The genesis of Arab states is in mandates maintained by European powers, Britain and France, following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War One. The Sykes-Picot Agreement carved up zones of influence for the two colonial powers in the Middle East. As a result, newly independent Arab states were hastily crafted without much consideration for outstanding sectarian conflicts. Concepts of sovereign nation-states are foreign to the region, thus a lack of unifying narratives, combined with outstanding internal sectarian conflicts, destined Arab states to be plagued with a myriad of seemingly irreversible problems. On top of all that, the rise of radical Islam further jeopardizes the future of the Arab nation-state.
Sectarianism is part of the Middle East and North African reality. Under ruthless dictators it often lay dormant or was harnessed for political advantage. But the gradual weakening of dictators has unleashed deadly sectarianism throughout the region and likely to foment prolonged conflicts in the Arab world. For instance, while many cheered Libya's rebel army as it pushed towards Tripoli to oust Gaddafi, the tribalism of the rebel forces and the lack of unifying narratives were overlooked. Then with their common enemy of Gaddafi gone, most of Libya's some 140 tribes focused their attention on capitalizing upon their successes, thereby refusing to abandon their weapons, withdraw from captured territories, or support the Western backed central government. Consequently, Libya’s central government is left largely incapable of reigning in its tribal militias, which could result in the “Balkanization” of Libya if this situation persists.
Similar sectarian unrest is occurring in other Arab states. For example, Yemen is likely on its way to being a failed state, with a Shiite Houthis rebellion in the northwest, an al-Qaeda insurgency in the south, and a reform movement in between. Sudan split into two-states, but with a myriad of outstanding disputes, war with the nascent South Sudan seems inevitable. Continued war in Syria could lead to the creation of warring autonomous regions, new entities, or the ethnic cleansing of certain minorities altogether. Iraq’s government is finding it increasingly hard, if not impossible to reestablish direct control over its ethnic provinces. This inability is leading to a geopolitical conundrum, with a Kurdish entity in the north, the Shiite government drawing strength from Baghdad to Basra in the south, and the Sunni-Arab population scrambling to pick up the pieces in between. Most notably, Lebanon has already lost its sovereignty as a consequence of the Iranian-Shiite proxy, Hezbollah’s domination. Meanwhile, if violence in Syria persists, fighting between Lebanon’s numerous sects becomes ever more likely. Chiefly, Arab states are losing the essence of what it means to be a state, the monopoly over the legitimate use of arms.
The Arab nation state is also threatened by the increasing rise of radical Islam, which conceptually contradicts the nature of nationalism. For decades, Arab states have attempted to establish a variety of political platforms to ensure economic growth, security, and increase sovereign power. The political concepts of Arab socialism (Baathism), pan-Arabism, and secular-nationalism have failed. Then the Arab defeat in the Six Day War compelled many Muslims to seek a new sociopolitical answer to the Jewish State and the West. Their defeat, in addition to other factors, was one catalyst for the Islamic awakening in those nations. The more moderate political Islamists, like the Muslim Brotherhood, endured decades of modest, yet solid beginnings as a result of suppressive secular dictatorships. But with the weakening or ousting of these leaders, the political Islamists have seized the initiative and are ascending to power. Most surprising are the unprecedented gains by more radical Salafist sects throughout the region - at the expense of inept liberal parties - which has propelled them to lead the new opposition against their rivals, the Muslim Brotherhood. It is important to note that Salafist Islam comes in various degrees, but their burgeoning influence results from the work of the most radical sects. This surge has become one of the most important consequences of the “Arab Spring,” which now appears to be the primary obstacle for political Islamists, embodied in parties such as the Freedom and Justice in Egypt, or the Ennahda Party in Tunisia.
The narrative of the "Arab Spring" as a regional movement, led by young, educated, and moderate revolutionaries seeking greater human rights, has captured the world’s attention. While true in some instances - especially in Egypt and Tunisia - the aforementioned have little influence, are becoming increasingly divided, or have yet to present agendas capable of ascending them to power. Their well-organized and motivated Islamist opponents, on the other hand, are ascending throughout the region; hence the ideological battles between religious parties will likely determine the region’s sociopolitical future.
For example, the nations who spawned the "Arab Spring," Tunisia and Egypt, have witnessed landslide victories by Islamists. In Egypt - the heart of the Arab world - the Muslim Brotherhood’s FJP won 40% of the votes, while the more radical Salafist Al-Nour Party secured some 25% of the vote for Parliament. Generally, unlike the more pragmatic Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafist surge is a direct threat to Arab nation-states given their outright contempt for concepts such as democracy, nationalism, or sovereignty. Rather, they prioritize the betterment of the umma and establishment of a caliphate. Consequently, their rise, coupled with, and often fueled by violent sectarianism, is fracturing Arab nation-states and destining them for years of violent conflicts.
Under these circumstances, the "Arab Spring" may foment a breakdown of Arab states through the forces of sectarianism and radical Islam. The liberal activists who ignited the current tumult in the region are failing to advance their agendas onto the "Arab street." On the other hand, political and radical Islamists are on the rise with little standing in their way. In the end, it is sectarianism and the ideological battles between political and radical Islamists that will spearhead the future Arab world, rather than freedom and democracy.
Daniel Brode is an Intelligence Analyst at Max-Security Solutions, a geopolitical risk consulting firm based in the Middle East