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