The Last Word... With Prof. Ehud R. Toledano

Turkish Review - - REVIEWS -

With the rise of struc­tures like Ha­mas and the Is­lamic State and the ris­ing num­ber of failed states in the re­gion, the fu­ture of the Mid­dle East seems in­creas­ingly un­know­able. Do you ex­pect fur­ther dis­in­te­gra­tion or the emer­gence of supra­na­tional bod­ies? There is no deny­ing that the na­tional state (or na­tion­state) has been fac­ing ma­jor chal­lenges since the be­gin­ning of the Arab Spring up­ris­ings. These have come from two dif­fer­ent sources: Supra­na­tional move­ments such as the Mus­lim Brother­hood and Is­lamic State and subna­tional groups within ex­ist­ing states that seek to split them up along eth­nic, tribal, re­li­gious or sec­tar­ian lines, such as in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Ye­men. At the same time, it is quite re­mark­able that the ac­tual break­down of states in the Mid­dle East and North Africa (MENA) has not oc­curred, even if in prac­tice some of those states have lost con­trol over sig­nif­i­cant parts of their sov­er­eign ter­ri­tory. The states that were es­tab­lished by post-World War I agree­ments have en­joyed in­ter­na­tional le­git­i­macy and the lead­ing pow­ers have shown great re­luc­tance to split them up and carve out new en­ti­ties in­stead. Although borders -- such as those of Libya and Ye­men or be­tween Syria and Iraq -- have largely re­mained only on maps, the de­sire to re­sus­ci­tate them and the states among which they had been drawn still seems to have force be­hind it. At this point in time, in­ter­na­tional at­tempts are still on­go­ing to de­feat Is­lamic State and the Houthis, and to ne­go­ti­ate set­tle­ments in Libya and Syria. It is too early to pre­dict at this stage which of the old states will sur­vive and which will dis­in­te­grate. Are there in­trin­sic rea­sons for the fail­ure of na­tion states in the Mid­dle East? Na­tional or na­tion states re­quire the pres­ence of a dom­i­nant, hege­monic na­tional group to up­hold them while of­fer­ing mi­nori­ties a share in the “na­tion” with equal rights and eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties to in­te­grate and pros­per. Ex­cept for Egypt, Is­rael and Tu­nisia, none of the other MENA states have clear na­tional ma­jori­ties, and when dis­con­tent from within bursts out, na­tion states have failed to con­tain them and re­tain con­trol over their en­tire do­mains. The na­tional move­ments and na­tion­al­ist ide­olo­gies that had sus­tained them have failed to take root and cre­ate gen­uine com­mit­ment to the na­tion state. Decades of re­pres­sion have thus been re­quired to main­tain the ap­pear­ance of na­tional unity, and when the state has been weak­ened by up­ris­ings against that re­pres­sion -- which also ap­plied to large parts of the na­tional ma­jor­ity groups -the specter of dis­in­te­gra­tion has loomed large. Is there a sta­ble and sus­tain­able al­ter­na­tive to the na­tion-state in the Mid­dle East? Thus far -- and we need to ac­knowl­edge that these are still early days -- no such al­ter­na­tive has emerged. Sunni caliphal frame­works are clearly un­sus­tain­able, as is the Ira­nian Shi­ite one. The ques­tion is how sta­ble those na­tional states that will sur­vive the cur­rent up­heavals can pos­si­bly be. In the long run, it seems that if these states do sur­vive, a new so­cial, po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic and cul­tural ac­com­mo­da­tion among the var­i­ous groups within them will be re­quired in or­der to en­able a sus­tain­able de­gree of sta­bil­ity.

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