Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot secretly drew their lines on the map of
the Levant to carve up the Ottoman empire in May 1916, at the height of the
first world war, they could scarcely have imagined the mess they would set in
train: a century of imperial betrayal and Arab resentment; instability and
coups; wars, displacement, occupation and failed peacemaking in Palestine; and
almost everywhere oppression, radicalism and terrorism.
euphoria of the uprisings in 2011, when one awful Arab autocrat after another
was toppled, it seemed as if the Arabs were at last turning towards democracy.
Instead their condition is more benighted than ever. Under Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi,
Egypt is even more wretched than under the ousted dictator, Hosni Mubarak. The
state has broken down in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen. Civil wars rage and
sectarianism is rampant, fed by the contest between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The
jihadist “caliphate” of Islamic State (IS), the grotesque outgrowth of Sunni
rage, is metastasising to other parts of the Arab world.
all this may seem, it could become worse still. If the Lebanese civil war of
1975-90 is any gauge, the Syrian one has many years to run. Other places may
turn ugly. Algeria faces a leadership crisis; the insurgency in Sinai could
spread to Egypt proper; chaos threatens to overwhelm Jordan; Israel could be
drawn into the fights on its borders; low oil prices are destabilising Gulf States;
and the proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran might lead to direct
All this is
not so much a clash of civilisations as a war within Arab civilisation.
Outsiders cannot fix it—though their actions could help make things a bit
better, or a lot worse. First and foremost, a settlement must come from Arabs
Of Easy Answers
are suffering a crisis of legitimacy. In a way, they have never got over the
fall of the Ottoman empire. The prominent ideologies—Arabism, Islamism and now
jihadism—have all sought some greater statehood beyond the frontiers left by
the colonisers. Now that states are collapsing, Arabs are reverting to ethnic
and religious identities. To some the bloodletting resembles the wars of the
former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Others find parallels with the religious strife
of Europe’s Thirty Years War in the 17th century. Whatever the comparison, the
crisis of the Arab world is deep and complex. Facile solutions are dangerous.
Four ideas, in particular, need to be repudiated.
blame the mayhem on Western powers—from Sykes-Picot to the creation of Israel,
the Franco-British takeover of the Suez Canal in 1956 and repeated American
interventions. Foreigners have often made things worse; America’s invasion of
Iraq in 2003 released its sectarian demons. But the idea that America should
turn away from the region—which Barack Obama seems to embrace—can be as
destabilising as intervention, as the catastrophe in Syria shows.
countries have blossomed despite traumatic histories: South Korea and
Poland—not to mention Israel. As our special report sets out, the Arab world
has suffered from many failures of its own making. Many leaders were despots
who masked their autocracy with the rhetoric of Arab unity and the liberation
of Palestine (and realised neither). Oil money and other rents allowed rulers
to buy loyalty, pay for oppressive security agencies and preserve failing
state-led economic models long abandoned by the rest of the world.
wrong-headed notion is that redrawing the borders of Arab countries will create
more stable states that match the ethnic and religious contours of the
population. Not so: there are no neat lines in a region where ethnic groups and
sects can change from one village or one street to the next. A new Sykes-Picot
risks creating as many injustices as it resolves, and may provoke more
bloodshed as all try to grab land and expel rivals. Perhaps the Kurds in Iraq
and Syria will go their own way: denied statehood by the colonisers and
oppressed by later regimes, they have proved doughty fighters against IS. For
the most part, though, decentralisation and federalism offer better answers,
and might convince the Kurds to remain within the Arab system. Reducing the
powers of the central government should not be seen as further dividing a land
that has been unjustly divided. It should instead be seen as the means to
reunite states that have already been splintered; the alternative to a looser
structure is permanent break-up.
ill-advised idea is that Arab autocracy is the way to hold back extremism and
chaos. In Egypt Mr Sisi’s rule is proving as oppressive as it is arbitrary and
economically incompetent. Popular discontent is growing. In Syria Bashar
al-Assad and his allies would like to portray his regime as the only force that
can control disorder. The contrary is true: Mr Assad’s violence is the primary
cause of the turmoil. Arab authoritarianism is no basis for stability. That
much, at least, should have become clear from the uprisings of 2011.
bad argument is that the disarray is the fault of Islam. Naming the problem as
Islam, as Donald Trump and some American conservatives seek to do, is akin to
naming Christianity as the cause of Europe’s wars and murderous anti-Semitism:
partly true, but of little practical help. Which Islam would that be? The
head-chopping sort espoused by IS, the revolutionary-state variety that is
decaying in Iran or the political version advocated by the be suited leaders of
Ennahda in Tunisia, who now call themselves “Muslim democrats”? To demonise
Islam is to strengthen the Manichean vision of IS. The world should instead
recognise the variety of thought within Islam, support moderate trends and
challenge extremists. Without Islam, no solution is likely to endure.
means that resolving the crisis of the Arab world will be slow and hard.
Efforts to contain and bring wars to an end are important. This will require
the defeat of IS, a political settlement to enfranchise Sunnis in Iraq and
Syria, and an accommodation between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It is just as vital
to promote reform in countries that have survived the uprisings. Their rulers
must change or risk being cast aside. The old tools of power are weaker: oil
will remain cheap for a long time and secret policemen cannot stop dissent in a
presidents thus have to regain the trust of their people. They will need
“input” legitimacy: giving space to critics, whether liberals or Islamists, and
ultimately establishing democracy. And they need more of the “output” variety,
too: strengthening the rule of law and building productive economies able to
thrive in a globalised world. That means getting away from the rentier system
and keeping cronies at bay.
Europe cannot impose such a transformation. But the West has influence. It can
cajole and encourage Arab rulers to enact reforms. And it can help contain the
worst forces, such as IS. It should start by supporting the new democracy of
Tunisia and political reforms in Morocco—the European Union should, for
example, open its markets to north African products. It is important, too, that
Saudi Arabia opens its society and succeeds in its reforms to wean itself off
oil. The big prize is Egypt. Right now, Mr Sisi is leading the country to
disaster, which would be felt across the Arab world and beyond; by contrast,
successful liberalisation would lift the whole region.
reform, the next backlash is only a matter of time. But there is also a great
opportunity. The Arabs could flourish again: they have great rivers, oil,
beaches, archaeology, youthful populations, a position astride trade routes and
near European markets, and rich intellectual and scientific traditions. If only
their leaders and militiamen would see it.