One of the most fascinating issues that defines the Arab world today is the precarious status of half a dozen countries that run the risk of collapsing or fragmenting into smaller units. Media speculation, comments by politicians and scholarly deliberations all address the possibility that countries such as Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya could fracture and give birth to smaller entities that are largely based on ethnic, tribal or sectarian identities – much like Yugoslavia split up into several smaller countries during the 1990s.
The prospects of such state collapses are not totally new in the Arab region, in view of events over the years in countries such as Yemen, Somalia, Kuwait (when Iraq occupied it), Sudan and Iraq. If some Arab states do fragment into smaller entities, that should be considered legitimate – if it is the clear will of their citizens expressed democratically and peacefully. The problem is that Arab citizens have never had an opportunity in the modern era (or in history, I suspect) to express their views about the nature, configuration, governance or policies of their own countries.
Consequently, Arab states during the past century on the whole have existed largely detached from their own citizens. The lack of a deliberate and verifiable bond between citizen and state across the Arab region reflects the absence of the fundamental democratic and republican principle of the “consent of the governed.” Arab countries of all different sizes and wealth levels share the common attribute of never having been credibly validated by their own citizens, either during the period of state birth and formation or in the subsequent decades.
The fact that so many powerful non-state organizations have emerged across the region in the past half century is one important reflection of this reality. Groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas, ISIS, the Houthis in Yemen, Muqtada al-Sadr’s followers in Iraq, the Muslim Brotherhood and tribes across the region all reflect the brittle nature of statehood and national identity in many Arab countries, forcing citizens to seek their critical needs in arenas beyond the control of the state.
Many, perhaps most, Arab citizens have a utilitarian, mercantile and pragmatic relationship with their states and governments, rather than a deeply emotional and organic one as people tend to have with their family, clan, tribe, religion or ethnic group. The transactional nature of the citizen-state relationship sees the citizen paying allegiance to the state if the latter provides him or her with basic services that citizens need. These fall into two main categories – material services such as income, jobs, education, health care, security, subsidized food, water and housing; and intangibles such as political representation, cultural identity and a sense of opportunity for the future.
Most Arab countries provided these things to their citizens during the first half-century of statehood, from the 1920s to the 1970s; after that, however, most proved unable to continue providing these critical human needs, and groups of citizens looked elsewhere for them. Religious, ethnic and secular organizations stepped in to provide what the state could not provide, creating the situation today where large swaths in some countries are beyond the reach or control of the state. In the most extreme cases, such as the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, these might seek total independence, just as happened in South Sudan three years ago.
The current turbulence in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen in particular raises the specter of some of those countries collapsing into smaller units, or suffering total chaos for some period of time. That future possibility, but also the current violence and instability, fundamentally result fromthe dysfunctional relationship between states and their citizens over a long period of time. Rebuilding that relationship requires something that has never happened in the Arab world – allowing citizens to play a full role in shaping the institutions and values of statehood, and defining and holding accountable public authorities at local and national levels.
The steady expansion of non-state organizations over the past three decades or so was the first major sign of the flawed and fraying citizen-state relationship. The sudden uprisings and revolutions that rocked our region almost four years ago provided the dramatic confirmation that this relationship had collapsed and needed to be totally reconfigured, starting with the needs and values of citizens as the shapers of statehood and governance. The years ahead will be turbulent and violent in some countries, while a few others, such as Tunisia so far, will correctly work to reshape and strengthen their statehood by allowing their citizens to be the arbiters and architects of that process, rather than its hapless and vulnerable victims.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter @RamiKhouri.