Could we have predicted that the dreams of the Arab Spring would become such a nightmare of violence and even collapse across the Middle East? “We cannot understand our own world unless we understand something about how it came to be,” Lisa Anderson, AUC president and political scientist specializing in Middle East studies, said in a September lecture on the AUC campus. “When a state is stressed, the patterns of the cracks that appear are best understood through the lens of history.” It is no wonder that most of the Tunisians who have joined the Islamic State are from the neglected hinterlands, argued Anderson—challenges to central authority have historically come from outside the capital, and the Arab Spring was ignited in the town of Sidi Bouzid in the far southwest of the country. Similarly, history helps explain Libya’s collapse into conflict, Anderson said—it was unsurprising that the uprising against Muammar Gadhafi began in the eastern city of Benghazi, “where opposition to the government was a long tradition and where a measure of political cohesion could be sustained.” But the revolt was poorly coordinated with western Libya, she noted, whose revolutionary movement ultimately fractured along the lines of old rivalries.
The Republic of South Sudan plunged into violence and instability after breaking away from the Republic of Sudan and winning its independence in 2011. The civil war between supporters of President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar has killed some ten thousand people and displaced more than two million others. The authoritarian nature of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and disputes over oil-rich regions are often cited as factors in the crisis. Khalid Medani, associate professor of political science at McGill University, points to another critical yet often ignored element in the conflict: the erosion of communal land rights. Speaking at an AUC symposium in June, South Sudan: Past, Present and Visions of the Future, co-sponsored by AUC’s Middle East Studies Center and the Global Studies Consortium, Medani said that the SPLM government allocated large tracts of land to foreign investors without oversight or regulation, and defined the right to land as based on tribal rather than communal affiliation. “This forces people to compete over land and hardens and reifies ethnic identity,” he explained. As a result, he added, young men joined insurgent groups and militias, and perpetrated massacres and mass sexual assaults “out of fear and greed, to displace, depopulate, and take over scarce resources.” According to Medani, it is essential that South Sudan “reduces the incentives for conflict by diversifying the economy, reducing poverty, especially in rural areas, and safeguarding communal land rights.”