March 4, 2011 § 1 Comment
It may have come to your attention that there is a lot going on in the Middle East and North Africa at the moment. Trying to guess what is going to happen next is like trying to pin the tail on a not-sufficiently-metaphorical donkey. So I’m going to do the safe ,cowardly, academic thing and wait at the top of the ivory tower until its all over and then write a piece about how whatever happened was always inevitable; whilst in the meantime indulging in some academic theorising.
A lot of what follows isn’t my theory but comes from a fantastic book I am reading: The Foreign Policies of Middle East States. It was pretty up-to-date a few weeks ago; which is a bit like having a pretty up-to-date book on safe American investments on Wednesday, October 23rd 1929. What I’m going to try and do here is to explain their ideas in layman’s terms and then see how it applies to what has just happened.
Some of the oldest countries in the world come from this area: Egypt (8,000 years on and off), Iraq (3,000 years of Sumeria, 1,500 years of Babylonia), and Tunisia (3,000 years of Carthage) to name but a few. However there was then a long hiatus in almost all cases whilst Caliphs, Ottomans, and western empires came and went. The modern nations that we know today don’t have much to do with their ancient predecessors. Most date from the San Remo and Cairo conferences of 1921, when the winners of WW1 drew some very straight lines with rulers (if you last ’till the end, Lawrence of Arabia actually covers this quite well) and all the rest are – if not totally made up – then to a greater or lesser extent the product of colonial statecraft.
So what is interesting to consider is the process by which these nations are becoming states. It is also an important question because it ties into questions of legitimacy; and these current waves of protest can be seen as a popular rejection of state legitimacy. The process by which a nation becomes a state, “statebuilding”, has many definitions but the one I think is most germane to our current discussion is Weber’s: the process by which the state becomes the sole legitimate user of force. Certainly thinking in policy terms, the fact that there are various different groups claiming legitimacy for their use of force, is the main challenge for the regimes currently undergoing transition.
So, as a leader, how do you claim legitimacy? Well the Foreign Policy of the Middle East states suggests there are three ways to do so – or maybe it is more a case of saying there are three levels at which one can do so.
The first is the subnational. At this level you present yourself the leader and champion of your own community: be it your tribe or sect. The problem is that very few of these communities map perfectly to the nations of the area: almost all of them 20th century creations. Benedict Anderson’s brilliant Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism talks about the importance of the community you imagine yourself to be part of, and how this can be used to build the idea of a nation using censuses, maps, and museums. In the Middle East and North Africa this isn’t a process that has run its course.
The Foreign Policy of the Middle East states introduced me to a great new word: irredentism. It describes exactly this – the dissatisfaction felt by a person regarding the disjoint between ones imagined community and ones nation state. The Middle East and North Africa (I refuse to say MENA, it sounds stupid) is rife with irredentism. As such, presenting yourself as the tribal leader – the “great chief” – is not really a viable option for much of the region. Most nations tried it at some point but it is mostly, as I say, a subnational tactic; and by the 1960s or thereabouts most nations had moved past it (we can see Weber’s building towards the sole legitimate user of force). The exceptions are Libya (where Gadaffi has deified the idea of the tribal chief – which may explain why Libya is currently falling apart along tribal lines), and failed states like Somalia.
The second level is the national. The problem here is that if you want to present yourself as the leader of a nation you have to be seen to in some way deserve that position. This is where elections come in handy: they are a fast-track to nation-based legitimacy. And if you’re worried you might not win then (provided nobody notices) you can rig it. The other, slower, route to nation-based legitimacy is to look to history. If you are going to do this then it helps to be some sort of king.
Indeed this national approach has tended to be favoured by the so-called “oil monarchies” for reasons which should be self explanatory, and by nations with particularly antagonistic relations with the neighbours.
At this point I need to write an aside about Saudi Arabia. Few nations in the world are as passionate about exporting political Islam to the rest of the world than Saudi Arabia. Nor are there many other countries as passionate about converting Muslims of other stripes to their own, tightly defined, Salafi (or local equivalent) view of Islam. It may seem odd therefore to characterize them as an advocate of the nation-based view. However the House of Saud’s primary aim is domestic stability, and a pan-regional power would be a severe threat to that. So Saudi policy is effectively that of an Islamic Lenin- Islamism in one country: good, Islamic regionalism: bad. They might put up with a global Caliphate, if Abdullah could be the Caliph, but anything else is a threat. End of aside.
The third level is the supernational. If you go down this route you claim to be the local representative of some greater, higher, more important force. God is popular for this; as God is unlikely to contradict you. But it is not the only option: pan-Arabism is another powerful force to which to appeal. This is particularly popular if you are a dictator, not a king, and do not want to have elections. Both Islam and pan-Arabism are doctrines with a lot of pull in the region, and in most places have more pull than national identity.
So lets take a lot at the region in the late ’80s (as I think that is most representative of the general trends) and take a look at what the dominant approaches were in each country (I’ve thrown in some of the more relevant neighbours as well).
Now obviously any map of this kind is going to be a simplification, and the Foreign Policy of the Middle East states presents the situation with far more nuance than I. Here is some further background to some of the more difficult to categorize countries: Iraq and Jordan were far more pan-Arabic back in the day (especially back when the Kings of the two respective countries were brothers), but after Saddam took over Iraq he started to develop a secular nation state, and Jordan became more nation-based as the Hashemite kings grew in confidence. Algeria has been on the cusp of the two approaches for many years: the army have espoused a more nation based identity evolving from their war of independence, whereas the people have tended to accentuate their Arab identity. Whilst the government is firmly in the hands of the army, it has tried to accommodate the feeling of the people (in this regard if in no other), particularly in its dealings with Morocco and the Western Sahara. Iran was the most nationalistic of all until the ’79 revolution, at which point it became Islamism’s biggest cheerleader.
Then in the early nineties there was a big change. This came in part because the collapse of the Soviet Union made the area far more dependent on the USA – and the USA, whilst fervently anti-democracy in the region, was even more fervently anti-pan-regionalism. It also came because increasing oil wealth meant that there had been a gradual shift of power away from Egypt and the Arabists and towards the Oil Monarchies. Under Nasser Egypt had double the army of any other country in the region, and over a quarter of the entire region’s GDP (and double Saudi Arabia’s GDP). By 1980 Egypt’s GDP as a share of the region was down to around 7% (well below Saudi Arabia’s) and its army was only the fourth largest in the region. So when the Soviet Union collapsed the importance of the Oil Monarchies to the region radically increased, and Egypt was no longer wiling or able able to project Arabism.
As a result, around 1990 virtually every nation in the region decided to bite the nationalist bullet. To this end, almost all of them that hadn’t done so already started having elections – the elections were largely rigged, but nevertheless they marked a step change in approach.
In this respect, some people say that democratization increases nationalism – as it requires the leadership to define themselves in national terms, it empowers the leaders as the leaders of the nation (but couches it in those terms), and it causes the leaders to appeal to popular sentiment.
But I don’t think that is what happened. The shift to nationalism as the source of legitimacy was real, but the democracy that accompanied it was a farce – and the leaders made no attempt to appeal to popular sentiment. Indeed it was their total ignoring of popular sentiment which is now bringing them down. Moreover, the democratic opposition – or at least the best organised parts – framed themselves in opposition to this movements. They are not necessarily Islamists (in most cases it seems there is a small but well organised Islamist minority) but they are certainly universalistic, and to a certain extent, Arabists. Insofar as we are aware (it is not a hugely researched topic) Arabic identity is still largely more strongly felt than national identity – which is one of the reasons the rebellions have spread around the region so readily.
So these newly-nationalist regimes are falling to a popular uprising which has a more regional outlook – suggesting nationalism was never really a winner, or at least not when done like that. Does that mean we can expect to see a more homogeneous and integrated Middle East? Well despite everything I’ve said, I think not.
For above everything else these were revolutions about bread-and-butter, domestic, material, concerns: the unemployment rate, the increase in food prices, Mohamed Bouazizi’s licence to sell oranges. The new regimes need to address those issues. The people of the region don’t want a new world view, just competent governance. And so i think that, at least for a while, the new regimes are going to have to look inwards, not outwards.