by Arieh O’Sullivan
by Arieh O’Sullivan
July 12, 2011
Some observers say political divisions at risk as governments lose power
The Middle East and North Africa are undergoing a historic change as the Arab Spring empowers the street, forcing long-standing leaders out of office and forcing others to undertake reforms.
But some observers say the upheavals raging across the region aren’t the ones that protestors, policy makers or experts are focusing on. Rather than leading the Middle East to democracy or Islamism, the Arab Spring may be splitting the region’s traditional array of nation-states into smaller entities, divided by tribe, religion or ethnicity.
While the mass protests that have shaken the region since the start of the year are usually seen in a national context, the Arab Spring has exposed the fragility of the artificial borders imposed on the Middle East by European powers nearly a century ago. When the dust settles, the map of the New Middle East may be drawn along tribal and ethnic lines.
“I foresee the borders that were the foundation of the Middle Eastern order in the past almost one century — since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire — being redrawn,” says Aluf Benn, editor-at-large for the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. “Certain states, which aren’t really ethnically or politically united but comprised of different tribes or different ethnic groups fighting for their autonomy or power, will eventually separate.”
The prospect of a fragmented Middle East would present unexpected new dilemmas both for the region and for the West, which for the last three decades has been preoccupied with Islam as the greatest threat to the region’s established order and the need to prop up existing regimes to keep it at bay.
The process of fragmenting began in Iraqi Kurdistan and in Sudan even before the Arab Spring erupted in Tunisia last December. Kurdistan embarked on the road to quasi-independence from Iraq as far back as 1991, while South Sudan fought a decades-long war with greater Sudan and is slated to become the newest of the world’s 200 countries when it formally declares independence on July 9.
This year, Libya has moved in the same direction, rupturing into tribal-based enclaves while Yemen, a weak state to begin with, has seen central authority collapse and the tribal leaders coming in to fill the vacuum. In Syria, both President Bashar Al-Asad and many outsiders, fear that his ouster might see the country torn apart by religious divisions.
When the Second World War ended, there were just 100 independent countries on earth. Today, there are about 200, probably the most at any time in centuries. In his best seller How to Run the World, Parag Khanna predicts that the number of states will grow to about 300 in the coming decades.
The growing trend toward smaller political divisions may be a reaction to globalization, says Benn, who suggests that the Arab world is mimicking the Europeans who are witnessing a growth of national divisions in Belgium, Italy and Britain, even as the European Union (EU) tries to impose a pan-European ideal.
“The super-national trends like the EU and like Facebook bring back tribalism,” Benn told The Media Line. “Once nation states have ceded more and more power to the super-national structure of the EU, you see more Scottish nationalism. You see more autonomy of the different states in Italy. You see the rise of this local tribalism in Europe.”
“It’s easy to solidify your identity, to create your identity with people who live next to you and not with people who share some cultural affinity and so on rather than with this artificial nation state that was there several decades and no more than that,” Benn says.
The political map of the Middle East and North Africa is characterized by suspiciously straight lines. Many of them are the fruit of the division of the Ottoman Empire by the British and French diplomats Sir Mark Sykes and Francois George-Picot during the First World War.
“The British and French foreign ministers signed the treaty between them to divide the Arab world in what they thought would be manageable. Divide and rule,” Professor Munther Dajani, dean of the faculty of Arts at Al-Quds University near Jerusalem, told The Media Line.
“So the French got Syria and Lebanon. The British got Palestine, Trans-Jordan, Iraq and … the eastern areas of the Arab peninsula. So what we are talking about here are artificial borders,” Dajani says.
One only needs to look at the Bani Sader Bedouin tribe in Jordan to see just how artificial the borders are. Many have Saudi or Iraqi citizenship since their traditional lands straddle both sides of the international borders.
Pan-Arabism, the ideology espoused by the late Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Baathist Party that dreamed of a day when all Arabs would be united in a single political entity, was the initial reaction to these imposed borders. It was the driving force of Middle East politics in the 1950s and 1960s and led to the brief merger of Egypt and Syria. It remains popular with many in the region, and has taken on a new, religious guise for Islamists seeking to revive the caliphate. But for most Arabs it’s a passé ideal.
“The nation state idea just like in eastern and central Europe was brought to the Middle East after the First World War. With the break up of the pre-existing order new nations will come to the fore,” Benn says.
Some of the region’s states are more vulnerable than others. Libya is made up of three former Italian colonies built on tribal lines. Jordan is made up of an array of tribes and further divided by the influx of Palestinians from what is now Israel arriving after 1948.
Saudi Arabia was formed by conquest in the years after the First World War by the Al-Sauds. Israel’s population is about one-fifth Arab and Israelis are divided over whether to let those Arabs in the West bank and Gaza break off into their own independent Palestinian state.
While not all the countries of the region face any immediate threat, one successful division could prompt others, warns Dajani.
“It will be a fiasco,” he says. “Because once the breakup starts to take place it will have a domino effect. Everybody will want to have his state. This is what a lot of people are afraid of; the Balkanization that will take place in the Arab world.”
Benn says Syria is already on its way to unraveling into a mélange of ethnic and religious enclaves — Kurds in the north, Alawites in the northwest and Druze in the south.
“Even if Syria isn’t carved up, if Al-Asad falls, we will see more and more demands for ethnic or tribal autonomies. And why not? I don’t see the counter-force besides the West and everybody else trying to keep things the way they were. But I’m not sure it’s worth protecting,” Benn says.
Ibrahim Sarsur, an Israeli Arab legislator from the United Arab List, says he doesn’t believe the Arab Spring is motivated by tribal or religious divisions. But he does accuse the Arab world’s dictators of exploiting people’s fears.
“Tribalism is used by the totalitarian regimes of the Arab world to frighten both those living inside the country and those outside,” Sarsur told The Media Line. “But what’s going on is actually completely different. It’s peaceful resistance against totalitarian regimes.”
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict in many ways points up the dilemma’s fragmentation. On the one hand, the two sides are separated by religion, language and economic development; but on the other hand an independent Palestine will struggle economically, especially if it tries to absorb the millions of Palestinians living abroad.
Many Israelis fear a division of the land they share will only encourage Palestinian irredentism. Many also worry that the artificial nature of neighboring states makes signing peace agreements a risky business.
“The right wing mantra [is] … that you should not sign any peace deals because you sign it with a regime that tomorrow morning might not be there and probably won’t be there, so all we have to do is to sit tight and wait till it’s over,” Ha’aretz’s Benn says.
This article was originally published in The Media Line