Persistent Roots of Arab Weakness and Relinquished Sovereignty

We are well into the start of the sixth year since uprisings and revolutions rocked parts of the Arab world in January-February 2011, and the balance sheet of achievements is very mixed, and mostly disappointing, beyond Tunisia’s fragile move into the world of constitutional, pluralistic democracies. The two most troubling aspects of what is going on in the other five countries that erupted into major street demonstrations and regime counter-attacks are the lack of any clear national consensus on how to govern the country, and the deep, militaristic interventions by foreign countries, including Arab, Iranian, Turkish, Russian, American and other powers.

Along with the five Arab uprisings countries of Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Libya, and Bahrain, we should also add Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq to complete the list of eight Arab states that now face serious domestic challenges across every major dimension of life: political policies consensus, constitutional governance, economic growth, peaceful and tolerant pluralism, environmental viability, basic security, and — most importantly — genuine sovereignty that allows the citizens of a country to manage their own affairs without external interference.

The easy and simplistic analysis one encounters across the world, especially in the United States, is that Arab lands are hopelessly caught in their own self-made sectarian wars waged by ethnic, national and religious communities that are unable to live together peacefully. This strikes me as exaggerated, and insufficient to explain the profound problems these countries have faced for decades in every aspect of life, such as education quality, environmental ravages, economic mismanagement, corruption, crony capitalism, rule by security forces, widening disparities and inequalities, and a proclivity to allow foreign powers to manipulate us. These problems ravaged our societies well before any serious sectarian clashes occurred, so we should seek an explanation for our troubled condition much further back in our history.

In almost all Arab countries that suffer serious internal conflicts, political violence, and ideological, ethnic, sectarian or socio-economic stresses that have come to the fore in recent decades primarily, their common basic weakness is that they never credibly found a way to achieve an agreed, organic relationship between the rulers and the ruled. The exercise of power and public authority have always been defined by small groups of men — usually anchored in military establishments — who seized and sat in the seats of power. The exercise of responsible citizenship, in terms of duties performed and services enjoyed, has never been fully clear to the citizens or the rulers. The result has been either harsh authoritarian rule deeply backed by foreign powers or national fragmentation and bouts of chaos, incivility, civil wars, state collapse, and large demographic shifts, like internal displacement, ethnic cleansing, forced exile, or emigration at any cost.

So we see today in Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Lebanon, and Iraq very unsettled conditions that include active warfare, control by external powers, or political authoritarianism that only exacerbates weak citizen-state links and further erodes the socio-economic foundations of the state. Remarkably, some countries like Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, and Yemen still engage in some sort of formal political process that seeks to create and ultimately validate a national governance system that is acceptable to all the key domestic and foreign parties.

That is by nature a very difficult task when external powers are directly involved in local decision-making, as is the case in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, and Yemen. The task is made easier if the external parties (like the United States and Russia, or Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia) should agree on the main issues in play, but this rarely happens. This is made all the more difficult today when we see both regional powers and global ones involved in these countries at the same time.

The sad reality for the moment, at least, is that most of these Arab countries have not only lost their relative stability and calm, they have also forfeited most of their sovereignty to external regional and global powers, or to strong internal forces that share and contest power with the government (like Hizbollah, Hamas, the Houthis in Yemen, Muqtada Sadr’s movement in Iraq, and others).

This troubled common condition across most of the Arab world reflects issues that go far beyond neat but simplistic sectarian rivalries. Instead it is anchored in the Arab states’ failures in three critical and continuing realms: their refusal to allow their own citizens to define national policies, values, and priorities and validate statehood itself; their incompetent inability to manage their national human and mineral wealth in a manner that would achieve sustained wealth, social equity, and national viability; and, due to the structural weaknesses generated by the above two factors, their willingness to allow foreign powers to come to their rescue and thus to dilute or effectively eliminate their sovereignty.

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