We are currently witnessing social unrest in many Arab states, and street riots have already succeeded in ousting two presidents – in Tunisia and in Egypt – and in unsettling the governmental fabric in Libya, Yemen, Morocco, Syria and Bahrain. The ease and swiftness with which the flames have spread from country to country in the last two months is due to a common trait shared by these countries: all of their regimes are dictatorships headed by
non-legitimate rulers who ruthlessly hold sway over a starving, neglected and abused populace which has decided to put an end to its oppression and humiliation.
The fundamental problem characterizing Middle Eastern states is that they have no legitimacy in the eyes of their citizenry because their borders were marked by European colonial interests. Great Britain created the borders of Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Egypt, Sudan, Yemen and the Gulf Emirates; France was involved in determining the borders of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Syria and Lebanon; Italy was responsible for the borders of Libya. Included within these borders were ethnic, religious, denominational and tribal groups who, throughout history, were often unable to live together in peace.
The human mosaic of Arab states is traditionally grouped along several lines:
A. Ethnic: Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Persians, Berbers, Nubians, Circassians, Armenians, Greeks and others;
B. Religious: Moslems, Christians, Druze, Alawis, Bahá'ís, Ahmadis, Yazidis, Sabians, Mandeans, Zoroastrians and Jews;
C. Denominational: Sunnis, Shi’ites, Sufis; Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox;
D. Tribal: Hundreds of large and small tribes dwell in the deserts, rural areas and cities.
Every one of the Arab states, except the Gulf Emirates, is a conglomeration of these traditional groups: living in Iraq are Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and Persians who practice at least seven faiths; the Moslems consist of both Sunnis and Shi’ites, and most of the population is splintered along tribal lines. Saddam Hussein imposed his Dulaim tribe on Iraq and his harsh regime claimed the lives of a million Iraqis throughout the years, including the period of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war.
In Syria, the population consists of Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen who are Muslims, Christians, Druze or Alawis. The Muslims are both Sunnis and Shi’ites, and the tribal element is dominant in some areas as well. The Alawis, a group of idol-worshipping tribes, seized power, and the other faiths are forced to suffer the rule of illegitimate infidels.
The population in Jordan is Arabic and Circassian, the Arabs both Bedouin and Palestinian; ruling them is a foreign royal family brought in from Saudi Arabia by the British. There are several dozen tribal groups in Libya, where, in 1969, Colonel Mu’ammar Qaddafi imposed the power of his tribe Qaddaf a-Dam (“the blood-shedder”).
For a state to be considered legitimate by most of its citizens it must be the political embodiment of their national, communal, historical and, perhaps, religious desires. In Israel, the State is indeed the fulfillment of the sixty-generation-old Jewish dream originating with the destruction of the Jewish kingdom in the Land of Israel in 70 C.E. There is not even one Arab country that fulfills the historical hopes of most of its citizens. In Israel and in European nation-states, such as Holland and France, the governing body is elected for a several-year period, after which its actions are subject to public judgment and the people either extend its term of office by elections or replace it.
In the Arab world, by contrast, the state is considered illegitimate by the majority of its citizens because its borders were determined by colonial interests; because it does not politically embody the will of its populace; because the group in power rules with an iron hand and the torture chambers of its security agencies. The only group that views the state as legitimate is that of the ruling minority, which establishes media organs – newspapers, radio and television – whose primary purpose is to create legitimacy for the state and the regime. These biased media operate in Soviet-Pravda (=“truth”) fashion. Statues of “the leader” adorn public squares and gigantic portraits of him are displayed on building fronts as part of an intensive and blatant personality cult. The educational system is also mobilized to cultivate an image of the ruler as a beloved leader. As illegitimate regimes need an external “enemy” to unite the ranks behind the
“leader”, he tends to involve his country in wars and conflicts.
Nevertheless, the more such regimes try to justify their existence to the citizenry, the less successful they are. The modern Arab state, as an organized political entity, has failed in its main task: to take root in the hearts of its citizens, who will then abandon the focus of their original
ethnic, religious, denominational or tribal loyalty. This is most evident in Syria, where the regime attempted to reduce Islam's hold on the public, since Islam represents the main challenge to infidel, Alawi rule. As a result, the Muslim Brotherhood rose to increasing prominence among the Sunni-Muslims until 1976-1982, when it posed a real threat to the regime's survival; the government brutally liquidated the Brotherhood, and fifty
thousand men, women and children were killed over a seven-year period.
The Converse Model: Nine Arab states, the Gulf Emirates, do not conform to the above pattern: independent Qatar and Kuwait, and the seven states of the United Arab Emirates: Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm al-Quwain. Every one of these emirates, in common, is based on one tribe to which most of its citizens belong. National law reflects traditional tribal customs; since the leadership consists of the traditional tribal elite, the
state is perceived as legitimate by its tribesmen citizens. The sociological stability in the emirates is the basis for legitimate, stable government and allows for a well-developed economy that exploits oil profits for the benefit of all. Dubai has no oil or gas, and its economy is based
on commerce and real estate.
By comparison, Iraq's fragmented and conflicted society, with its multiple ethnic, religious, denominational and tribal groups, cannot establish a stable political system; the Iraqi economy, therefore, is failing as well, despite its huge oil reserves. Bahrain, also in the Gulf, is the model of
the failed Arab state because the Shi’ite majority, ruled by the Sunni minority, does not recognize the legitimacy of the regime. The primary reason for the lack of Bahraini stability, it enables Iran to influence the Shi’ites and incite against the government.
Accordingly, the more a modern Arab state mirrors traditional society, and bases itself on ethnic, religious, denominational or tribal homogeneity, the more legitimate, stable and peace-oriented it will be, and the less dictatorial. And countries composed of groups in conflict with each other
will be less stable and legitimate, more dictatorial and warlike.
What Can Be Done? If the world wishes to bring stability and calm to the Middle East, there is no choice but to let the modern Arab countries – those whose boundaries were set by colonialism – collapse and break up into small states, each based on one homogeneous group. Allowing the residents of these states to decide for themselves the group upon which to build the future state is the important element in this process. It is time to re-think colonialism and the
problematic legacy it bequeathed the Arab world.
Legitimate states based on traditional social groupings would be able to create partnerships, federations or other types of unions. Witness the Gulf: each of the seven members of the United Arab Emirates is completely independent, and the emirates, together with Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia established the Gulf Cooperation Council, an effective security body that
recently deployed forces to Bahrain, forces that succeeded in restoring order there and in quashing the Shi’ite majority’s demonstrations.
Relief to the chronic ailments of the Arab world, immersed as it is in corruption, poverty and violence, will come only through the establishment of homogeneous states which accommodate the traditional Arab social framework; these ailments are all the result of the modern Arab state's failure to become the focal point of individual and collective identity.
The interview with Al-Jazeera that brought Mordechai Kedar to international attention