab Nation-State”

  1. This article and the next which basically states that the fighters in these wars are generally educated (not poor) people illustrates a dilemma. The question for modern dictators is: “should we educate the population or not?” If you educate the people then birth rates go down, there is less pressure for food and resources, no “youth bulge”, no housing crisis and all the other benefits of a steady population but eventually a bulge in people who are older and a decline in the number of people available for work. If you don’t then population goes up drastically and those people that have educated themselves end up fighting you because there is no work, food or space to grow it.

    The main change needed is in the way the populations are controlled in these states to the modern systems of education, wages, democracy, television and health services and away from the old style system of brutal suppression of dissent.

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