Five Ghosts That Haunt the Arab World

To understand the messy state of the Middle East today, look toward its past.

Many people spend much time and energy these days analyzing the causes of the turbulent, often violent, and occasionally disintegrating conditions of many countries across the Arab region. Years ago and even occasionally today, Western and Arab scholars or analysts alike usually singled out one or two reasons for the problems of the Middle East and its Arab core societies.

Today, we know better than to blame one or two things for our difficult condition. Every Arab country is different, yet some broad trends have impacted the entire region. Here are five “ghosts” of widespread phenomena that still haunt us, as they also help us understand the messy state of the Arab region today.

1. The Ghost of Napoleon Bonaparte, whose invasion of Egypt in 1798 initiated over two centuries of continuing foreign military interference across the entire Arab region. That trend has reached a new peak in the past six years in Syria, where half a dozen major regional and global powers are actively at war with their own armies or by supplying local proxy forces. No region in the world could have withstood over two centuries of non-stop external military interference—with the political interference that accompanied it—that our region has experienced. Internal and regional wars, in a climate of very high Arab military spending, continue to propel countries back into dilapidated conditions every few decades.

2. The Ghosts of Theodore Hertzl and Arthur James Balfour, two men whose actions capture the genesis of the century-long conflict between Zionism and Arabism. This continuing conflict has incalculably set back the Arab quest for development, rights, and stability in many ways, including by retarding Arab national development in favor of military needs, allowing military regimes to assume power, and delaying the development of civilian-led pluralistic democracies. This conflict emerged simultaneously with the Arab quest for independence and sovereignty a century ago, and thus the Zionism-Arabism battle between Israelis and Palestinians has been seen by many Arabs as a much wider and older contest between the forces of foreign domination and indigenous liberation and sovereignty. It is no surprise that the Palestine cause resonates with people across the Arab World and beyond.

3. The Ghost of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the Ottoman soldier who became the father of modern Turkey and a model of the secular nation-state in the Middle East. That secular nation-state model has not worked very well in much of our Arab region, because it has never fully provided citizens with the material and emotional services that they expect from their state. Most Arab states either perch precariously on the edges of fragmentation and civil war, or persist because authoritarian governments hold things together by force, and lack of citizen political rights.

4. The Ghost of Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose 1952 revolution in Egypt ushered in the catastrophic modern legacy of military officers forcibly taking command of civilian governments. These military governments that seized power through coups across many Arab states—Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Somalia, and others—have turned these countries into hollowed wrecks that are now the world’s greatest source of terrorists and refugees.

5. The Ghosts of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, whose unbridled free market capitalism in the early 1980s triggered a brand of economic globalization that valued financial mobility and profits above the rights of workers and well-being of citizens. This global wave quickly dominated policy-making in most Arab countries, whose authoritarian governments never developed a serious, diversified, and productive economic base and thus could not resist the demands of global powers that they liberalize Arab economies for the benefit of global capital. The result is visible today in many Arab economies that cannot meet their citizens’ basic needs, and desperately depend on cash handouts from friends and international financial institutions. In the meantime, their own citizens suffer from deteriorating educational sectors and labor markets dominated by informality, poverty, and widening disparities.

Many other trends of course shaped our region in the past two centuries, such as the impact of oil, very high population growth rates, and environmental stresses. But these five ghosts that personify wider trends strike me as capturing the most important factors that explain why our region today is so violent and unstable. It is also impossible to separate these elements from each other; they form an interlocking system of domestic, regional, and global forces that together have made it impossible for any Arab country to break through from the constraints of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century colonial domination to the promise of modern, stable, productive statehood that is also genuinely sovereign.

Rami G. Khouri is senior public policy fellow and professor of journalism at the American University of Beirut, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Middle East Initiative. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2017 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global