It would not be journalistic hyperbole to say that the Arab world is passing through an extremely dangerous juncture filled with obstacles and challenges that are almost insurmountable and that will weigh on our states and societies for years to come.
At the international level, a year into the Obama administration has made it clear that Washington has fixed its foreign policy focus with respect to the Arab- Islamic world on three priorities: military and political success in Afghanistan and Pakistan; continuing the war on terror; and containing the Iranian nuclear question through negotiations or other means. The implications of this are, firstly, that in spite of all its efforts to revive stalled Arab-Israeli peace talks, the Obama administration does not see an attempt to resolve the Palestinian cause and other issues in the Arab-Israeli conflict as a springboard for redefining its role in the Arab- Islamic environment and reinvigorating its relationship with the governments of this region. As a result the Arabs should not expect a significant change in America's pro-Israeli bias, or the Obama administration's reluctance to exercise meaningful pressure to force Israel to halt its settlement construction policy in the interests of promoting a just peace. We can simultaneously anticipate that the positive repercussions in the region borne from the Obama administration's balanced discourse towards the Arab-Islamic environment and from its adoption of a foreign policy approach that favoured consensus-making with other powers and multiparty diplomacy will evaporate quickly as a consequence of the lack of concrete follow-through on Obama's promises of mutual respect. Arab governments and peoples should also prepare themselves for heightened Israeli intransigence while the US is preoccupied with Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, the fallout of the economic crisis, and other American priorities such as healthcare reform.
But if the Arabs cannot expect much from Obama, they should not pin great hopes on the attempts of some EU countries -- or Russia -- to step in where the US has failed. These countries lack the diplomatic clout of the US and have little influence over Israel.
At the regional level, Arab countries face a number of challenges of diverse origin and dimension, beyond the ones related to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Iranian nuclear question combined with the growing influence of the Islamic Republic in the Gulf, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine poses a vital risk to the national security of many countries, notably the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Iraq and Egypt. Most of these, especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are apprehensive of the consequences of the current willingness on the part of the US and other Western powers to reach a negotiated settlement over the Iranian nuclear question. They fear that these powers may offer Tehran major concessions that would give it additional scope for movement in the Middle East. The fear is commonly hinted at under the rubric of the opportunities available to Iran from a "major deal" between Washington and Tehran. But not all Arab countries share these apprehensions. Indeed, some regard Iran as a strategic ally, as is the case with Syria, or as a neighbour to which they are bound by growing commercial and economic links, as is the case with Qatar, Oman and -- to a lesser extent -- the UAE.
Meanwhile from the north, the Arabs face the growing regional influence of Turkey, which has shifted from its strategic alliance with the US and Israel to a more independent platform for this purpose. Evidence of the new Turkish approach can be found in Ankara's gradual distancing of itself from Washington and Tel Aviv, its growing openness towards Iran and the Arab world in spite of what Washington might think of this trend, its attempts to intervene diplomatically and broker negotiations to resolve Middle Eastern conflicts or, at least, to defuse potential crises, and its drive to develop closer and more extensive economic and commercial cooperative relations with neighbours in this region. In the absence of successful Arab competition, Turkey and Iran have taken the lead in posing coherent and comprehensive visions for the future of the Middle East, as fundamentally different as their two outlooks are. Whereas the Iranian model is based on the overlap between religion and politics and lacks a true democratic foundation, the Turkish one speaks of the possibility of successfully combining the secularisation of government and the public sphere with a gradual process of democratisation that is open to the participation and, indeed, domination of Islamist movements in politics within the framework of clear constitutional and legal guarantees for a broad range of civil liberties and personal freedoms. Whereas Tehran poses as the champion of the fight against Western hegemony in the Middle East, vituperates against the US, refuses to recognise Israel, supports the resistance movements in Lebanon and Palestine, and is manoeuvring to form an anti-Western alliance that includes some Arab countries, towards which end it shows no compunction at meddling in the internal affairs of Arab countries, Turkey has opted for a more rational approach to Middle East concerns. Ankara's foreign policy towards the region is founded upon calm diplomacy, consensus making and the search for negotiated solutions between the West and Iran, Syria and Israel, and Israel and Palestine. In addition, it prefers the promotion of economic and commercial cooperation over and above ideological haranguing and irresponsible intervention in the affairs of other nations.
The Turkish and Iranian models -- again, as virtually antithetical as they are -- are certain to become more influential and enticing over the next few years, a development that will weigh increasingly on Arab countries that are torn between allying with the West or distancing themselves from it, between resistance and peace, between religion and democracy, and between prioritising politics or prioritising economics. In addition to the foregoing regional challenges, the Arab countries will have to contend with the lack of stability in Iraq, the possibility that the Yemeni crises in Saada and the south could escalate into a new locus of regional conflict following the Saudi military operations in the north of Yemen where the Iranians are said to be involved, the repercussions from the unresolved rift between Fatah and Hamas, and the future of Hizbullah's role in Lebanese politics as determined, to a large extent, by the dispute over its control over arms.
Turning now to the domestic level, most of the challenges Arab societies will face stem from the crisis of the nation state, the stalled political reform process, and the failure of attempts to achieve sustained economic and social development. The crisis of the nation state varies in substance and severity from one Arab society to the next. Recent developments in Yemen raise the spectre of the collapse of the state against the backdrop of its growing inability to guarantee a minimum level of security and public services for the majority of the citizens and insurrectionist movements in the north and south. The Houthi rebellion in the north and revival of the southern secessionist drive culminate a long periods of the economic, political and cultural marginalisation of these regions and the failure of the forms of political plurality that have been in operation since unification (in the early 1990s). Two additional factors aggravate the danger of the collapse of the Yemeni state. The first is the paucity in essential resources, particularly water and sources of energy. The second is outside intervention on the part of various regional parties as well as violent extremist organisations, such as Al-Qaeda, which have found certain areas in Yemen open fields for their destructive activities.
While the state in Yemen and -- to a lesser extent -- Sudan teeters towards the brink, other Arab states have deteriorated sharply in performance and capacity, which has gradually eroded their legitimacy or hampered their ability to resuscitate it. The most flagrant case in point is the Lebanese state that is no longer capable of playing an instrumental role in the allocation of Lebanese society's economic and social resources now that the political manifestations of the country's various denominations have assumed control over the government's distributive functions. In addition, the Lebanese army and security agencies have yet to recover their constitutional right to fully monopolise the legitimate use of armed force inside the country and abroad. Another salient case is Iraq, where the renewed breakdown in security and growing doubts over the desire and ability of the Iraqi political players to adhere to rules regulating peaceful competition over power have raised anxious doubts regarding the future of the Iraqi state and the legitimacy of its institutions. The failure to achieve civil peace and reach a political and social consensus has driven Iraqis into the arms of sectarian, tribal and other organic affiliations as the only means to obtain protection and a minimal level of social and economic services, and it has severely hampered all attempts to generate a collective feeling of confidence in the integrity, fairness and competence of the new Iraqi state.
The term "failed state" seems appropriate to the four previous cases, whether the state is verging on collapse or is in the grips of an existential legitimacy crisis. But there are two additional levels of the crisis of the nation state. While they are more prevalent in the Arab world, they are more difficult to capture in buzzwords and snappy phrases. In the Gulf (apart from Kuwait), Syria and Libya we find a dangerous dichotomy between societies whose economic, social and administrative structures have undergone rapid modernisation and the regimes that govern these societies on the basis of pre-state autocratic political arrangements that have constantly demonstrated their failure to respond to the needs and horizons of societal evolution. For example, while political plurality and the division of powers is non-existent in the Gulf, where civil and individual liberties are heavily restricted within the framework of authoritarian rule uninterrupted since the creation or independence of these states, market-oriented economic structures -- and the complex administrative systems similar to those in the capitalist West -- present an image of a modern society that cannot be reduced to the tribe, sect or other primary allegiances. A similar situation exists in Syria and Libya, even if the autocratic state has donned a republican façade and blazoned progressive slogans. In spite of considerable success Gulf countries, Syria and Libya have had in sustaining the stability of their governments, relying on the calculated distribution of rentier incomes, and/or on the repressive capacities of their security agencies, the perpetuation of the dichotomy between an advanced society and traditional state is certain to court tensions between the state and more active segments of society seeking greater civil and individual liberties and an institutionalised democratic order.
At the next level there is popular dissatisfaction with the policies and politicians of the state in societies such as Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan. Yet in these countries, the modernisation of the state, at least superficially, has proceeded more or less in tandem with the modernisation of society, and the legitimacy of that state is not subject to widespread question. These societies differ in terms of their political arrangements, the components of the ruling elite, the abilities of their governments to provide essential economic and social services, the trajectory of the gap between the rich and poor (which is shrinking in the case of Tunisia whose middle class has developed rapidly over the past three decades, while it is expanding in Morocco and Egypt in both of which the poverty rate is pushing beyond 20 per cent). Nevertheless, these societies share a growing level of popular discontent directed at government agencies and officials, and widespread despair at the prospect of a better future, in spite of the relative stability of the state. The most salient sign of popular dissatisfaction has been the sporadic but increasingly frequent protests generally sparked by poor public services, wage and working condition demands, and other economic and daily life concerns. Another indication, although not as clear cut, is reluctance to participate in official political processes by actively boycotting elections and by refusing to join political parties over which hangs considerable scepticism with regards to their ability to systematically and effectively advocate for and meet the needs and aspirations of the people.
The crisis of the nation state, in the four degrees of intensity described above, weighs heavily on the Arab world. At best it hampers the ability of the state to perform its primary functions and it obstructs the prospects of sustained development and democratic transformation. At worst, it lends itself to forces propelling towards the disintegration of the state and the fragmentation of society.
The Arabs must rise to the formidable task of searching for solutions and devising strategies to pre-empt or minimise the damage and dangers ahead at the international, regional and domestic levels. The problem is whether our political cultures and structures for public discussion and debate, which have become mired in the flood of issues competing for attention, can cope with this task and its necessary objectivity and boldness. I will conquer my scepticism and say I hope so.