Costly Arab Delusions

By Mustapha Tlili

With the exception of Tunisia, not a single Arab state was able to maintain the pro-democracy momentum born during the Arab Spring. The reason: they lack a strong national identity. To overcome this sad legacy, the Arab governments will need to develop a new social contract between authority and citizen. Through the establishment of such a contract, a distinct national identity—and ultimately—allegiance will take hold and put these countries on the long path of the democratic experience. 

The Arab Spring brought with it the hope of a new age—one in which Tunisia, Egypt, and others would embrace the ideals and practices of democracy.  But the months that followed the toppling of Presidents Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak revealed serious misunderstandings about the difficulty of achieving working democracy.

Two political factions preyed on these misunderstandings. One–the Islamists–paid lip service to democracy, but secretly, was only interested in imposing their messianic ideology. The other–remnants of the elite who prospered under the old regimes–pushed to perpetuate its economic and political advantages. These forces quickly sought to make use of the mayhem.

We are now witnessing the spoiled fruits of the work of the Islamists and the old regime: Egypt seems to be regressing to its former state, chaos rules in Libya, Syria and Iraq (on top of atrocities by their own regimes) must contend with the horrors of ISIS.

The pandemonium stems from a weak bond between Arab governments and the people they rule.  And without the strong bond of national identity, can Arab countries hope to defeat the dark forces that oppose them?

The problem dates back to ill-conceived colonial arrangements, the most notorious of which is the Sykes-Picot Agreement. In 1916, in the midst of World War I, France and Britain secretly agreed to carve the Middle East into freshly imagined countries to be ruled by their empires. They did so without the input of anyone with serious knowledge of the region’s cultures and peoples, much less anyone actually from the region. The new borders split up tribes while forcing others with no historical connections to share the same country. Despite their artificial and haphazard nature, these borders largely remain intact today.

To overcome this troubled history, many Arabs have traditionally looked for unity in a common Arab identity. They turn to charismatic power figures like former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser to push for a single pan-Arab state, instead of putting faith in their own countries and governments. They mistakenly believe that because Iraq is a western creation, Iraqis should not treat it as their legitimate government.

But how can a state fulfill its obligations knowing that it will never gain legitimacy in the eyes of its own people? Sadly, the result has been that many Arab governments neglect their obligations to their population altogether.

The fact is the “Arab Nation” is an illusion that masks the specific cultural legacies of its many peoples. This illusion – more accurately, delusion – can prevent Arab peoples from acting in their best interests, some of them being shared interests, certainly, but many of which are not necessarily aligned.

In recent years, a second, even more toxic, delusion has taken hold: the Umma – an Arabic word refereeing to the supra-national Islamic community – delusion, through the religious re-establishment of the caliphate, abolished by Ataturk following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The notion of a regional or global Islamic caliphate first gained popularity in modern times in Egypt, through the writings of Sayyid Qutb, whose philosophy laid the foundation for the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamist ideology. This belief in a modern caliphate was later adopted and further radicalized by Al-Qaeda. Now ISIS seems intent on making this myth a terrible reality.

Perhaps the solution lies in creating a stronger bond between a government and its people: a bond of citizenship between each individual and one of the 22 specific countries, rather than with the “Arab World,” the “Arab Nation” as a whole, or for that matter the Islamic Umma. Strengthening national identities through citizenship would allow Arab countries and tribes to celebrate rather than obscure their unique identities.

The task is not easy: to generate a profound sense of citizenship and national identity, a country will have to engage in promoting modern and secular education and economic and social development on behalf of the poor majority of the population. Political systems will need to be restructured through the adoption of secular constitutions guaranteeing the rule of law, checks and balances and periodic fair and free elections. Civil society will need to bolster voices of reason to combat extremists. Arab elites will need to renounce demagoguery and undertake the hard, radical task of self-examination that may lead them to a healthier and more productive approach to politics as the art of the possible. Most important, it will take time for a new class of educated and enlightened citizens to grow in strength and in the belief that liberal secular democracy, as developed over the last 300 years or so in the West, is the best road to prosperity and a peaceful coexistence.

Consider Europe, where the notion of a nation-state was introduced at Westphalia in 1648. It was not until 300 years later, with the precursors to the European Union, that the peoples of Europe began to imagine themselves as part of a single entity. Today, the European identity has grown strong, but it is still rooted in the unique cultures of its individual countries. There is no Europe without Belgium, Poland, Portugal, or Norway.

Could Europe’s experience serve as a lesson for the Arab countries? The dream of a united “Arab World” may have to wait until the individual Arab countries are better defined. It is, now, time to strengthen Arab national identities and forge the bonds of citizenship, with all the rights and duties it entails.



Mustapha Tlili, a novelist and a research scholar at New York University, is the founder and director of the N.Y.U. Center for Dialogues: Islamic World – U.S. – the West. He is a member of the Human Rights Watch advisory committee for the Middle East and North Africa region.

[Photo courtesy of Wikipedia]


Related posts

We’d like to get to know our readers a bit better as we work on some exciting new projects this year.

Please take a few minutes to complete World Policy’s 2018 survey!