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Saving the Mashreq

For historical reasons, the nation states established in the Arab Mashreq have always been racked by conflict. But now these conflicts threaten the entire Arab region, writes Gamal Abdel-Gawwad

Gamal Abdel-Gawwad , Tuesday 10 Dec 2019
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Unrest and upheaval plague many countries in the Arab region. Yemen and Libya are racked by violent conflict and political rifts, and Algeria is still in the throes of a political crisis.

However, the political turmoil in the Levant is worse and more dangerous. With the exception of Jordan, no state in the Arab Mashreq has been spared political upheaval of a magnitude that threatens its very existence. This is the situation in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, as well as in Palestine, which is cleft between the governments of Hamas and Fatah.

The current crisis that has spread throughout the region is, actually, an extension of the crisis of the Arab Mashreq. Saving the Mashreq from its crisis will save the Arab world and the Middle East.

Three factors have contributed to fuelling instability and conflict in the region. The first is the existence of states that are so weak and fragile that they are on the verge of collapse and vulnerable to outbreaks of internecine strife and civil warfare.

Secondly, there are parties in the region prepared to utilise domestic disputes in these states to advance their own interests and agendas. Towards these ends, they back this or that side in the disputes with material and political support, further fuelling animosities and escalating the competition between regional powers to acquire influence in these countries.

This competitive meddling by regional powers in domestic disputes in Arab states makes it impossible to contain these conflicts and aggravates the regional repercussions of the violence. The third factor is the powerful impact of supranational movements and trends in the region.

The qualities of shared language, customs and traditions, culture and history furnish a transnational continuum. If such common denominators can furnish a bedrock for effective regional solidarity and cohesion, they have also offered the means and channels for certain types of regional movements or forces to destabilise societies and defy the legitimacy of states in order to gain regional influence at the expense of their regional rivals. 

Other countries in the world are rocked by domestic conflicts. Apart from Western Europe and North America, it is hard to find a region in the world free of domestic conflict that jeopardises the survival of some countries or at least threatens their stability.

The difference between a stable and unstable region is determined by the frequency of internal conflicts, the number of countries vulnerable to such conflicts and the existence (or lack) of a consensus among the main powers in the region on a way to manage the conflicts. In regions where regional powers can reach a consensus over joint policies for resolving domestic disputes, stability can be restored relatively quickly in the affected countries, and the regional fallout of the disputes can be contained. 

The Middle East suffers a problem both at the level of the cohesion of the political structures within its component states and at the level of relations between the main regional powers on how to handle conflicts. The interweave between these two levels in the Mashreq is so intense that it is impossible to distinguish between them. 

The emergence of the modern national state in Europe was the product of an array of political, economic, social and cultural developments that enabled this type of political entity to evolve naturally. For the most part, the factors that laid the foundation for the nation state in Europe coalesced spontaneously, domestically and gradually.

The European nation state has demonstrated its efficacy in sustaining domestic stability and concentrating resources and power in the hands of a ruling elite, enabling that elite to respond to the challenges of providing security at home and against enemies abroad, and to meet the social and economic needs of citizens. It was the success of the nation state in Europe that facilitated the spread of this model outside the European cultural, geographic and strategic realm to meet local demands for the reconstitution of political entities on the European nation-state model. 

Although European colonialism was instrumental to the transfer — or imposition — of this model in areas outside Europe, key political forces in these areas accepted this model because of its efficacy, because there was no realistic alternative and also because the interplays and mechanisms of the international order were constructed with the national state as the fundamental building block and player. This applies to the Middle East. Colonial influence and policies were the main causes of the establishment of the modern nation state in many countries of the region.

This applies in particular to the Mashreq which contains Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Israel/Palestine. However, these countries’ historical experiences in the establishment of the nation state were such that they have been plagued by deep-seated difficulties in terms of the legitimacy of the state, the cohesiveness of the national polity and domestic stability. The consequences of these problems are exhibited in the turmoil that grips these countries today. 

It is important to note, here, that the Mashreqi experience does not apply to other sub-regional areas of the Middle East. The high degree of artificiality that characterised the foundation of the nation state in the Mashreq is not shared by North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula where there were, to varying degrees, local demands for the nation state. Also, contrary to the case in the Mashreq, most countries in these two regions had political power centres and a high degree of national integration that predated the emergence of the nation state in the 20th century. 

The modern nation state in the Arab Mashreq is weaker than its counterparts in other countries of the Arab region. The problem is that the other countries of the Arab region do not have the luxury to abandon the countries of the Mashreq to their own fate, because instability in the Mashreq has a way of permeating across the region. Rescuing the Arab Mashreq from its crisis is a challenge that needs to be addressed by all countries in the region that enjoy a modicum of stability and robustness, because to save the Mashreq is to save themselves. Will current developments in the Mashreq open an opportunity for this rescue operation?

*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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