CLEAVING TO A barren mountainside above the plain of Nineveh, the Syriac Orthodox monastery of Mar Mattai offers a bleak view of the cataclysm that grips the Arab world. Established in the fourth century near the city of Mosul, it stands on a natural boundary. Here, the Mesopotamian plain begins to crease into the Zagros mountains, and Arab farmers come up against Kurdish tribes. Beneath, the folded rocks stretching southward to Oman hold some of the richest stores of oil.
Mar Mattai has seen the passage of many armies: Sassanian, Arab, Seljuk, Mongol, Safavid and Ottoman. The British incorporated Mosul into a new entity called Iraq, which they ruled when the Europeans dismembered the defeated Ottoman empire after the first world war. Their creation, though, would always prove violently restless.
Now Mar Mattai stands witness to the disintegration of Iraq, and of much of the modern Arab order. On the ridge of a nearby hill a line of crude black banners, proclaiming “La illaha illa allah” (there is no God but God), delineates the frontier between two of the new worlds that are emerging from the wreckage. To the west the bloodthirsty jihadist group that calls itself Islamic State (IS)—known as Daesh to most Arabs—controls Mosul and long stretches of the Tigris and Euphrates valleys, out to Raqqa and Deir Ezzor in Syria. To the east Kurdish fighters, the Peshmerga (“those who confront death”), hold the cities of Erbil, Sulaimani and Kirkuk, and the mountain fastness beyond. On one side Daesh claims to have restored the pure law of God and the ancient Islamic caliphate; on the other the Kurds live by modern man-made democracy (of sorts) and nationalism, hoping soon to win their own state.
An American drone buzzes overhead. Explosions rumble in the distance. Mosul, the prize of the war, lies in the haze. The detritus of improvised ordnance fired by the jihadists, including a cooking-gas canister welded on a rocket, suggests they may be short of material. But their readiness to die in suicide missions remains a powerful weapon. “The Peshmerga have limited capacity, but we are defending the whole of humanity and the democratic world,” says General Bahram Yassin, the local Kurdish commander.
A century ago on May 16th, European powers secretly concluded the Sykes-Picot agreement that led to the modern Arab states . The colonisers would leave behind a dystopian system, prone to wars and coups, held together by secret policemen, torturers and petrodollars, and supported by cold-war sponsors and foreign soldiers. Arabs suffered poverty in a region of plentiful oil, and oppression in the name of Arab greatness. A land of great monotheistic religions has brought forth many who kill in the name of God.
This appalling world is now being swept away, but what is replacing it is often worse. One odious figure, Saddam Hussein, was toppled when America invaded Iraq in 2003, releasing its sectarian demons. Other leaders were ousted by their own people in the Arab uprisings of 2011: Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia fell in January that year, then Hosni Mubarak in Egypt in February. In Libya, Muammar Qaddafi was overthrown with help from Western air forces, then killed in October. In Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, gravely wounded by a bomb, stepped down in November.
Only Tunisia has made a democratic transition, albeit a shaky one. In Egypt the army led a counter-revolution. In Syria Bashar al-Assad’s rump state has bombed and gassed its people in a murderous civil war that has progressively merged with the one in Iraq. Libya splintered into two rival administrations. In Yemen Houthi rebels toppled the government, and are in turn being pushed back by a Saudi-led coalition.
In places non-state militias are stronger than states, whereas state forces have degenerated into ragtag militias. Sectarianism has become acute. The contest between Saudi Arabia, the self-appointed champion of the Sunnis, and Iran, the leading Shia power, makes everything worse. Outsiders have been sucked in. America leads the air campaign against IS and is sending more special forces; Russian forces prop up Mr Assad. This is less a clash of civilisations than a clash within a civilisation. Increasingly the Arabs are a nation of refugees, exiles and migrants.
This special report will examine the factors that led to the collapse of the Arab order. First, the region’s autocratic political model has failed, though monarchies have stood up better than republics. Second, the rentier economic system, based on natural resources, has become unsustainable, not just in oil-producing states but everywhere. Third, Islam, and the Sunni variety in particular, is in tumult over the place of religion in politics and the role of jihad (holy war). And fourth, destabilising interventions by America have been followed, under President Barack Obama, by destabilising detachment from the region.
The Arab world is suffering a crisis of legitimacy. Arab states were seen as the illegitimate offspring of colonialism, and many of their leaders as playthings of the imperialists. The main ideologies of the Arab world—Arabism, Islamism and now salafi-jihadism—sought to overcome the hated Sykes-Picot borders. Nationalist leaders such as Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, who came to power in a coup in 1952, promised Arab unity and the liberation of Palestine but delivered neither.
Too little, too late
Except for oil monarchies that built glittering cities in the desert, most Arab economies were unable to deliver lasting prosperity. Their state-led models failed to harness the power of globalisation, their weaknesses concealed by oil money sloshing through the region. Regimes that belatedly sought to copy China’s model of relative economic liberalism combined with firm political control ended up with an upside-down version of the Soviet Union’s. In Russia the fall of communism led to crony capitalism; in the Arab world partial liberalisation in the 1990s brought first cronyism, then popular resentment that eventually brought down regimes.
Instead of trying to achieve legitimacy through democracy and the rule of law, rulers mostly relied on the power of the mukhabarat, the ubiquitous secret police, often the best-organised organ of state. In countries steeped in Islam, leaders benefited for too long from a religious tradition of obedience to the ruler, even a bad one, to prevent discord among Muslims. But now there is discord aplenty. Repression, jail and torture fed a doctrine that Arab rulers are, in fact, unbelievers.
Amid such upheaval, it is tempting to reach for historical parallels. Early on, some saw the Arab uprisings as a replay of the democratisation that followed the fall of communism in Europe after 1989; later a better comparison would be with the violent break-up of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
It could be argued that the current mess is the latest phase in the collapse of the Ottoman empire. Its European provinces broke away in the 19th century, the Arab ones in the 20th, and the resulting Arab states are now crumbling in the 21st. Arabs today are still confronted with the same question as their forefathers in Ottoman times as they grappled with modernity and European supremacy: why has a world of glorious, cosmopolitan Islamic empires become so abject?
For those who think it is because Western civilisation has proved superior, the remedy is to adopt Western norms of secularism, rationalism and, above all, democracy. Yet for those who believe that Muslims have suffered because they failed to keep God’s ordinances, the only response is to return to the religious purity of the early caliphs. As Khaled al-Dakhil, a Saudi commentator, sums it up: “We have a chronic problem of governance that is more than 1,400 years old. Who is the rightful successor to the Prophet? The question is still hanging over our heads.”
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