May 14th 2016
“THE REVOLUTION WAS for nothing. We changed one family of thieves for many families of thieves. This country depends on tourism. Now there are no tourists.” Such is the harsh judgment of one stallholder on Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis, scene of many protests during the 2011 revolution.
On the face of it, Tunisia has made an admirable transition to democracy. Its political parties have kept the consensus for pluralism, contested two rounds of elections and abided by the result. But the economy has languished, and protests are simmering once more in the deprived interior of the country. To an extent, Tunisia has been unlucky. It is feeling the instability next door in Libya: migrant workers have lost their jobs there, while the all-important tourism industry has been ruined by repeated terrorist attacks. An attempt in March by Islamic State to seize the town of Ben Guerdane, close to the Libyan border, rattled the country. But the coalition is fractious. It is struggling to enact economic reforms. And the ruling party, Nidaa Tounes, has split after little more than a year in power. In part this is because of the return of a bad old habit: President Beji Caid Essebsi seems to be trying to install his son, Hafedh, as his political heir.
Still, Tunisia counts as success compared with the mess in other countries that cast off their leaders in 2011. For all the disappointment and sorrow in the years after the Arab uprisings, it is difficult to imagine the region reverting to the immobility of the decades before 2011. Authoritarianism is back, but many states are too weak and fragmented, and access to information too ubiquitous, for it to go unchallenged for long.
This special report has argued that the collapse of the post-colonial Arab system is, at its heart, a crisis of legitimacy. The impact of colonialism, often blamed by Arabs for their woes, should not be an impediment; the world is full of countries with bleak histories and odd borders. Arab governments will have to regain the trust of their citizens. First, they will have to deliver better standards of living by overcoming the rentier system. Gulf States will have to get over their dependence on oil. All should do much less subsidising and controlling of production, and much more safeguarding of the market to make sure that, cronies do not capture the economy. Second, governments have to gain consent through democracy. Monarchies have done better, but they still cannot claim the right to rule on the basis of inheritance.
That said, democracy in the Arab world faces two peculiar hurdles. The first is the fear of Islamist parties taking power. But suppressing them can be worse. Algeria lamentably cancelled a general election to head off a victory by Islamists in 1992, unleashing a long insurgency. With their semi-autonomy, Palestinians fell into a pale version of Arab authoritarianism; the refusal by the nationalist Fatah movement to accept the victory by Hamas in the parliamentary election of 2006 led to internal strife, and the severing of Gaza from the West Bank. The military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, meanwhile, has created an even more oppressive and dysfunctional state.
Tunisia’s luck was to have a better army (it stayed in barracks) and better Islamists (more able to work with secularists). “Any state has an army; in Egypt the army has a state,” notes Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennahda in Tunisia. He no longer likes to be called a political Islamist; he prefers “Muslim democrat” because, he says, there are Muslims who are not democrats. He stresses the need for co-operation with other parties: in Egypt the post-revolution constitution was forced through by Islamists; in Tunisia, though, it passed with the backing of secularists. “In a normal, stable democracy, ruling with 51% is enough. But in a nascent democracy of transition it’s not enough. You need consensus.”
A second stumbling block for democracy is the diversity of Arab peoples. In good times it makes for an admirable multiculturalism. But these days all groups behave like embattled minorities. In “Representative Government”, John Stuart Mill argued in 1861 that “free institutions are next to impossible in a country made up of different nationalities” because, as he put it, “the same incidents, the same acts, the same system of government, affect them in different ways; and each fears more injury to itself from the other nationalities than from the common arbiter, the state.” In the Arab world each group fears that rivals will capture the state, its economic resources and above all its guns.
For all the disappointment after the Arab uprisings, it is hard to imagine the region reverting to the immobility before 2011
In theory, secession, federalism and decentralisation might offer some reassurance to minorities. Under a modern-day Sykes-Picot agreement, Iraq might be broken up into a Kurdistan in the north, Shiastan in the south and Sunnistan in the west. Syria could split into an Alawistan along the Mediterranean and a Sunnistan to the west, which might merge with the Iraqi one (as Daesh has already done). In Saudi Arabia the more liberal Hijazis on the Red Sea and the Shias in the Eastern Province might be glad to be rid of the Wahhabis from the central Nejd.
One problem with such notions is that most of the oil would be in the hands of Shias. A bigger difficulty is that homogeneity is impossible in lands where ethnicity and sect can change from one village to the next. Shifting the lines may create as many injustices as it resolves, and could lead to new atrocities as each side tries to grab what it can and cleanse territory of unwanted minorities. The partition of Palestine, the exchange of populations between Turkey and Greece and the Balkan wars are a warning of how easily this can happen.
Troublesome as they have been, the post-colonial borders have proved durable partly because few have dared to change them; and a century has been long enough for national identities to take root to some degree. The spread of the Arab uprisings may have demonstrated the strong bonds among Arabs in different countries, but the demand on the street was for change within national frontiers, not the abolition of the modern state. Even in Ottoman times, large parts of the empire were more or less autonomous. Attempts to merge modern states failed—notably the fusing of Egypt and Syria in the United Arab Republic of 1958-61. For the most part, Arabs seem content with multiple national, linguistic and religious identities.
Especially in the highly heterogeneous Fertile Crescent, part of the solution will lie in devolving a range of powers from central government to regions and provinces to ensure that specific groups do not feel tyrannised by the majority, or even by other minorities. Most Arabs reject federalism. “We have reached the point where maps are being drawn,” bemoans Walid Jumblatt, Lebanon’s Druze leader. “This is the old Zionist dream to dislocate the whole Middle East into sectarian cantons. I want to be part of a greater Arab world.”
So far, attempts to decentralise power have not worked well. The peculiar communally based politics of Lebanon under the Taif accords of 1991 may have kept the peace, but has led to paralysis. The country has been unable to elect a president for the past two years, or even pick up the rubbish in some areas.
Nor has Iraq’s federal model salved its wounds. The Kurdish region and the federal government in Baghdad are waging a bureaucratic war over oil revenues. And even among the Shia there have been turbulent protests against the corrupt muhasasa spoils system under which power is distributed to maintain ethno-sectarian balance and each party seeks to milk the central government through contracts and appointments. Many Shias, who once supported federalism, now embrace centralisation. But some Sunni Arabs, now the underdogs, belatedly advocate the creation of a Sunni federal region.
Arab states could do with more supranational integration to open markets and spur growth. As a political body, the Arab League is a failure. But many Arabs admire the European Union, even as it loses its appeal to a growing number of Europeans, not least because of Arab refugees. European history provides some solace to Arabs: before the continent united, it waged wars even bloodier than those the Arabs are enduring. And as some are starting to acknowledge, there is another lesson from Europe: democracy is the basis for future unity.
Democratic progress and economic reform should be encouraged in Tunisia and Morocco. These are small countries, but the uprisings of 2011 show that small countries can serve as a model for others. Next, pressure needs to be exerted on Egypt to return to the path of reform. One in four Arabs is Egyptian. If the country does well, it will lift the region; its collapse would be a threat to all, including Europe.
It will be hard to make real progress before the many Arab wars are stopped. Optimists hope that the political ruin can be reconstructed, piece by piece. An UN-sponsored unity government is trying to establish itself in Libya. Maybe the latest ceasefire in Yemen will hold. Perhaps the Syrian peace talks will get somewhere. There may be some hope in the sight of Iraqi Shias denouncing their politicians and the sectarian muhasasa system. And in Syria, when ceasefires allow a breathing space, citizens have taken to the streets in rebel-held towns to demand freedom in defiance of both the regime and powerful jihadists-tinged militias. But right now it is easier to see new crises erupting than existing ones being resolved. To take a few: Algeria could fall apart once its near-invisible president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, passes away; Lebanon and Jordan might succumb to war contagion; and the cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia might turn hot over some incident.
If the civil war in Lebanon is anything to go by, the war in Syria could last for another decade. The Lebanese agony was brought to a close in 1990 by sudden geopolitical change: Syria was permitted to crush the last remaining Christian resistance in Lebanon in return for joining the war to liberate Kuwait from Saddam. But in Syria there seems to be no external force—not even Russia—that is willing or able to tip the balance sufficiently to ensure a victory by any one side. Outside powers will not be able to fix the Arab world, even if they wanted to. But the attacks in Paris, Brussels and Istanbul show that the world cannot afford to ignore the Arabs’ existential crisis.