We are witnessing the breakdown of the Arab state after decades of failure and mounting crises. The Arab political establishment has never looked weaker than it does today. It is either dying a protracted silent death, corroded from within, or collapsing in thunderous explosions. Tunisia, which toppled its dictator through popular revolution two weeks ago, is by no means an exception. The symptoms are evident throughout the region, from the accelerating movement of protest in Egypt, Algeria and Jordan, or the increasing polarisation of Lebanon’s sectarian politics, to the near-collapse of the state in Yemen and Sudan, and its complete disintegration in Somalia.
The postcolonial Arab state has always carried deficiency as part of its genetic make-up. It had emerged as a substitute for the complex network of local elites, tribal chieftains and religious groupings through which the imperial authorities had maintained their grip; and its mission was the regulation of the indigenous population. This system of indirect control over the region, which assumed its present shape in the aftermath of the first world war, specifically required a “state” that is capable of keeping the local populations under check and maintaining “stability” at home, but too weak to disrupt foreign influence or disturb the regional balance of powers.
The first generation of post-colonial Arab leaders, the likes of Egypt’s Nasser and Tunisia’s Bourguiba, had been able to soften the repressive nature of the Arab state by virtue of their personal charisma, and promises of progress. With their exit from the stage, and the entry of a new class of colourless autocrats and crude generals, the Arab state lost any cover of legitimacy, and became synonymous with violence and oppression.
Much of the turmoil plaguing the region today is traceable to its diseased political order. Its degeneration has wrought havoc on the social sphere too. It has led to weaker national identities, and to individuals reverting to their narrower sectarian affiliations, sparking conflicts between Sunnis and Shias, Arabs and Kurds, Copts and Muslims. The result has been a growth in extremism, self-insulation, and what the French Lebanese novelist Amin Maalouf calls “killer identities”.
Beyond the Arab state’s aura of physical might – embodied in its terrifying coercion apparatus – lurks a moral vulnerability and an abysmal dearth of popular allegiance. This paradox has been laid bare by protesters in Tunisia and is in the process of being exposed in Egypt today. These demonstrators are discovering the extreme frailty of the instruments of repression that have long crushed and suffocated them simultaneously, with the staggering power of their collective action on the street. The ousting of Tunisia’s tyrant after no more than a month of perpetual protests has handed millions of Arabs the magical key out of the prison of fear behind whose walls they have been incarcerated for decades.
Events in Tunisia, Egypt and – to a lesser extent – Algeria are harbingers of a change long impeded and postponed. Were it not for the international will to maintain the worn out status quo, what happened in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in the late 1980s could have occurred in the Arab region too. Its decrepit autocrats were allowed to stagger on, shedding their old skins and riding on the wave of rampant economic liberalism, which benefited the narrow interests of ruling families and their associates alone, and thrust the rest into a bottomless pit of poverty and marginalisation.
Arab rulers – aided by their foreign allies – have been able to steal over two decades of their societies’ political life. Today they face the hour of truth: either radically transform the structure of authoritarian Arab rule, or depart for ever. The trouble is that an entity that has made coercion its raison d’etre and violence its sole means of survival has left itself no option but to sink deeper in the quagmire of tyranny. And the trouble for its sponsors, who have made its preservation the cornerstone of their “stability” strategy in the region, is that they have now tied their own hands, with no choice but to blindly stick with their “friends” to the last breath.
That is why those demonstrating on Arab streets today feel that they are not only rebelling against a band of corrupt local despots, but against their foreign backers too. And though we cannot predict the future, the likelihood is that just as Latin Americans had seen the fall of many Pinochets in the 1980s, Arabs will witness more Ben Alis before the close of this decade.
First Published in The Guardian, Friday 28 January 2011