|Fighting in the Sudanese capital Khartoum|
The Arab world is well known for its "democracy deficit." This problematic state of affairs may be soon surpassed by an even more dubious distinction, namely the crisis of failed states. Across the Arab world, Yemen, Libya, Syria, and Lebanon are all failed states. Given the intense fighting between two rival generals in Sudan may lead the largest country in sub-Saharan Africa to soon join the list. It is not a stretch to envision Tunisia joining the list as well.
Why are so many Arab states unable to preserve their sovereignty and national security? More ominously, does the Arab experience suggest that the problems the region is facing are spreading to other regions of Africa and South Asia as well? The answer is that the problems undermining politvial authority in the Arab world are larger than the region. Thus, an analysis of the region helps us comprehend a larger dynamic in much of the Global South.
In explaining failed states in the Arab world, we need to focus on three stages: the collapse of secular ideology, the onset of foreign direct investment, and the development of neoliberalism accompanied by criminality.
The collapse of secular ideology The legacy of colonial rule shows that the collaborative regimes which Great Britain, France and other European powers established after ceding independence lacked legitimacy. Despite the pretense of democratic elections, these post-WWI regimes were dominated by landowners and merchants and incipient industrialists and did little or nothing to improve the conditions of the mass publics over which they ruled.
The military and single party coups which began after WWII promised revolutionary change, especially under the banner of Pan-Arabism. The Pan-Arabist slogan of "unity, democracy and socialism" failed to materialize. As Egyptians noted with their ingrained sense of humor, all Jamal 'Abd al-Nasir (Nasser)'s revolution accomplished was to spread the poverty more evenly.
The Pan-Arab social contract offered political stability and economic security in return for political quiescence. University education would be free and college graduates would be guaranteed a government job. Citizens would receive monthly food rations at minimal cost. Transportation would be subsidized. To undermine Islamist movements and appear more modern to the West, gender equality was emphasized, although women remained second class citizens.*
The Pan-Arabist Social Contract was short lived. Repression of dissent , the institutionalization of the military in nationalized industry, the defeat in the 1967 war, and the struggle between Egypt, Syrai and Iraq for control of the Pan Arabist movement all delegitimized the ideology. The slow growth of the state public sector prevented regimes from continuing to provide social entitlements, except through accumulating large debts.
The onset of foreign direct investment (FDI) Following the disastrous June 1967 Arab -Israeli War, Egypt found itself cut off from Suez Canal and sizable tourist revenues, while bearing the burden of residents forced to leave the Suez Canal and move west to Cairo and other urban areas. When Jamal 'Abd al-Nasir dies in September 1970, his Vice-President, Anar Sadat, replaced him.
Sadat, as is well known, put Egypt on a very different foreign policy and domestic trajectory than that of al-Nasir. He terminated military ties with the Soviet Union, releasedNasir's arch enemies, the Muslim Brothers, from jail (so they could attack the left-wing of the Nasserite movement), and proclaimed his al-infitah - the "Open Door" policy to the US and the West. The Open Door was an attempt to return foreign investment to Egypt to overcome its sluggish economic growth.
At the Eighth Party Congress of Iraq's Ba'th Party in 1974, Saddam Husayn moved away from the socialism and began to seek foreign investment in the Iraq's economy. When I arrived in Iraq for a two month stay in May and June of 1980, my minders at the Ministry of Information took me to a number of Western projects, such as a steel miil being built by San Francisco based Bechtel Corporation and France's Creusot-Loire engineering conglomerate.
Syria waited longer to seek Western FDI. Between 2000 and 2010, Syria's legal system underwent significant change, offering tax holidays and other market based incentives. During the first decade of the 20th century, there was sharp uptick of FDI which reached a peak in 2009. The primary countries which invested in Syria were Russia and Germany. The main areas of FDI were the telecommunications, banking and electricity sectors.
The rise of the corporate-criminal state Pan-Arabism slipped from the Arab collective memory during the 1970s and 1980s. As globalization spread, Arab elites in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Libya and elsewhere became increasingly involved with foreign capital. The standard of living and general well-being of mass publics became an afterthought. State subsidies for food and transportation, and benefits such as government employment based on a university degree, declined as Arab states sought to lower national debt to increase their attraction as investment targets.
Arab leaders of the 1990s lacked the experience of having participated in the anti-colonial struggle of the inter-war and post WWII eras. In Tunisia, for example, Habib Bourguiba had ruled as an autocrat. Still, he allowed the formation of government controlled labor unions, women's tights and state-supervised civil society. After he was deposed in 1987, his successor Zine al-Din Ben Ali established an incredibly corrupt regime. In is no coincidence that the Arab Spring began in Tunisia when a frustrated vegetable and fruit vendor, Muhammad Bouazizi, immolated himself when he no longer could afford the brides to conduct his business and support his extended family.
The Arab Spring uprisings quickly spread from Tunisia to Egypt, Syria, Libya and Yemen. Only Tunisia experienced any meaningful transition to democracy with Ben Ali's ouster. Nevertheless, the inability of successive governments to improve Tunisia's economy. combined with the spread of corruption. allowed President Qa'is Sa'id to seize power in 2020, restructure the constitution, and centralize power in his hands.
Shorn of ideology and befitting from lucrative contacts with foreign corporations, an ever widening gap has developed between political elites and the citizenry at large. During the Arab Spring, the Syrian and Egyptian regimes used the argument that the opposition was comprised of radical Islamists and therefore needed to be repressed. The violent strife which accompanied the Arab Spring led to a large number of displaced persons. In Syria, half of the population has been affected by the ongoing civil war.
The large influx of refugees into neighboring countries has caused additional political turmoil. Over 4 million Syrians moved to Syria. However, it was the influx of over 2 million Syrians into Lebanon which has pushed it the verge of fiscal collapse. The storied Lebanese banking system, has run out of funds. The result has been that depositors can't accessing their bank accounts, leading to attempts to "rob" banks to obtain their funds.
Th extent of corruption in Lebanon's political elite became manifest after a huge amount of ammonium nitrate, over 2700 hundred tons, which had been illegally stored in Beirut's post for 6 years, exploded in August 2020. The explosion destroyed a large part of the city, killing 218, injuring 7000 and displacing over 300,00 residents.
Despite determined efforts of Lebanese judges, all efforts to investigate the crime and bring those who caused it to justice have failed. The political elites from a wide variety of confessional groups - Christian and Muslim - and Hizballah, which controls the most seats in parliament and half the cabinet ministers, have stymied all attempts to move the investigation and trials forward.
Egypt -a Proto-Failed State? Egypt represents the archetypical military-corporate state. In effect, Egypt's is a bifurcated state. On the one hand, there is the government appointed by the dictator, General ' Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi. This consists of the usual array of ministries with their limited budgets. On the other, there is the military-financial complex in which military officers and business elites close to the al-Sisi regime enjoy all the benefits of Egypt's wealth while leaving millions of their fellow citizens in abject poverty.
The great gap in wealth is combined with spatial segregation. The military-financial elites live in upscale neighborhoods or in gated communities and socialize in exclusive clubs. There is minimal interaction between the elites and the populace at large. Indeed, only those Egyptian's who possess al-wasta (political influence) have any hopes of entering the ranks of the elites.
Just like the Rapid Support Forces and the army in Sudan, and the all powerful militias supported by Iran in Iraq, the Egyptian military is deeply compromised by its control of Egypt's economy. This control is symbolically codified in an Egyptian law which makes publishing the military's budget a crime. Estimates are that the military controls at elast 1/3 of Egypt's economy.
Meanwhile, the Sisi regime is doing little to generate the jobs needed for a rapidly growing population, now almost 108 million. University graduates are frustrated and angry because they can;t find employment based on their merits. Instead, they see youth who have wasta getting the premium positions. Poverty is a major problem in Egypt.
*Although it should be noted that, when I visited Baghdad in May and June of 1980, the majority of physicians in the capital were female.