There is no ignoring the new Middle East state system

Daily News Egypt
7 Min Read

With the language of multiple and inter-related crises dominating descriptions of the Middle East, it is easy to believe that the Arab state is fragmenting into fiefdoms, sectarian strife and trans-nationally inspired chaos. Yet of the 22 member states of the Arab League, only three – Sudan, Iraq and Lebanon – show signs of current or potential collapse. The rest, with the ever-present exception of the Palestinian state-to-be, continue to adapt and change with a resilience that belies current perceptions. Much hinges on how one defines the Arab state. For an increasing majority of Arab populations, the state has long since ceased to be a public entity, accessible to its citizens. Instead, it is a largely privatized concept, controlled and inhabited by the minority of those who populate its decision-making apparatus and exclusively determine the dispensation of its assets. For all the talk of democracy, it is accountability and access to a broader concept of the state that the Arab world’s dispossessed citizenry seeks most. But even in societies where civic space has (haltingly) opened in the form of elected parliaments and press and public freedoms, their purpose has been for discontents to let off steam, not to extend their political access. Few institutions of state function as mechanisms to bring transgressors to account or to change official policy, despite occasional concessions to a wider set of interest groups. Still less can public debate direct or influence “public spending toward productive and sustainable ends. What is fragmenting is the social and political consensus underlying the state, acting as a superstructure over an increasingly distanced populace of quasi-citizens. A few enlightened leaderships have realized the dangers of this narrowing of their political base, not least in the face of the rising challenges of Islamism. However, it is the regional context of the recent few years that has both brought them up short and provided the impetus for a new approach. As Arab governments and people alike have watched with horror the disintegration of Iraq and the debilitating effects of war in Lebanon, each side of the divide has adopted different coping strategies. The Arab states are loosening up in areas that pose few threats to their existence (expanding consumer choice, investing in infrastructure and palliative public spending) and tightening up on public discussion of the half dozen or so taboos that do threaten them (national security, the monarchy, the president, their cousins, national identity, borders, minorities, judicial and financial abuses). The quasi-citizens in turn are finding less directly confrontational ways either to subvert or sidestep the existing logic of the state. The subverters (the minority) have gone underground or abroad – both literally and metaphorically – through blogging, migration or adherence to clandestine networks (including Al-Qaeda) that best serve their various causes. The side-steppers (the majority) stay put, but direct their energies toward getting on with business according to the red lines and taboos they cannot cross. In the main business – survival – some surprising things can be seen: In Damascus, cafe life is thriving, while children skid across the marbled courtyard of the Umayyad mosque; despite one huge crater, Beirutis continue to stroll in numbers along the Corniche in the sun; in Cairo, Amman and Dubai, the traffic clogs and the horns blast; everywhere, mobile phones, gadgets and fairy lights are sold by the truck-load, Al-Jazeera blares and Internet cafes are full. Everyone blames the United States where they don’t already blame Israel, and the wisest of them know – drawing on Giuseppe de Lampedusa’s 19th century Sicily – that everything has to change in order for things to stay the same. Paradoxically, under this false air of calm, some good may come. Not for Lebanon, unless the region’s new-found Saudi-led Arab unity includes a pact on saving both the state and society of Lebanon from years of irresponsible external interference. Certainly not for Iraq, enmeshed in violence for some time to come. But for those who have made a covert pact not to rock the region’s boat more than it can stand, there could and should be some ultimate reward. The bloggers are not all enraged fanatics, any more than the Islamists standing in elections in which, even in victory, they will receive only marginal benefits. In the longer term, the international currents crossing the Arab world are setting up new forms of citizenship that individual states can no longer control, and a new set of Arab identities that years of Arab League declarations have consistently failed to solder. While Arab states focus their attention on the terrorist networks, the militias, the sectarian divides and the gun-runners, they are missing a trick in the making. If they continue demonizing, arresting and harassing the side-steppers, they will lose the very base of support they now need to contain the subverters. If they fail to build on the new alternatives and the few and fragile solidarities with the state that remain within Arab societies, then the US, Israel, Iran and the usual mix of Europeans will indeed dictate the region’s future. The stakes are already too high for Arab leaders to ignore the turning of the tide toward a new Middle East state system: the best resources of the Arab world are needed now for its collective defense. Claire Spenceris head of the Middle East program at London’s Chatham House. This commentary first appeared at, an online newsletter.

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