It is tempting but difficult to identify a single dynamic at the level of state and society that explains the many different conflicts across the Arab world. We sure do not lack candidates for the single answer that explains our messy region: A struggle for the soul of Islam? The end of the modern Arab state? A great battle between religiosity and secularism? The American pivot to Asia? Shia-Sunni and Iranian-Saudi confrontations?
These are all elements of the many complex political, social and ideological forces that are shaking up our region, and many of them are deeply intertwined, which is one reason why most conflict situations are so difficult to resolve. Ending the fighting in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain or Libya, for example, requires grappling with half a dozen other actors and issues beyond those countries’ borders. We are probably doomed to see these wars play themselves out for some time, until they are ended by mutual exhaustion, victory by one side, or loss of strategic interest by external backers.
Perhaps more useful than trying to identify a single phenomenon that explains the problems facing Arab societies at the macro level of states, religions or ideologies, would be an attempt to understand what drives human sentiments at the individual and community level. The collective emotions of hundreds of millions of individuals ultimately translate into political actions in the public sphere, whether violent and criminal actions like forming aggressive militias or peaceful and legitimate ones like voting in elections.
In this context, the fighting we witness on the surface of many Arab societies is a symptom of a much deeper problem that forms the heart of the dilemma that has bedeviled the Arab world for much of its modern life over the past century or so. This problem is the steadily expanded sense among many millions of ordinary Arab and non-Arab men and women that they do not enjoy the protection of the rule of law, and that those who exercise power—Arabs, Israelis, Iranians, Americans and others—can get away with all kinds of terrible aggressions and crimes against them with total impunity.
Our Arab societies are brittle, volatile, violent and fragmenting in many cases because there is no effective check on the exercise of power by indigenous or external powers, which leaves your average Arab citizen totally exposed and helpless. Not surprisingly, individuals who feel they are mistreated, exploited and sometimes brutalized in their own societies, often by their own countrymen, eventually fight back to try to protect themselves and their families.
We see examples of the unchecked, unaccountable abuse of power all across the Arab region, in many different forms, including outright wars and invasions alongside racist discrimination and prejudicial policies by governments. The most recent example in Egypt, for instance, sees the country’s supreme administrative court issuing a ruling that effectively bans public sector employees from going on strike to achieve their rights. Any worker who does strike would be forced into retirement, according to the new law which also said that, “Striking is a crime and obeying superiors an obligation.”
This may seem like a minor incident, but in fact it reflects one of the most destructive forces that have caused the political degeneration of most Arab societies: the insistence by ruling political orders that are anchored in military systems that the state knows best, and the citizens must merely obey. In this case the Egyptian state’s decision deprives labor unions of one of their most important roles in protecting the rights and wellbeing of workers. It also seems aimed at curtailing the capacity of any independent unions to engage in political or social activism during the country’s current erratic transition.
More dramatic acts of unchecked exercise of power are the wars in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya, the reported use of chlorine gas and cluster bombs in Yemen and Syria, civic confrontations in Bahrain, tens of thousands of political prisoners in many Arab jails, and newly confirmed reports of Israeli killings of civilians in last year’s Gaza assault. Arab citizens who withstand such events over a long period of time eventually despair of seeing their suffering ended through a credible political process. So many of them take up arms and fight to protect themselves, which usually only leads to wider circles of warfare and deeper national destruction.
Local wars by militias or state armies, joint Arab military forces, foreign-administered no-fly zones, breakaway autonomous regions and other current developments across our region are all manifestation of the failure to achieve stable societies that reflect the average citizen’s expectation that he or she will be treated equitably by their own power structure. Until Arab countries and their foreign patrons address this underlying failure, the consequences of state collapse and active warfare will continue to plague us for many years.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.
Copyright ©2015 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global