The uprisings of 2011 dramatically revealed the weakness of the Arab state. That earthquake unleashed aftershocks that are still being felt, and even states and ruling elites that did not experience severe protests have been shaken. As the Egyptian political scientist Nazih Ayubi observed some years ago, Arab states may be fierce, but that does not mean that they are strong, let alone legitimate.
The modern Arab political order that began to take shape after World War I seemed to have consolidated into durable states following the nationalist revolutionary upheavals of the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1970s political scientists spoke of how the Arab state system had “matured.” But they had matured (if that is the right word) into states of persistent authoritarianism of either the “republican” or monarchical variety. While many of these states saw quite impressive economic and social development – due in part to oil wealth – they did not experience significant political openings and remained under the tight control of self-perpetuating elites. With one or two exceptions, organized political participation independent of the governments was suppressed.
The uprisings of 2011 were by no means the first societal protests against this authoritarian order; there is a history of protests, strikes, and attempted coups in most of the Arab countries. In fact, the first major regime collapse came in Iraq in 2003 owing to the American invasion and occupation. But the upheavals of 2011 were unique in that they were contagious, indicating that there was an Arab community of protest that crossed state frontiers. Not only did rulers fall in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, but neighboring regimes were also shaken, notably Bahrain and especially, of course, Syria.
The upheavals of 2011 were unique in that they were contagious, indicating that there was an Arab community of protest that crossed state frontiers.
Today, a survey of the bleak Arab landscape would reveal four arguably failed states – Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen. But the tremors are felt more broadly. Bahrain remains unsettled. Jordan and Lebanon are severely stressed. Tunisia is widely praised as having made a successful democratic transition, but the situation remains fragile. Faced with the triple challenge of potential popular protest, growing Iranian power, and, of course, the Islamist extremism of ISIS and its cousins, the wealthy Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates feel forced to wage a defensive “counterrevolution” against these currents. The human toll – mainly civilians dead or injured, or refugees – is appalling, especially in Syria and Yemen.
Outside powers inevitably have become involved. Just as European powers nibbled away at Turkey – “the sick man of Europe” – a century and more ago, today they cast nervous, and often predatory, eyes on the Arab world – “the sick man of the Middle East.” American hubris sought to remake Iraq and the region as a whole into compliant liberal entities; Russia strives to expand its foothold by clinging to a brutal Syrian regime; Iran bides its time; and Europe dithers. Foreign “boots on the ground,” air strikes, and drone attacks exacerbate rather than ease the multiple ongoing conflicts.
Civil Society – Missing in Action
There was a moment at the end of the 1980s and the early 1990s when democratic openings briefly occurred. An Algerian “spring” saw the flowering of a free press and the proliferation of parties and interest groups, along with a powerful Islamist organization. In Egypt, the brave scholar Saad Eddin Ibrahim published a magazine titled Civil Society and counted the growing number of domestic NGOs. In Jordan a long-held state of emergency was briefly lifted. In Kuwait, one of the only Arab countries with a parliamentary tradition, an attempt by the ruler to suppress free expression was rolled back. But with the exception of Kuwait, these societal challenges failed. In 2011 the protesters tried again, but with the qualified exception of Tunisia, once again authoritarianism in one form or another reemerged.
With the vacuum created by the enfeeblement of established states following the collapse of Iraq and the uprisings of 2011 one might have expected new and effective leadership to fill it. But the immediate aftermath of the Arab uprisings revealed the weakness in Arab societies. In almost all cases a coherent, effective opposition failed to materialize. In no way should one blame the brave citizens in Egypt, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain who sought to fill that vacuum for their failure to do so.
The immediate aftermath of the Arab uprisings revealed the weakness in Arab societies. In almost all cases a coherent, effective opposition failed to materialize. In no way should one blame the brave citizens in Egypt, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain who sought to fill that vacuum for their failure to do so.
The fact remains, however, that they were elbowed aside by better-organized groups like the military and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Islamist extremists in Syria. In Yemen, various opposition groups could not come together. Regimes under threat, of course, sowed sectarian fears. Political parties in most cases were long suppressed. In several countries regimes created imitation civil society organizations to preempt and discredit independent political activity.
Nothing better illustrates the hollowness of the state in the farthermost regions of Iraq and Syria than the rise of ISIS – a would-be state. Belying its origins under a small-time gangster named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, ISIS came to display the two key attributes of “stateness” – ideological magnetism and bureaucratic capabilities. Utilizing the theatre of brutality coupled with an Islamist austerity seemingly uncorrupted, ISIS has been able to mimic the territorial state, extracting revenues locally, administering with fearful effectiveness, and displaying military power that so far has stymied far more formidable armed forces. Whether ISIS will endure remains to be seen, but Ibn Khaldun would have understood how it has challenged the decrepit incumbent states and their foreign patrons.
The Way Forward?
In a region beset with so many interlocking conflicts it is hard to see a path toward a legitimate, stable political future. Arab and non-Arab analysts seem to agree that it cannot be imported or inserted from outside. Unfortunately, actors more interested in promoting their special interests or their intolerant ideologies dominate the political arena.
Those millions of ordinary citizens who rose up to create inclusive, non-corrupt, and effective governments do not command the same “hard power” that is enjoyed by military strongmen, dynastic rulers, sectarian provocateurs, and religious extremists. The “silent majority” lacks leadership, organization, and a legitimacy formula that can overcome the threadbare and repugnant models of military dictatorship, familial despotism, and religious fanaticism. How can “democracy” and “moderation” be seriously entertained when offered up by politicians lacking in those credentials?
Until effective leadership emanating from society emerges, the Arab center will remain on the periphery.
The building blocks of civil society are there (although diminished, especially in Syria) – women’s groups, labor unions, business organizations, the legal establishment, and professional associations. Moreover, sectors sometimes considered inherently regressive also can, and perhaps must, play a role in reconstituting the center. Such sectors include tribes, religious institutions, and salvageable elements of the state bureaucracies. Decades of evisceration from authoritarian regimes have stunted political parties, which otherwise might be considered the engine for inclusive political participation. The big powers can only play a supporting role. Until effective leadership emanating from society emerges, the Arab center will remain on the periphery.
 Nazih Ayubi, Over-Stating the Arab State (London; New York: I.B. Tauris, 1996).