We cannot begin to understand the disintegration and fragmentation plaguing the Arab region without looking at the failures of the nation states that were established on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire following its destruction a hundred years or so ago. Furthermore, we cannot begin to analyse the emergence of extremist phenomena, such as Daesh, in the Arab world without contextualising it within the history of the faults of the state and many other reasons that cannot be discussed here.
Over the course of a century, the modern Arab elite have supposed that the mere establishment of a nation state would allow for the achievement of two main goals: independence from colonialism and escape from Western-imperial control, and a route to modernity by breaking free from the impediments imposed by the Ottomans over the preceding two centuries.
Now, with the modern nation states duly established and post-independence, we can see that there has been a total failure in achieving either goal. The Arab elite has not recognised the inherent contradiction when it comes to the structure of these two objectives. For instance, how can true national liberation be achieved, in both the political and the modern sense, when colonialism itself was seen as the driver for modernity? In other words, it is difficult to combine national and civil independence by imitating another, Western, model which requires the import of another culture and its vocabulary for independence. The problem lies in imitating the very structure from which the Arab nation sought to separate and liberate itself. The Western version remains the ultimate model for Arab modernity, and therein lies the problem.
It is possible to speak with confidence and say that the modern Arab state has actually yet to be established, and that all that has taken place throughout the past century has been nothing more than a series of attempts to build this state, all of which have failed. A brief recap of the history of these attempts proves this.
The first came with the independence and subsequent states established in the Arab “Mashreq”, with Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, then on to Egypt and Sudan, the Arab Maghreb from Libya to Morocco, to Tunisia and Algeria, and finally the Gulf countries. As noted earlier, the failed attempts to achieve true independence are the result of the inability of these countries to rid themselves of political colonialism and its modernist cultural model.
The second attempt to build the Arab nation state came in efforts with Arab unity as the goal, and the centralisation of the liberation of the Palestinians as its main measure of success. It is no surprise that the Arab states failed miserably in both; they haven’t achieved Arab unity and Palestine is still under occupation. The setback of the Arab defeat of 1967 has been mourned every year on the 5th June ever since. Consequently, the question of national unity now focuses on how the current states can be saved in light of their imminent collapse and the divisions that they are facing.
The third attempt came with the establishment of what Nazih Ayoubi calls “the big state”, which succeeded in establishing a large and powerful state apparatus that is designed to provide everything from healthcare to education and all other social services. From the 1960s to the 1980s the state (especially in Egypt) became nothing more than a huge burden on itself. Only the security apparatus grew, albeit serving the needs of the regime instead of the people.
The fourth stage was the attempt to re-fashion the state in Islamic garb with a religious and political awakening in the Arab world. The Islamic movement in Sudan succeeded in its famous 1989 alliance with the military. At the time, the Sudanese state claimed that it was attempting to build a state upon sharia law, with the hopes of achieving Islamic justice for all of its citizens. In the end, the Sudanese establishment of an authoritarian state with a misleading religious cover did no favours to anyone; justice was not achieved.
Finally, the Arab state known as the “failed state” arrived. Such a country was no longer able to survive and lost any sense of legitimacy. Some of the Arab nation states in this situation have no sovereignty over their territories; think Iraq, Somalia, Libya, Syria and Yemen. They are no longer viable, not only in the eyes of their people but also in terms of territory, power and the international community.
What is surprising, is that despite all of the failed attempts to build a real Arab nation state, the regimes within each country continue to impose their will on the people from the top down. Civil society and the citizens have no say in their future, despite the continuing failure of the states and the model upon which they have been built