WRMEA, November 2011, Pages 26, 29

Special Report

Remaking the Arab State

By Patrick Seale

altU.S. Ambassador to Libya Gene A. Cretz (r) listens to the American national anthem during the official reopening and flag-raising ceremony of the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, Sept. 22, 2011. (Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images)

The Arabs face a formidable task—nothing less than rebuilding the entire state structure and system of government in countries as diverse as Tunisia and Egypt, Libya and Yemen. In Syria, too, the Ba'athist state is almost certainly doomed, whether President Bashar al-Assad survives at its head or not. It has lasted 48 years, ever since the Ba'ath party seized power in 1963. If it is to outlast the present uprising, it would need to be profoundly recast and remade in order to accommodate several neglected forces in Syrian society—sects, ethnicities, tribes, disgruntled intellectuals and the rural poor among others.

What form of government will replace the rickety Arab structures, some of which have already been brought down, while others are still fighting to survive? What state structures will replace the old autocracies, with their bankrupt one-party rule and their all-powerful military and security apparatus? This is the key question posed by events not only in Damascus, but also in Tunis, Cairo, Tripoli and Sana'a. This is the great unknown.

The monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula (with the exception of Bahrain) stand out as islands of relative stability in the current upheaval—possibly the most radical since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. They are protected by their oil wealth, but not by that alone.

Modernized and reformed over the years, their traditional systems of government have, in most cases, proved responsive to the needs of their citizens. They have provided reasonably good governance, whether in the United Arab Emirates or Qatar, in Kuwait or Oman, or indeed in Saudi Arabia itself, the dominant power in the Peninsula. Good governance would seem to be the secret of their continued legitimacy.

We all know—because it has been said so often—that the revolutionaries of the Arab Spring want social justice, jobs, freedom from police brutality and arbitrary arrest, a chance to advance in life, better prospects for themselves and their families, a fairer distribution of their country's resources, an end to corruption by a privileged elite, dignity and respect from their rulers. In a word, good governance.

That, above all, is what the Arab world would seem to want, rather than democracy on the Western model, of which the Arabs have had little experience; and for which they have little appetite, if it means any form of Western tutelage.

A problem as yet unresolved is the future role of Islamic parties in the countries which are experiencing, or have experienced, revolutions. In Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen these Islamic movements are now above ground and will undoubtedly figure prominently in the new structures of power. In Syria, the Muslim Brothers—the regime's main enemy since the 1970s—cannot be indefinitely suppressed and will have to be accommodated, one way or the other.

Al-Qaeda—a radical Islamic movement not to be confused with the Islamic mainstream—is active in Yemen, engaging in almost daily gun battles with government forces. In Algeria, an Aug. 26 terrorist attack, claimed by al-Qaeda, against a barracks at Sharshal in the north of the country, killed 18 and wounded many others. Algeria has so far refused to recognize Libya's Provisional National Council precisely because the Council and its agencies include jihadists wanted for crimes in Algeria. Some members of Qaddafi's family have fled to Algeria and found refuge there.

For many Arabs, indeed for most Muslims, the West is highly suspect, and its current rampant Islamophobia a source of angry bewilderment. America's blind support for Israel—for its aggressions against its neighbors and its long and cruel oppression of the Palestinians—is a source of great rage, latent and largely impotent so far, but for how long? The West's colonial past in the region has also by no means been forgotten—whether in Algeria, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, to name only the most obvious countries.

The horrors of the Italian occupation between the wars have not been erased from Libyan minds. Many Libyans will be grateful for the help Britain, France and the United States gave in defeating Muammar Qaddafi, but many others will resent the bombing of their country during the holy month of Ramadan.

There is a level of grievance and aspiration in the revolutions of the Arab Spring which the West has largely ignored. This is the thirst for national independence. The Arabs have pursued the goal of national independence—not from their rulers but from external powers—ever since the First World War. But they have not yet fully achieved it. It is very much on their current agenda.

Consider for a moment the impact on opinion of America's invasion, occupation and destruction of Iraq. Imagine the displeasure and anxiety many feel about the vast American bases in the Gulf. Reflect about the bitter resentment aroused by America's massive subventions to Israel, which allow it to expand its settlements in Palestinian territory, besiege and bomb Gaza, in defiance of the whole Arab and Muslim world and of international law. Imperialism is alive and well.

The Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty of 1979 is a very sore point for many Egyptians, and indeed for many Arabs. It removed Egypt from the Arab line-up, condemning it to American-financed impotence, while exposing the rest of the Arab world to Israeli power. Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982, during which it killed 17,000 Lebanese and Palestinians, was a direct consequence of the treaty. Egyptians certainly do not want another war with Israel, but the treaty is a badge of shame which many would like removed.

In the eastern Arab world, there are some who detest the strength Hezbollah has acquired in Lebanon, who dread the role of Iran in Arab affairs, and who want to destroy the Alawi-dominated regime in Syria. But there are many others who understand that the Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah axis has been the main obstacle to Israeli and American hegemony in the region. If the axis is brought down—as Israel and its American friends fervently desire—there are many who fear that the region will lose what little independence and deterrent capability it has managed to acquire.

There is thus a wider geopolitical dimension to the battles being waged inside several countries across the region. National independence—freedom from imperialist and Israeli pressures of one sort or another—is what the revolutionaries demand, in addition to good governance at home.

In dealing with the Arab Spring, the West would be wise not to seek to shape events too blatantly in its own interest—or risk an unpleasant backlash. It is high time the Arabs were left alone to determine their own destiny.

Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East. His latest book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press). Copyright © 2011 Patrick Seale. Distributed by Agence Global.