Failing States: The Real Meaning of the Arab Uprisings

From Foreign Policy and the Fund for Peace


The democratic promise of the poorly named “Arab Spring” is now widely recognized to be a disappointment. Viewed from early 2012, democratic “transitions” seem a pipe dream. Instead of democracy we are witnessing a re-emergence of pre-state loyalty frameworks that call into question the viability of the modern state in today’s Middle East. With the notable exception of the oil monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council, where the state can still provide for its citizens, the phenomenon we see today is not democratization, but rather a process of state failure.

Political “Moods” in the Arab Core Since World War II

Politics in the Arab core states has gone through several phases or “moods”[1] since the end of World War II, although the Islamic dimension of politics never really disappeared. Newly emerging states, freeing themselves from direct or indirect foreign rule were in a “nationalist” mood. In Syria, Egypt, and Iraq, politics was still led by the nationalist elites who came of age before the war. Intellectual and political discourse was primarily nationalist and pan-Arabist in tone. The elites supported their own states, but the realization that the borders of these states were most often established by foreigners contributed to pan-Arab feeling. Freedom (hurriya) was used most often to refer to freedom from foreign rule, not individual freedom from oppressive government.

Yet the nationalist ideology itself was actually a foreign import and not well rooted. Islamic, tribal, ethnic and regional loyalties remained just below the service, barely tamped down by the emerging state apparatus of control.

The failure of the nationalist leadership to prevent the establishment of Israel, the efforts of the Soviet Union and the appeal of communist and socialist ideologies catalyzed a new mood as the region entered the 1950s.  The prevailing ideology was now revolution (thawra) – transformation of Arab society as the necessary means to solve the Arab malaise. Radical parties came to power in Egypt, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Yemen, and Iraq, as these countries changed their names to western-sounding democratic “republics” or even the communist-sounding “People’s Democratic Republic,” such as the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, which was as democratic as the Democratic People’s Republic of [North] Korea. Islam had its role as a legitimizing totem, with ideologies such as the “Islamic socialism” touted by Egypt’s Abdel Nasser, or the secular Ba’th Party’s admission that Islam plays and important role in Arab culture.

The defeat once again of the Arabs at the hands of Israel in 1967 catalyzed the re-emergence of Islam as a political style. This was the heyday of monarchies such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Morocco, each of which used the Islamic connections of their leaderships to boost their own legitimacy and push an Islamic style of politics. By the 1970’s, surveys of Arab university students demonstrated a rise in Islamic sentiment.[2] It was neither the conservatism of the state-supported Islamic establishment, nor the more liberal Islamic modernism of the early 20th century. Instead, it was an extremist fundamentalist Islam. The Islamic revolution in Iran in 1978-79 soon became an example of the changes that could be brought about by this kind of Islam.

Today’s Democratic “Mood”

Beginning in the 1990s, the failure of these states to provide a decent quality of life for their citizens, the fall of the Soviet Union, the Internet and globalization, and the tireless efforts of well-meaning western government and non-governmental organizations brought about a new mood in Arab politics: democratic discourse. Today we are well into the democratic “mood” or “style” of political discourse in the Arab world. This new wave of revolution flies the flag of democracy – the old “republics” are dying off one by one – but what will replace them is far from certain.

Yet the Arab uprisings are not living up to the expectations of their western cheerleaders. Indeed, what we are witnessing is yet another change of Arab mood or style. The discourse is one of democracy, but the result is fragmentation, Islamism, tribalism, and ethnic conflict. The result is failing states.

This is not to suggest that there is not deep yearning in the Arab world for representative and responsive government. On the contrary, Arab researchers writing in the various Arab Human Development Reports were among the first to point this out. They termed the Arab state a “black hole” that “converts its surrounding social environment into a setting in which nothing moves and from which nothing escapes.” The authors of the 2004 report pointed to ethnic, tribal, and regional sectarianism as being responsible for preventing the emergence of  “civil society,” considered by democracy promoters as a sine qua non for democratic political development.[3]

With a year or so of perspective behind us, it is not too early to assess what is really going on behind this shift to a more democratic discourse or mood.  We are not witnessing the march of liberal democracy, a democracy that is more than simply elections, but also one that respects the rights of the individual, women, and minorities. This is no “Fourth Wave” of democratization. Indeed, what we are witnessing is the re-emergence and strengthening of pre-state primordial loyalties or identities, and even the failing of the state.[4]

Assessing the Failing State: A Tour d’horizon

Nearly every country that has undergone unrest since late 2010 has experienced the rise of anti-state or pre-state identities.


In Tunisia, that most westernized of Arab states, the stunning election victory of the Islamic movement Ennahda has demonstrated that Islam and loyalty to it before the state is a solution that speaks to most Tunisians. The state failed to provide under deposed dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Questions remain as to whether the Islamists will allow bikini-clad women to populate Tunisian’s beaches, and whether alcohol will continue to flow freely. Ennahda has held up Turkey’s Islamist AKP as a model, but Turkey rates only Partly Free by Freedom House in 2001, and the AKP’s commitment to liberal democracy should be held in doubt.[5] The same goes for Ennahda.


Tunisia’s neighbor to the east, Libya, had descended into chaos. The revolt against Mohammad al-Qadhafi quickly opened up deep traditional regional and tribal cleavages. Militias were split along these lines. Islamists with connections to al-Qaeda were prominent among the rebels. Whether the Libyan state can survive these developments is an open question.


Under Mubarak, the Egyptian state failed to function and to ameliorate the country’s crushing poverty. Results of elections so far have Islamists (Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists) holding a whopping lead. Great uncertainly – to say the least – looms over their commitment to the democratic process once elected, and to liberal values such as women’s and gay rights, religious pluralism, and freedom of speech. Egypt’s minority Christians live in constant fear. Murder and church burnings are a regular occurrence. Egypt’s liberals are embattled and see little hope. The state has lost control over the Sinai bedouin who have never accepted the Egyptian state as an alternative to tribal loyalty. This loss of state control, and the possibility of a Muslim Brotherhood led government that might turn a blind eye, risk the real possibility of the Sinai becoming a Lebanon-like hinterland for Hamas’s Gaza terrorists. Lebanon, of course, is a country without a state. Egypt’s military junta seeks a veto over the constitution, and has cracked down on civil society organizations, including the American organizations Freedom House, the National Democratic Institute, and the International Republican Institute.[6]


The chronic lack of Khartoum’s state capacity finally resulted in a member of the Arab League actually splitting in two with the creation of the Republic of South Sudan in July 2011. This was state failure at its most prominent. Primordial fault lines between the Muslim north and the Christian and animist south asserted themselves as the British created borders were refashioned to reflect them.


Yemen, it its current borders, was never really a state in the traditional sense. Tribal, religious, and regional divisions prevented this. The country threatens to split along these lines, with Shiite Huthi rebels controlling three provinces in the north, and Islamist terrorists and more secular regional secessionists in the south threatening to tear that region away from Sana’a’s already weak control. Even in Sana’a itself, tribes control entire neighborhoods.


The Iraqi state is slowly devolving into its regional, ethnic, and religious components. The autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government is nearly independent (“three-fourths independent,” according to Iraq expert Ofra Bengio). It has its own legislature. The Kurdish region has enraged Baghdad’s Shiite led government by signing an independent oil deal with Exxon-Mobil. It holds around 30 percent of Iraq’s proven reserves of crude oil.[7] The Kurdish leadership has further angered the Shiite rulers in Baghdad by giving shelter to former Sunni vice-president Tariq al-Hashimi, wanted by the central government for using security guards to kill political opponents.[8] On December 22, just after the US withdrawal, a series of coordinated bombing killed upwards of 64 people. The terrorist acts were largely attributed to Sunni forces. By the end of the year, Iraq seemed on the verge of civil war. “Every Kurd yearns for an independent homeland, no doubt,” said Barham Salih, prime minister of the Kurdish regional government. “But we have also accepted living as part of a democratic, peaceful, federal Iraq. If this hope vanishes, I don’t think the Kurds will be willing to risk what we have.”[9] In the absence of US forces, the state was not holding, and primordial loyalties, representing Iraq Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish identities, threatened to tear the state apart.


Finally, in Syria, the civil war pitted President Bashar Assad’s Alawites against the Sunni majority. The Alawites are considered heterodox infidels by the Sunni mainstream. Moreover, Syrians who projected their tribal affiliation called the legitimacy of the Syrian state under Assad into question. Thus in March 2011, Shaykh Ali Isa al-Ubaydi, purporting to represent the Union of Arab Syrian Clans and Tribes, issued a video statement declaring a revolution agains the Assad regime. Ubaydi claimed that tribes comprised 50 percent of the Syrian population.[10] In August, Syrian troops attacked tribal strongholds in Dayr al-Zur.[11] The regime felt the need to shore up its support in the tribal areas, and paraded some tribal leaders in front of the camera to express loyalty to Assad.[12]

The Failing Arab State

The state frameworks of the Arab core have failed to deliver on the promises made to their citizens. Successful states exercise a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within their territory, but they also have the loyalty of their citizens and provide security, the rule of law, markets, infrastructure, markets, health and education. The State Failure Taskforce at George Mason University identified ethnic and revolutionary wars, adverse regime change, and genocide as the four main causes of state failure. All of these are in evidence in today’s Arab core states.[13]

Those involved in democracy promotion like to talk about “democratic transitions,” as if the Arab world is on a predetermined course towards democracy. But while the borders of these states may remain, the really story of the “Arab Spring” is that of falling back on old, pre-state identity frameworks. The modern Arab states that came about with the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire look more to be headed towards “dis-integration” than towards democratization. With that in mind, far thinking regional leaders may be quietly encouraged to consider the creation of smaller, homogeneous states or confederations, where identity politics might be defused and stopped from preventing the undermining of state legitimacy.

It is still too early to call the outcome, but the prognosis is not good. Pakistan was created in 1947 by the grafting of Islam onto a national movement. Pakistan is a failing state. Unfortunately, the current trajectory is one of the Pakistanization of Middle Eastern states rather than democratization.

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[1] John Voll, “Islamic Dimensions in Arab Politics since World War II,” Arab-American Affairs (Spring 1983), pp. 108-119.

[2] Fouad Ajami, “The End of Pan-Arabism,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 57, No. 2 (Winter 1978.79), p. 364, cited in Voll, “Islamic Dimensions.”

[3] Arab Human Development Report 2004: Towards Freedom in the Arab World (New York: United Nations, 2005), pp. 8-9, 15, 17.

[4] Amichai Magen, “On Political Order and the Arab Spring,” Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, 2012.

[5] New York Times, January 4, 2012.

[6] New York Times, December 29, 2011.

[7] Washington Post, December 28, 2011.

[8] UPI, December 20, 2011.

[9] New York Times, January 3, 2012.

[10], “Union of Syrian Tribes Declares Revolution Against President Bashar Al-Assad,” March 21, 2011.

[11] Los Angeles Times, August 7, 2011.

[12] SANA, December 15, 2011.

[13] Magen, “On Political Order and the ‘Arab Spring.’”

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